Thursday, June 03, 2004

On the difficult nature of compassion; listening to Tori Amos in Arkansas

Back again from having been out of town visiting my children.  They are well, thank you for asking.  My younger daughter, mishearing a familiar heraldic term, asked if my family has "a coat full of arms."  I told her that it would be a bit disconcerting if we had one of those.  I also walked the difficult tightrope, with my older daughter, of on the one hand affirming her intelligence and on the other affirming her teacher's need to teach everyone in the classroom, which sometimes means that she (my daughter) will occasionally not see the need to be taught (much less be tested over) certain things.  A tricky tightrope to walk with a 3rd grader.  We went to the beach; to cool down, we saw Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure at the local IMAX.  We played Monopoly; we rented and saw the remake of Cheaper by the Dozen.  We hung out.  It was a good week.
I cannot improve by way of commentary on this piece by Leon Wiseltier in The New Republic on the metaphysics (if that term is appropriate for an emotion) of compassion.  I found especially significant the suggestion, sometimes forgotten, that the Holocaust is a horror not because it happened to any group of people in particular but because it happened at all.  Sure, that's an obvious thing to say; but it's a measure of the state of things these days that we need to be reminded that compassion isn't--or shouldn't be--conditional or contingent upon the aptness of analogy or politicized.
One of the CDs I took with me on my trip was Tori Amos' Under the Pink.  Amos' music isn't the sort of thing I  immediately think of grabbing for road-trip listening; to my ears, it has an assumed chamber music-like quality.  That is, it takes on the air of requiring close listening.  Some might--and have--call that "pretentious" or "self-absorbed": not the usual attitudes we expect of pop music.  If we're cruising on I-40, we usually want "Highway to Hell" instead of something like "Bells for Her."  But for some reason I've had Ms. Amos on my mind of late--perhaps because DeliriumSpeaks mentioned a few posts ago that she had been listening to "Cornflake Girl" while posting one of her posts and, for reasons I'll discuss later, "Cornflake Girl" is, to my mind, one of Amos' very best songs--and a fine pop song to boot.  It had been awhile since I had listened to an album of hers all the way through, so I picked Under the Pink to take with me on my journey (in case it matters, I also have Boys for Pele and From the Choirgirl Hotel [about "She's Your Cocaine," the reviewer in Rolling Stone wrote, "Her band rocks like the hardest working bar band . . . on Saturn."]).
I have a taste for the melodic-but-experimental (and vice-versa) in music, and I also confess that I'm a sucker for technical virtuosity.  Tori Amos' work as a musician and composer of music draws me to her on both those counts.  (Sidebar: my comments here won't address her lyrics, though I don't think it would take much stretching to apply them to the words.)  But more often than not, her compositions, their structure, I find distracting in their rather eccentric hairpin shifts in instrumentation.  The first song on Under the Pink, "Pretty Good Year," is a good example of what I mean.  It begins with a very pretty solo piano figure, supported by quiet strings--the sort of arrangement that in its apparent effortlessness and elegance and beauty and purity actually makes my eyes tear up.  Then come the bridge: "Some things are melting now" and the sudden shift to the electric guitars for all of, what, 10 seconds?  Then, just as abruptly, the return to the original arrangement and mood of the beginning.  That shift has always puzzled me.  Amos knows exactly what she's doing musically, so I can't chalk it up to Not Knowing Better.  It feels more like an act of musical willfulness rather than a moment that arises organically from the piece, a compositional acting out.  It's all the more noticeable in this 3:26 song.  I like when she (or any musician) takes musical risks, but sometimes those risks just don't pay off musically--or at least one version of the Musical Payoff.
It's a kind of inattention to the craft of writing the Standard Pop Song, which, whether it's Elton John or Eminem,  establishes and maintains the musical equivalent of Edgar Allan Poe's "singular effect" for, give or take, 3 minutes.  Wait, you might be saying.  You're judging Tori Amos' music by the same standards as Justin Timberlake's?  Well, yes--but also the Beatles' . . . and, for that matter, Amos' own two singles from this album, "God" and "Cornflake Girl."  Both establish a musical ground and don't stray from it for their respective durations.  And both are "conventional" only in those senses.  In this list I would also include "The Waitress," Amos' version of a Nirvana song, with its quiet verses and raved-up choruses.  It'd have made a better single than "God," but I'm guessing that its speaker's fantasy about killing her co-worker made people too uneasy for them to want to release it as a single . . . so instead they opted for a song in which the singer wonders if God might "need a woman to look after" Him.
This is not to say that unconventionally-structured songs aren't effective.  It is to say that in a 3:26 pop song there ain't a whole lot of time to give musically-willful moments a chance to breathe and establish a clearer relationship with the whole song.  By contrast, "Yes, Anastasia" works, despite its shifts in instrumentation, because of its length (9:33).  In more ways than one, it's Amos' most sustained song on the album.
All this is to say that I find Tori Amos' work on the whole to be more intriguing than successful.  She is her own woman as an artist, and I admire that.  But there are times when I listen to her that I think that she thinks her work is more about her than about the work itself, and that sort of thinking, more often than not, produces flawed art.  This is an idea that I can't do much more at this late hour than state--it seems that, like good poems, successful songs have an integrity to them that they themselves establish, and not their composers.  "Pretty Good Year" would work much better if Amos had just left well enough alone and let it finish as the aural confection that it starts out being.  "Cornflake Girl" works because she lets the song find itself; she stays out of the way and lets her beloved faeries do their stuff.

Those wishing to read the comments from the original LiveJournal post can go here.

No comments: