Anyone who loves a particular artist, a certain someone above all else, will tell you that loving that person provides a feeling unlike any other. Superfans will talk about how the wisdom provided by that artist is more valuable than the wise words of a thousand imitators. This is usually a great discussion at dinner parties after a few wines, made even better when people defend their chosen muse so fiercely that spit and venom fly across the room. I could call upon any number of amazing musicians or artists who have helped me see certain things more clearly, but really, there’s only one person who has it all – one person who makes me proud to call myself a Toriphile (or, as they are known amongst true obsessives, an ‘Ear with Feet’). That person, the one who turned my little blue world upside down, is Tori Amos.
In order to understand the appeal of Tori Amos, it’s important to look at the era in which she rose to popularity: the 1990s. It was a time when alternative culture – particularly alternative music – pushed back and claimed the mainstream. Tired of the bubblegum 1980s, society decided that it wanted things to be ‘real’. We craved idols that didn’t seem too far off – people who we could actually be. Maybe more than anything else, we wanted to hear our own stories being told. We wanted to relate to art again.
According to the British Psychological Society, more hits were recorded in minor keys and at slower tempos during the 1990s than in any other period up to 2006. And, as anyone who lived through the period will tell you, it was a time when taboo subjects were brought to the foreground by the pioneers of music, and by women in particular. Female voices were fearless in their assertion that the personal was now political and that they chose to defy gendered expectations in music on their own terms. Women like Madonna, PJ Harvey, Courtney Love, Björk and, to some extent, Jewel, marched to the beat of the same drum, despite being from different musical genres. But at the foreground of these women was a person utterly fearless and unashamed to share her experiences: Tori Amos.
After a commercially unsuccessful attempt at 80s hair metal in the short-lived group Y Kant Tori Read, Tori eventually found her true calling as a confessional singer-songwriter, carrying on a legacy created by female legends such as Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Tracey Chapman. Her debut album Little Earthquakes was born and, with its release, the subject of sexual abuse was thrown headfirst into pop culture. Overnight, Tori Amos became the voice for thousands of victims whose voices had been stolen.
In 1985, about six years before the release of Little Earthquakes, Tori Amos was raped by a man who asked her for a lift home after she played at a piano bar. Years later, speaking to Hot Press, she said, ‘I’ll never talk about it at this level again but let me ask you: why have I survived that kind of night, when other women didn’t? How am I alive to tell you this tale when he was ready to slice me up? In the song I say it was “me and a gun” but it wasn’t a gun. It was a knife he had. And the idea was to take me to his friends and cut me up, and he kept telling me that, for hours.’
Tori’s song, Me and A Gun, an a capella recount of the night she was raped, was her first official single as a solo artist. An unusual choice, sure, but for what the song means and represents, an entirely courageous move. Unfortunately, the track did not take off well as a single, and was quickly replaced by the more accessible Silent All These Years (which later was used to promote awareness of RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, when Tori was made their official spokesperson).
Tori continued to sing Me and a Gun regularly at her concerts, including during her MTV Unplugged performance (the rendition was cut from the final broadcast, much like Nirvana’s rendition of Rape Me was cut from their session). Her harrowing story was embraced by people from all backgrounds who reached out to the young singer, wishing to find their own voice for the tragedies they too had suffered and were in the process of overcoming.
And it was not just sexual assault that she chronicled in her work. As Amos revealed more of her personal life over time – her struggles conceiving a child, her battle against her religious upbringing, and her empathy towards same-sex attracted people – listeners began longing for the chance to meet with and speak to her. They wanted to connect with her, and many came to believe that she was the only person they could find who would understand them.
It’s no secret that for most people who seriously get into Tori Amos and her music, there is a real ‘diehard’ sense of fandom. For a lot of fans, Tori’s music colours times of intensely personal upheaval, during which they have listened to her music and read her personal story as a form of musical therapy. It’s something that is hard to describe in words – but most of these fans, myself included, relish the chance to eventually thank her. Tori was receptive to this from the early days of her career, starting a long-standing tradition of coming out the front of a concert venue hours before the performance to meet and greet her fans. She often spends time with them, listening to their stories and offering advice, remembering the regulars and occasionally bringing up in conversation items she’s spoken about with them before.
Certain characters are legendary amongst the Toriphile community – mainly the American fans who have toured with Tori since the formative years of her career. While lovely, friendly and outgoing, it must be said that these superfans are eccentric. There’s a boisterous man in his 30s who sits in the front row of every show and thrashes around as though he’s at a metal concert. Anyone who’s seen or heard Tori play solo can imagine the juxtaposition.
Probably the most legendary of the superfans is an independently wealthy young woman, let’s call her Anastasia, who travels around the world to every Tori Amos concert, no matter where in the world Tori happens to be playing, and always has complimentary tickets set aside for her at the box office for a front-row seat. Anastasia has followed Tori on tour for years, attending literally every show, and is therefore viewed as being the ‘closest’ to Tori. It can be observed that fans harbour a respect for Anastasia almost as great as their respect for Tori. While Anastasia insists she doesn’t attend meet and greets and seems fairly blasé about the concert experience, she turns up in designer dresses and certainly makes an event of the day: before and after the concert, she can be found circulating around the lobby chatting with other superfans about her favourite passion.
While Anastasia is probably the most well known, there are certainly other fans who take their idolisation of Tori to extremes. A fan-run Australian Facebook group, which was set up ahead of her most recent tour, featured recipes for dishes named after various Tori songs, instructions on how to embroider your own cushions with Tori’s face, a 100-day countdown to Tori’s first Australian show (with each day marked by a Tori photo and lyric) and – as the tour progressed – a fair few Tori Amos tattoos, everything from portraits to lyrics handwritten by Tori during the meet and greets, sunk deep into skin for eternity.
On a live DVD titled Welcome to Sunny Florida (2004), seven participants are briefly interviewed in a series of vox pops about how many Tori Amos shows they’ve been to. The highest is 125 for one single fan and the lowest is 22, with that fan feeling ashamed that she had not attended more. It is not unusual to see the same people in the first three rows of each concert, most of whom have travelled from other parts of the world and are well known to one another. Unlike most other artists’ fans, the Toriphiles travel in one large family. It’s not unusual to hear of people taking months off work to travel to each Tori Amos concert on a single tour. This is probably for two reasons.
The first is that Tori Amos rarely performs the same song, the same way, twice; and she never performs the same set list. As a true natural performer, Amos says she decides which songs she will perform in the city she happens to be in based on the political and global climate at the time, allowing some songs (which she often personifies as being different types of women and archetypes) to take on new meaning.
The second reason is that on some level, either conscious or subconscious, Tori Amos’s fans seek a personal friendship with her, or wish to show their loyalty and devotion in thanks for the gift of her music.
There is a well-practiced procedure for divvying up front-row tickets to each Tori Amos show amongst fans. Amos herself requests that the entire front row at each of her performances is reserved for dedicated supporters. Before each show, another superfan – who is particularly close to Tori’s crew and who attends every performance worldwide – is given a wad of front-row tickets and gets to choose who will be ‘upgraded’. The lucky chosen superfans trade in their regular tickets for front-row seats. Occasionally those who’ve never experienced the front row will be awarded the opportunity to be up close and personal. It is like no other concert experience. I know this because, at the end of 2014, I went on my own Tori Amos pilgrimage and was awarded front row seats, having never sat in the front row before. Having a mere seven shows under my belt at the time, I can confirm that once you’re trapped in the church of Amos, it’s hard to leave. It’s addictive. I can also confirm that, while immensely intense in their obsession, the Tori Amos fans do treat one another as a family – politely waiting their turn for the chance to meet her.
I got the chance to meet Tori Amos during a Melbourne meet and greet at the Palais Theatre. A Tori fan since I was 15, I had long constructed many versions in my head of what I would say to her to thank her for her music, years before I found out about the meet and greets and the cult-like phenomenon. I wanted to tell her that I had allowed her music to save my life during a time when I saw no way out. When you yourself are a teenager struggling with your sexuality, who was also raped by a stranger, listening to the work of Tori Amos can be pretty powerful stuff.
I remember as I drew near to her in the foyer, taken in with a group of ten other people, including my ex-partner (whose love for Tori Amos was the seed that planted my initial attraction), there was no one emotion I could place my finger on to describe how I felt, yet when I faced her and she took both my hands in hers and looked me in the eyes, I couldn’t hold back my tears. I struggled a thank you and cried. Here I was, a boy of 15 again, facing my idol and a woman who had survived so much, against all odds, and inspired others to do the same –whatever their trouble might be. She hugged me, and I let it linger so I could come back and revisit it in my memory. I go to that place now when I feel lost, desperate or truly ‘on the edge’.
Why do Tori fans feel so strongly about her? What is it about the power of being Tori Amos? Those are questions I can’t answer. Although I had an undying love for her music, there was something about the spectacle of the fandom that I had been cynical about, until I experienced it myself – my own moment with Tori.
After flying back from Melbourne I longed for the chance to meet her again. ‘I should’ve said more!’ I said over and over again to myself. But the opportunity was lost.
‘Next time,’ I said. ‘I hear she’s playing shows in Europe in early 2015.’ As the words entered my mouth I realised I’d become a superfan, an Ear with Feet. I’m already trying to find ways to take a few months off work and enter back into the Tori Amos micro universe – whenever that is.
Image courtesy the author.