Thursday, 6 October 2011

Covered Girls: Tori Amos and the Art of Reinterpretation

Alongside the many diverse self-penned compositions that she has produced throughout her prolific career, cover versions of other artists’ songs have always occupied a particularly important place in Tori Amos’s live and recorded repertoire. A survey of the songs that Amos has covered over the years reveals an extraordinary diversity, one rivalled by very few artists in contemporary music. Her covers span material from most of the 20th century, encompassing everything from nursery rhymes, show tunes, musical hall and jazz standards, through protest songs, spirituals, folk, carols and pop to heavy metal, rap and grunge, and now the adaptations of classical pieces that form the basis of her superb new album Night of Hunters [review here]. Amos has consistently performed other artists' songs in concert, as well as on the peerless collection of B-Sides that she produced throughout the 1990s, and on her 2001 concept album Strange Little Girls. Ten years on seems an appropriate moment to celebrate that important album, and to place it in the context of Amos’s reinterpretations of others' songs throughout her career.

Despite their diversity, Amos’s choice of covers has seldom seemed random or indiscriminate. Indeed, Amos has emphasised that she will only perform a cover if she feels that she can contribute something new to the song in question. Part of what makes her most successful performances of others’ material so compelling, I’d suggest, is that they come off less as straightforward cover versions than as carefully thought out reinterpretations, which seek to add another dimension to the original version and, sometimes, to radically subvert its meanings. An Amos cover is not necessarily an act of tribute to the song in question, nor does it represent a simple diversion for her from the “real graft” of original composition. Rather, it is a more complex encounter between an extant text and an artist who is expert at approaching songs from unusual angles and infusing them with her unique spirit and interpretive skills.

That interpretive expertise was honed during Amos's childhood recitals and her formative “piano bar” years playing lounges and clubs and taking requests from sometimes appreciative but often indifferent audiences. While Amos has commented upon the difficulty of these years and the frustration that she experienced in performing the likes of “Send In The Clowns” and “Feelings” every night, she seems to have come to acknowledge the importance of this period for her creative development, and has suggested that she learnt much about song structure, stage presence and performer/audience dynamics during this time.

However, the recording that first alerted the wider world to Amos’s special skills of reinterpretation was of course 1992’s “Crucify” E.P. on which intense piano-and-vocal covers of Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You,” The Rolling Stones’ “Angie” and, most famously, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” succeeded in stripping back these rock songs - two classics and one soon-to-be classic - to uncover nuances and vulnerabilities previously obscured within the originals. These three haunting renditions set the standard for Amos's future cover versions with their mixture of care, intelligence, and impudence. In particular, by boldly transforming Nirvana’s raging anthem into a classically inflected piano ballad Amos offered a timely demonstration that hardcore emotion may be expressed through quietness and economy as well as volume. A female musician performing the song in this way constituted a provocative challenge to grunge’s masculine ethos, proving, in the words of James Hunter in Rolling Stone, that the genre’s “blend of emotional distress and sonic kicks represented a state of mind as much as a guitar sound.”

Although primarily a showcase for her original material, Amos’s Little Earthquakes tour included performances of all the “Crucify” E.P. B-sides plus her favourite Zeppelin song “Whole Lotta Love.” A trio of equally distinctive covers then appeared on the special edition single for “Cornflake Girl”: Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9” and the harrowing “Strange Fruit,” made famous by Billie Holiday. “To show that all things are possible, and permissible, for me as a singer-songwriter,” Amos explained when asked by Joe Jackson in Hot Press why she had selected these songs specifically; she went on to stress the importance of each of these artists to her own development as a performer and composer. Her take on the Hendrix song was particularly striking, with her piano played through a Marshall amp in order to create a discordant electric guitar-style motif, a move that prefigured the kind of keyboard experimentation that she would develop across Boys For Pele (1996). 

1994’s mammoth Pink tour found Amos introducing the likes of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire,” The Police’s “Wrapped Around Your Finger” and a selection of Beatles tracks into her repertoire, while her measured take on “Famous Blue Raincoat” was one of the highlights of the patchy Leonard Cohen tribute album Tower of Song in the same year. Discussing her version of the Cohen track, Amos talked for the first time about entering a song through the perspective of one of its characters, in this case “Jane” whom she envisaged discovering the letter which is described and transcribed within Cohen’s lyrics. This character-based approach would become increasingly important to her later cover versions.

By the release of the Boys For Pele singles, fans had come to expect something special in the way of Tori-fied covers and were not disappointed as, in a particularly left-field move, Amos turned her attention to the work of cult Cockney duo Chas & Dave, relishing the tongue-twisting lyrics of “That’s What I Like Mick (The Sandwich Song)” - with its homages to fellow piano virtuosos Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis - and offering a sultry yet wry take on “London Girls.” “This Old Man,” meanwhile, became an ambiguous, rather menacing piece with undertones of emotional and physical violence. Unsurprisingly, the accompanying Dew Drop Inn tour included some of her weirdest covers - everything from “Kumbaya,” “Blue Moon” and Stephen Forster’s “Oh Susannah” to The Cure’s “Love Song” and a riff on Tag Team’s “Whoomp! (There It Is).” (Yes, really.)

On this tour, too, Amos developed her practice of occasionally pairing others’ songs with her own, performing, for example, a short section of Björk’s “Hyperballad” before “Butterfly” and turning Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” into a prelude for the Pretty Hate Machine-referencing “Caught A Lite Sneeze.” This novel idea allowed her to create some fascinating “sonic dialogues” between her work and that of her song-writing peers and demonstrated her gift for linking songs both thematically and emotionally. Sadly, few of these performances were recorded for posterity beyond bootlegs but 1996’s “Hey Jupiter” E.P. did offer one special rendition: namely, the priceless moment when Amos achieves the feat of silencing a group of particularly rowdy, baying fans with a breathtakingly fragile version of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.”

The choirgirl and To Venus and Back sessions yielded fewer cover versions, though a spaced-out “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and a memorably histrionic take on Steely Dan’s “Do It Again” both proved effective B-Sides to the “Spark” singles. But just as fans may have been wondering whether her interest in performing others’ work was waning, Amos returned with her most ambitious, controversial and divisive covers project yet: her 2001 album Strange Little Girls.

Amos's covers have often reflected her commitment to giving listeners an insight into what the male-drawn map of rock music history looks like when approached from a female performer’s point of view. Nowhere was this commitment clearer than on Strange Little Girls, which saw Amos reinterpret twelve male-authored tracks from the perspectives of an assortment of female characters, developed in collaboration with Neil Gaiman. While we now know that this album was in part a way for Amos to fulfil her contractual obligations to Atlantic without providing them with any original songs, it’s also immediately apparent that the work goes far beyond this. For Strange Little Girls emerges from Amos's concerns with the definitions of gender roles and the sometimes questionable construction of female characters in contemporary songs by men.

In Piece by Piece Amos explained the album’s genesis in typically vivid terms. “[P]eople were talking to me about how popular music was getting more violent,” she claimed. “Male songwriters were saying these really malicious things … Neil, Mark [Hawley] and I really felt, as I was nursing my little girl child in my arms right before Christmas in the year 2000, that a generalized image of the antiwoman, antigay heterosexual man had hijacked Western male heterosexuality and brought it to the mediocrity of the moment. At its core, this perverted male image was filled with malice and getting high off swallowing its own violent ejaculation.”

Reinventing the covers album as concept album, Strange Little Girls presents itself as Amos’s response to the casual violence and homophobic and misogynistic messages which, she felt, were being expressed in popular song at the beginning of the 21st century. The carefully chosen and researched covers featured on the album included such alpha-male anthems as The Stranglers’ “Strange Little Girl,” Slayer’s “Raining Blood,” and, most notoriously, Eminem’s “’97 Bonnie and Clyde,” his infamous rap about murdering a troublesome wife and involving a young daughter in the disposal of the body.

Extremely well-structured, the album linked its songs via a number of themes and motifs, with issues of language and silencing, and images of guns and violence, recurring. The most successful of the performances once more demonstrated Amos’s gift for subverting a song from within, as she turned the “Just the two of us” refrain in Eminem’s song into a ghostly mother-to-daughter message, exposed the emotional cruelty of 10CC’s “I’m Not In Love,” and transformed “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” into a gun-lobby debate. She also gave The Boomtown Rats’ “I Don’t Like Mondays” a chillingly innocent reading at odds with the disturbing lyrics, and transformed Neil Young’s placid “Heart of Gold” into a feral squall. Other interpretations were more reverent: an intimate take on Tom Waits’ “Time,” a moving rendition of Lloyd Cole’s “Rattlesnakes,” and a subtle, wry version of Joe Jackson’s “Real Men” were among the album's highlights. Each track, however, reflected Amos’s skill in sliding into songs from unusual angles, thereby finding fresh dimensions in the material and challenging listeners to view these tracks in new ways.

Not all critics were up for this. While Amos’s earlier covers had generally met with acclaim, the response to Strange Little Girls was much more mixed. Reviews of the album ranged from the enthusiastic through the ambivalent to the openly hostile. Arguably these latter responses - often expressed in terms which labelled Amos a desecrator of the work of male song-writing “geniuses” - reflected some of the prejudices that the album itself was seeking to expose, revealing the sexism of some rock journalists and their knee-jerk antagonism to any project which might be described as feminist.

Certainly, Strange Little Girls can be viewed in the context of the issues raised by second-wave feminists who critiqued male representations of women and descriptions of sexual violence in contemporary literature. The innovation of Strange Little Girls is to extend this debate into the realm of rock, and to recognise popular music as one of the primary cultural spheres in which gender roles get played out and patriarchal ideology disseminated. If this makes the album sound dry, worthy or overly academic then think again: Strange Little Girls is consistently dynamic, varied and musically exciting, employing a range of instruments and arrangements and benefiting from some of Amos’s most compelling and original singing. Her performances were supplemented by Gaiman’s brilliant “Portraits of Girls” narratives, and with the stylist/make-up team of Karen Binns and Kevyn Aucoin on hand to aid her metamorphoses, Amos produced a subversive and rewarding album that deserves reappraisal as one of her best achievements.  Meanwhile, in a fun piece for Q magazine, Amos picked 18 songs by women that she’d like to see male artists perform, her suggestions including Janis Joplin’s “Get It While You Can,” Ani DiFranco’s “32 Flavours” and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” Of the last track Amos commented: “I think E from the Eels could do this well … alone at the keyboard. No drums. Spooky.”

While the elaborate Strange Little Girls seems likely to represent the apex of Amos’s recorded covers, her most recent tours have seen her continuing to engage with the work of other songwriters in compelling ways. The Scarlet's Walk tour included some incredible covers, not least a thrilling mash-up of "Pancake" and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's "Ohio", while the Piano Bar section of her solo 2005 Summer of Sin tour was the most overt homage yet to her formative “lounge performer” years in the 1970s/80s, with fans invited to submit requests to her via her website. (With the proviso that the song choices “didn’t suck.”) This led to some amazing reinterpretations of never-before-played, often city-specific material. Many of these performances were made available on the Original Bootlegs series [review here], where listeners discovered Amos breathing new emotional intensity into Jim Croce’s “Operator,” spontaneously turning Oasis’ “Don’t Look Back In Anger” into an anti-Morrissey rant, and investing “Like A Prayer” with more genuine sexual and spiritual fervour than Madonna could hope to muster. “I’ve gotten into this weird 80s thing,” she confessed to one audience, a fact which explained the appearance of songs such as “I Ran,” “Livin’ On A Prayer” and “Bette Davis Eyes” in her sets.

Although less central, covers also formed a significant part of 2007’s American Doll Posse tour, with the reappearance of gems such as “Carnival,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” "Daniel," and “I’m On Fire” - plus the mind-boggling proposition of the ADP characters “covering” Amos’s own songs in the opening section of the shows.

Overall, then, Amos’s reinterpretations make up a substantial part of her contribution to contemporary music. From nursery rhymes to heavy metal, grunge to goofy comedy songs, raps to Christmas carols, and her current inventive adaptations of the classical repertoire, her covers reflect her wide assimilation of musical influences and her gift for selecting intriguing material, and have complemented her original work in extremely interesting ways. Beginning by stripping back the songs, her approaches have become increasingly experimental, and she has proved herself capable not only of performing an amazingly diverse range of material but also of transforming it in her own inventive style. Her best covers make you reassess your relationship to a given song, challenging your perspective and inviting you to see qualities previously overlooked. It’s also likely that her reinterpretations have led her fans to investigate bands and artists that they might never have discovered otherwise. Most importantly, perhaps, her covers reflect her serious commitment to being a performer within a community, an artist with a strong sense of heritage and tradition, and one who is closely engaged in a musical conversation with the work of both her song-writing predecessors and her peers.

For this reason, it’s a genuine shame that her own work has been neglected by other artists. An Amos-covers wish-list immediately springs to mind. Imagine Radiohead tackling “iieee” or “Lust.” Antony and the Johnsons taking on “Pretty Good Year.” Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds trying their hand at “Professional Widow.” Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris duetting on “Playboy Mommy.” Prince performing “Body and Soul.” Eminem responding to “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” with a version of “Little Amsterdam.” Well, maybe some day. In the meantime, covers remain an integral part of Amos’s own creative life, and, with her new tour having just opened with a beautiful excursion into The Joshua Tree (see below), we wait expectantly to see where her explorations with others’ songs might lead her next.


  1. something must be in the air. revisiting Strange Little Girls all last month. New Age is still one of her most amazing performances. another great overview. (also really enjoyed the Mike Leigh piece. Secrets & Lies is a classic)

  2. should mention the powerful performance of purple rain she did in minneapolis in 2003, with prince rumored to be in the audience. The ending leaves you breathless

  3. antony and the johnsons covering pretty good year! YES

  4. The cover of Purple Rain from the 1996 Pele (Dew Drop Inn) Tour really showcased her voice which had, in her own words, "opened up" during the recording of that album. Never liked that song until I heard her perform it.

  5. I think Peter Gabriel just explored this? No mention of him!

  6. WOW, i'm not a native english speaker and i hate reading but i was sooo captivated by your great article and your indepth thoughs on Tori's cover songs!! Great work man!!! :)


  7. Great article and a nice walk back memory lane. I saw the SLG show 4 times and Tori opened each night with 97 B&C and the audience went wild as she did it from back stage while the lights on a huge silk screen banner of her face went from beautiful to a skeleton to a menacing version of Tori's face. But I couldn't go crazy. All I could do was silently sit there with big tears running down my face. That song scared the crap out of me and it should have scared the crap out of everyone! There is really only one good Tori cover that I am aware of: Unto Ashes did Beauty Queen, and it is excellent. I wonder if people are afraid to cover her because she just does the best damn version of the song that is possible?

  8. I LOVE your Tori articles! Please keep doing them!

  9. Thanks, folks. Glad you enjoyed this. For shame, I wasn’t aware of the “Purple Rain” cover; sounds incredible, though.

    @MelindaLu I'll check out that "Beauty Queen" cover, thanks.

    Any other thoughts on who else *should* cover Tori songs?

  10. For this reason, it’s a genuine shame that her own work has been neglected by other artists. An Amos-covers wish-list immediately springs to mind. Imagine Radiohead tackling “iieee” or “Lust.” Antony and the Johnsons taking on “Pretty Good Year.” Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds trying their hand at “Professional Widow.” Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris duetting on “Playboy Mommy.” Prince performing “Body and Soul.” Eminem responding to “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” with a version of “Little Amsterdam.”

    Yes I saw many artits covering her songs & some of them were pretty good indeed. Not as good as her talented voice/way to play her own songs or those of others, but still, YES, I can imagine Nick Cave or whoever very good artists singing her beautiful music. Béa ;))

  11. And I also wanted to add this : as a french speaking person, I found your words very interesting and quiet beautiful for some parts.
    I have found your blog on
    and I'm glad about that. Thank you for your articles about Tori Amos. :)