But What If I’m A Mermaid: Little Earthquakes at 30

Looking back on the raw honesty and quiet beauty that defined the reintroduction of Tori Amos to American pop

Tori Amos 1992 (Image: Rhino)

Thirty years ago, Little Earthquakes marked a seismic shift in the music industry for the singing, songwriting, piano-playing genius, Tori Amos. 

The young Amos was a piano prodigy who earned a scholarship to the Peabody Institute in Baltimore at the mere age of five years old – she was the youngest person to ever be admitted. By the age of 11, her interests in rock ‘n’ roll and popular music led her astray from her classical studies and she began her foray into learning music by ear, rather than reading. 

Before her solo endeavor on Little Earthquakes, she fronted a band called Y Kant Tori Read. They only released one album under the Atlantic label in 1988, but it didn’t do too well commercially, resulting in some crushed dreams and an idea to go back to her roots: the piano.

When Amos began preparing the next album, she wrote a few piano-centric songs, ‘Girl,’ ‘Tear in Your Hand,’ ‘Precious Things,’ and ‘Little Earthquakes.’  When she played them for Doug Morris (the head of the Atlantic label at the time), he suggested that she wrote less piano-based songs before they moved forward. At the time, the market was saturated with the guitar – other female musicians like Tracy Chapman and Sinéad O’Connor utilized an acoustic, guitar-based sound.

Tori Amos Little Earthquakes, Atlantic Records 1992

Tori didn’t change her approach. Instead, she has mentioned that it became a mission for her to incorporate even more piano: “I became a vigilante, because I refused to see how the piano had been boxed into this definition of passive – passive and non-confrontational, and I decided you could be confrontational and powerful.”

The album itself is like a diary set to music. It covers a range of serious topics like misogyny, a religious upbringing, rape, and trauma, but Amos still manages to craft catchy tunes and even sprinkle in some humor. The opening track, ‘Crucify,’ is the perfect glimpse in to the album both lyrically and musically. The obvious religious imagery is undercut by sexual energy, and irony: “I’ve been looking for a savior in these dirty streets / looking for a savior beneath these dirty sheets / I’ve been raising up my hands, drive another nail in / Just what God needs, one more victim.” Her quivering yet controlled voice and masterful piano work make for an easy comparison with Kate Bush’s own floating voice and art-pop quixotic energy.

 

VIDEO: Tori Amos “Crucify”

The following three songs on the album are coming-of-age tales that also double as mantras for reclaiming power, and confronting trauma. ‘Girl’ is about the internal fight between needing external validation and learning to be comfortable in your own skin. The chorus “She’s been everybody else’s girl / Maybe one day she’ll be her own,” is repeated in a few different variations: softly, as if trying to remind herself, and then with a grungy attitude, as if to forcing herself to believe it. ‘Silent All These Years’ came to fruition after Amos read Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid to her niece, Cody. The lines questioning “But what if I’m a mermaid?” give the song a fairytale quality, which makes it the perfect metaphor for the almost inexplicable way our voice sometimes gets trapped in our own voice boxes. The piano composition for the song is one of the most interesting on the album – it has the lightness of a music box, and yet she occasionally adds a diminished chord sequence that integrates dark shadows. ‘Precious Things’ has a similar quality with gentle playing at the top of the piano while syncopated bomb-like chords are played in the lower register. The song is about adolescence and how first crushes can affect the way we look at love for the rest of our lives.

On an album that is mainly angry at men, ‘Winter’ stands out as the most tender song, an ode to paternal love. The piano and her voice are equal partners in this song, both extremely expressive, using a wide range of dynamics to really tug at the heartstrings. Lyrically, she uses the purity of a snow day with her father to paint a portrait of both innocence and transformation, as seasons of life also change quickly: “When you gonna love you as much as I do? / When you gonna make up your mind? / ‘Cause things are gonna change so fast.” 

 

VIDEO: Tori Amos “Winter”

Later in the album, Tori shows the other side of the parental coin with ‘Mother.’ The song, however, is not just about her own mother, but the idea of the Creatrix – that is, the feminine source of creative power. Amos has mentioned that the song is about “The feminine story coming down to earth, leaving this soul space and saying goodbye to Mother Creator as I go to Mother Earth.”

The most upbeat song on Little Earthquakes is ‘Happy Phantom,’ which, in true Tori Amos fashion, is about death. Playing with the juxtaposition between optimism and finality, she creates beautiful non-sequitur images of “There’s Judy Garland taking Buddha by the hand,” and “They say Confucius does his crossword with a pen.” Amos even nods to the Beatles in the line “I’ll wake up in Strawberry Fields every day,” which places her in that dream-like trance of John Lennon’s childhood haunt in Liverpool.

Tori Amos Little Earthquakes: The Graphic Album, Z2 Comics 2022

‘China,’ (originally called ‘Distance’) is a classic love song about long distance lovers who often build walls instead of bridges. With its weepy orchestrations and a vocal performance that is choked up with tears, it’s very much reminiscent of a Barbara Streisand tune. It’s followed by the raunchiest song on the album, ‘Leather,’ which begins with a peep-show style piano intro and the lyrics “Look, I’m standing naked before you / Don’t you want more than my sex?” The composition is equal parts Kurt Weill and Queen, while the lyrics discuss sexual prowess, personal struggles, and a (lack of) angelic salvation. With a nostalgic glance back at a love gone wrong, ‘Tear in Your Hand’ has become one of the best breakup tunes of all time. 

The critical cornerstone of Little Earthquakes is ‘Me and a Gun.’ The penultimate track tells the story of the most traumatic experience of her life, being raped. Amos says that watching Thelma & Louise opened the floodgates and somehow let waves of unprocessed trauma wash over her, which is where this song came from. It may not be her most commercially popular song, but it has resonated with people everywhere, especially women. With ‘Me and a Gun,’ Tori Amos gave a haunting, acapella voice to those who have remained silent about their own awful experiences. In 1994, Amos co-founded the largest anti-sexual assault organization in the United States, RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network). Tori is an artist who not only creates beauty (her music) out of pain, but she actually does something about it.

 

VIDEO: Tori Amos “Me and a Gun” (Live from Montreux 1992)

The final song on the album is all about the seemingly small trials and tribulations of life that could easily break us, or, ‘Little Earthquakes.’ It’s slow and deliberate, like the way water slowly erodes a rock. It builds for about for about three minutes until it goes into a powerful dirge of “Give me life, give me pain / Give me myself again.” Through the lyrics, she shows how pain and livelihood go hand in hand. 

Listening to Tori Amos’ Little Earthquakes has the same effect as reading Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. With a fault line of catharsis running through their work, both Plath and Amos effectively weigh society’s expectations against personal prospects, confront painful thoughts, and portray the corrosion of internal crisis. The album on the whole is about the way we experience terrible things that somehow make up our own person, but they don’t have to define us. Selling more than 2,000,000 copies, Little Earthquakes has since gone double-platinum.

With 30 years of emotional legacy, we can see how Tori Amos opened the doors for a generation of confrontational singer-songwriters that arrived in her wake.

 

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Stephanie Hernandez

Stephanie Hernandez is a PhD student of English and Music at the University of Liverpool, where she is researching the echoes of Romanticism in the ‘Classic Rock’ era of the 1960s-1970s. Stephanie is also a music journalist who loves to wax lyrical about her favorite artists in every piece that she writes. You can find her on twitter @hstephanie9.

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