Sunday, August 22, 2010

August 22: Tori Amos, "Professional Widow"

Artist: Tori Amos
Song: "Professional Widow"
Album: Boys For Pele
Year: 1996

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There are few things that can be more detrimental to an artist than making a large stylistic shift after establishing their sound in a certain form.  This becomes even more true when the artist in question as perfected this initial sound to the point where they become the "reference point" for other artists pursuing a similar style of music.  Finally, if the sound in question is not a "standard" genre, deviating from the path in question almost always spells instant career failure.  However, there have been a handful of cases in history where an artist has made a rather abrupt stylistic change, and their fanbase has embraced this new sound to the point where it became the new path for that artist.  Though there are certainly more well known examples of this rare musical happening, in 1996, Tori Amos decided to change her image as the finest piano singer-songwriter of her generation.  Already known for her soaring vocals and perfectly crafted musical arrangements, her Boys For Pele record was a great musical shift for her, as the album contained some of the loudest and most musically aggressive songs of her entire career, yet the overall tone of the album was far darker than her previous efforts.  Though she had given a small peek into her "fully orchestrated" sound with her 1994 single, "Cornflake Girl," that song was a rather upbeat affair in comparison.  Brilliantly combining the sound which earned her a massive following with a far more complex and assertive musical arrangement, the new phase in the career of Tori Amos can be summed up in her magnificent 1996 single, "Professional Widow."

The moment "Professional Widow" opens, both the song and the album immediately take on a different tone than most of Tori Amos' previous work, as she has moved from her Bösendorfer grand piano to a perfectly tuned and toned harpsichord.  This instrument gives the song a stunning, gothic feel, and yet it also gives the song a bolder and almost sinister mood unlike any of her previous recordings.  After she runs through the songs' core riff once, "Professional Widow" takes its massive musical turn, as suddenly Amos is being backed by a number of other instruments, as well as a battering from programmed drums.  It is the percussion, programmed by Alan Friedman, and give the song an even darker feel and make the connection between Amos and Nine Inch Nails impossible to deny.  Though she would reference Nine Inch Nails later on Boys For Pele, the style and tone of the programmed drums on "Professional Widow" are unlike anything she had previously released, and they reinforce the somewhat malicious, almost dangerous mood on the song.  Underneath both Amos' playing and the percussion work, there is a strange sound effect that serves as an amazingly subtle finishing touch to the song.  The sound sounds almost like a long groan, and it plays into the song with expert timing, providing even more musical enjoyment for those that can catch it.  "Professional Widow" stands as a far cry from the previous work of Tori Amos, yet the shift in instrumentation only proves that Amos is unquestionably one of the most talented performers of her generation.

Perhaps the only thing more synonymous with the music of Tori Amos that is more prominent than her piano is her soaring, unmistakable voice.  Having previously shown her ability to work the entire vocal spectrum, Amos pushed even further on "Professional Widow," bringing an amazing amount of emotion and energy on every line.  Using very audible breaths to add a fantastic sense of rhythm to her singing, Amos paints an amazing picture with her words here, and once again, it is hard to argue that any other performer of the era had similar ability to create such vivid and mesmerizing moods.  In another stylistic change, Amos turns the pen away from herself on "Professional Widow," as she tells the tale of a woman who seems trapped on two levels, both in her home, as well as by society in general.  The song suggests that it is due to the womans' unsavory reputation, yet Tori Amos uses her unparalleled word-play to show that it is due to the labels given to her by her male counterparts that she lives such a life.  Though it can be interpreted on many levels, one can detect this accusation of being seen as a "second-class" citizen who is only there to serve others when Amos sings, "...gonna strike a deal, make him feel like a Congressman..."  At every turn on "Professional Widow," Tori Amos proves why she stands as one of the finest vocalists in history, as the song presents both the "entrapment" of the protagonist, but one can feel a sense of freedom by the time the song comes to a close.

Though never confirmed, there remains a widely-believed rumor that the "Professional Widow" of which Amos sings is, in fact, a rather specific person.  Credited by many for destroying the friendship between Amos and Trent Reznor, many believe that this song is written about pseudo-musician, Courtney Love.  Taking this into account, the name of the song suddenly takes on a completely different tone, as many also believe that Love had something to do with the tragic death of her former husband, Kurt Cobain.  Though Amos herself has never even remotely confirmed a connection between the two, one can also read the lyrics, "...Mother Mary...china white..." as a subtle reference to Love, though one can just as easily interpret these lines as a reference to the true innocence of the songs' main subject.  Regardless of how one sees "Professional Widow," it clearly marked a pivotal moment in the career of Tori Amos, as the song is without question more musically complex and more aggressive than anything she had previously released.  Her departure from the "girl and a piano" approach that had brought her fame could have gone horribly wrong, as her style was suddenly far louder and perhaps a bit more combative.  However, the emotion, clever lyrics, and absolutely stunning singing are still present, and the fact that her fans "followed her" on this musical change proves that it was these elements that were the keys to her sound.  Standing not only as the turning point in her career, but one of the finest songs she ever recorded, few compositions of the 1990's can compare to Tori Amos' sensational 1996 single, "Professional Widow."

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