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POP MUSIC | Pop Eye

Tori Amos Offers a Woman's-Eye View of Songs by Men

July 01, 2001|STEVE HOCHMAN

It may seem as if everyone has weighed in on the debate about Eminem, from politicians attacking the Detroit rapper to Elton John singing with him on the Grammys.

But when Tori Amos listened to Eminem's " '97 Bonnie and Clyde"--the notorious narrative of a man who has killed his wife--she thought one voice was missing: that of the song's murdered woman.

Amos decided to address the issue with her own version of the song, sung in character as the victim. It's a chillingly calm account that, while not defending the brutal husband, has empathy for him.

It's one of a dozen gender-reversal performances on Amos' upcoming album, "Strange Little Girls." In it, she's taken songs written and originally sung by men and, without any substantial rewriting, created a female character for each. The album includes photos of Amos portraying each woman.

"Bonnie and Clyde" may be the most provocative track, but others are also striking, from a dynamic reworking of Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" (sung as twin girls "into economic espionage," she says) to Slayer's "Raining Blood" (a girl in the French Resistance) to 10cc's "I'm Not in Love" (a girl addressing Satan).

Other songs on the album, due from Atlantic Records on Sept. 18, include the Velvet Underground's "New Age," the Stranglers' "Strange Little Girl," Depeche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence," Lloyd Cole's "Rattlesnakes," Tom Waits' "Time," Joe Jackson's "Real Men" and the Beatles' "Happiness Is a Warm Gun."

"I've always found it fascinating how men say things and women hear them," Amos says. "In 'Bonnie and Clyde,' that was Eminem--or one of the many people living inside him--and he killed his wife. She has to have a voice. What intrigued me in the way he told the story was this rhythmic kind of justification. You have to have empathy for him. I did when I heard it, but I always chase what's on the other side of the camera."

While she is neither supporting nor condemning Eminem, she feels that many of his defenders minimize the effect of his lyrics. That, she says, in large part fueled her desire to make this album.

"I would hear a lot of people say, 'They're only words, what is everyone going on about?' " says Amos, whose catalog includes "Me and a Gun," in which a woman seeks revenge after being raped.

"That's where I said I could pick up the gauntlet. I believe in freedom of speech, but you cannot separate yourself from your creation. We go back to the power of words, and words are like guns. . . . Whether you choose the graciousness of Tom Waits or the brutality of 'Bonnie and Clyde,' they're equally powerful, and that's what drove me."

Representatives of Eminem said they have heard about Amos' version but not actually heard it and have no comment.

Atlantic Records general manager Ron Shapiro acknowledges that some may react negatively to these interpretations.

"When you do songs that are beloved by many people you almost always strike a nerve, and hopefully it will be positive and enlightening," he says. "But Tori's always been brave enough not to be afraid of extreme reactions. In fact, she provokes them, and God bless her for doing so."

SHADES OF GRAY: Some artists might be paralyzed by trying to follow up a debut success as big as Macy Gray's 1999 "On How Life Is." But Gray had no trouble coming up with plenty to record for her next album.

And that was the problem. Gray and collaborator Darryl Swann generated so many songs and ideas for how to record them that after a few months of sessions, they were facing so many choices and were a little bit lost.

So Gray called in an unlikely person to help sort it out: Rick Rubin, who's produced acts from the Beastie Boys and Red Hot Chili Peppers to Johnny Cash and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

"The way they went about recording these songs was to record lots and lots of tracks of anything that sounded cool to Macy," says Rubin, who came to the project three months ago. "Some songs had 120 tracks--reels and reels of tape. We could have probably made 15 different versions of some songs. So they just wanted a fresh set of ears to come in and make sure the songs came through."

The result, Rubin says, is a collection that's funkier than the last album, but one that still has the emotional richness and the combination of classic and contemporary that found Gray an audience ranging from teens to 1960s-rooted adults.

"I wouldn't say it's a party album, but it would be a great album at a party," Rubin says. "And it seems like it's even more personal. I think Macy had a greater hand in this one from the beginning. It's really more reflective of her vision."

The debut was overseen by Andy Slater, who served as Gray's producer and manager before recently taking over as president of Capitol Records. Rubin consulted with him before stepping in with Gray, and says there was no tension from the management change (Gray is now with Blue Williams, who also handles OutKast) or the pressure of following up such a hit.

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