I tell the eccentric songstress Tori Amos that my family’s geriatric dog is named after her, and she seems flattered—even when I say that the Jack Russell mix had obedience problems. “My husband’s Jack Russell did not mellow,” she says. “He got shot by a farmer. But you named your dog correctly, and he picked the right wife.” Since she’s promoting her eighth album, The Beekeeper, we’re discussing the source of Amos’s steady sales—a constantly replenished stock of sensitive, navel-gazing teens. Like the one I used to be. “When you’re graduating from high school,” says Amos, “you’re starting to ask questions that maybe you should keep asking your whole life.” And yet adolescent soul-searching and its outward manifestation—fandom—are not lifelong propositions. After all, I was barely out of high school when we named the puppy, and—here’s what I don’t tell her—I haven’t bought an album of hers since 1998.
Before we grew apart, I felt for Tori the kind of unconditional teen love inspired these days by emotive rocker Conor Oberst. There was, naturally, the erotic charge set off by her stage gyrations and a voice that wails, purrs, and whispers in most every song. At a Town Hall concert, from the days of my youthful infatuation, I flattered myself that I was both sensitive and secure enough to handle an aggressive woman. I bring up a turning point in our relationship—a picture in her third-album booklet of Tori decked out as a frontier girl, suckling a pig. It was supposed to be some sort of Christian allegory—“bringing the nonkosher back home,” says Amos. If publicity was the goal (“Don’t read it, weigh it,” she says), it worked too well. Ever since, most journalists have misread her as a New Age spacer, while missing one of the great strengths of her music: wit. Amos’s goddesses are symbols; her non sequiturs are usually meant to be metaphors. But like her lyrics, they can get tiresome. At one point, she’s explaining the concept behind her new album (“There are six different gardens reflecting the six different cells in the beehives”) and I try to move on. “Can I just finish?” she cuts in sharply. “So this is the garden of original sin-suality.” Yes, I follow. But I don’t really want to. Still, the waning of my Tori-enchantment is no more about wordplay than it is about gender. It’s about mystery. Teens see a code to be broken, a key to Tori’s inner life and their own. Thirteen years on, I don’t look for mystery in artists, only in their art. Talking to her didn’t bridge that distance, but listening to her old albums did revive a spark. And maybe there’s something to be said for nostalgia.