Hit That Perfect Phrase Boy

Writing singles isn't rocket science and it isn't poetry either. You have your big idea and you apply your formulas, make your calculations, run your projection models. Then you produce the sleekest machine you are able and burn the fuse and see if it takes off. Okay, maybe it is rocket science.

And maybe it's poetry sometimes, but not that often: Pop music suffers both from a need to yield its secrets in a handful of minutes, and the grace to honey up its lyrics with a bunch of stuff easily reducible to beats, sex, and melody.

Still, every now and then songs do something with words you'd think--you'd hope--poetry could do: make phrases that, once coined, stay coined.

Tori! Tori! Tori!: She'd rather die than see you controlled?
Tori! Tori! Tori!: She'd rather die than see you controlled?

Carving her best moment like a Homeric epithet, slumped against a pay phone wherever she's calling from, junk-folk janglista Mary Lou Lord bets it all on three words: She loves you, she'd love to chat, but she's "Western Union Desperate." That phrase--also the title--tells us all we need to know and nothing else, a slim knife cutting past the heart until it reaches and grinds against the heart of the matter, the brute fact of her last quarter ticking away.

There's something in country & western that loves a cliché: bumper-sticker-sized, printed in corn syrup and tears. According to his label rep, new depressive Chris Knight is a combination of Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen. But really he's just some guy who listened to a lot of early Steve Earle and learned how to deliver the wasted-out epigram through the osmosis of devotion. He may never catch a couplet as perfect as Earle's "Gotta keep rockin' while I still can, got a two-pack habit and a motel tan," but in "It Ain't Easy Being Me" he comes close. The song is more or less about being a cliché: how he should be the Mayor of Sorryville, how there should be a special bridge-burning ceremony with him presiding, etc. But somewhere in the midst of these set pieces, a love story leaks through bitter as gasoline. In his alt-sardonic way, Knight reignites the song as a suitcase torch with one flawless phrase, half-buried in the chorus: "I know the words that'll bring you back but I don't say nothing as I watch you pack." Hell, all songs go like that, but suddenly the others have too many words.

"The Only One," by Dublin's saccharine trust, Junkster, is too sweet for grownups: the Cranberries without any Ideas to bitter the pill. Clear that she's about to be left behind by her fame-bound lover, the singer just wants to know if he still believes she's the only one. But the troubling line is minding its own business elsewhere: "Always told you that you'd go far," she says, as if the onrushing betrayal were somehow her idea, "lying underneath you catching stars."

It's an almost ludicrously sentimental vision--one that means to be about romance as celestial, fortune-filled; about erotic heavenliness made literal. Or maybe this is irony: Maybe the "lying" is a pun and the story started as idle pillow talk, now come tragically true. Either way, it paints a misty picture.

But draw me a diagram. This is the missionary position we're talking about: just Deirdre and her lover so entwined. And isn't he the star in the story? So she's lying underneath him catching...what? More stars. Scratch the metaphysical woo-woo and you reveal a physical fixity: If she's the receptacle for little pieces of him, those stars falling into her are semen; this is coming up close. See it once and, like the reel-change blips that blink in the corner of every movie, you'll never not see it again. Now what's he ducking out on? Not so simple, not so sweet.

Black Box Recorder's "Child Psychology" (available as an import single) is mostly a spoken-word piece, maybe even a novelty song. The verses consist of a disaffected female narrating her withdrawn childhood over a simple, echoey guitar figure: "I stopped talking when I was 6 years old...but of course they wouldn't leave me alone...my school reports that I showed no interest...when they finally expelled me, it didn't mean a thing." Why are we hearing this, this voice retrieved from the wreckage (as is the way with black boxes)? This voice bored by everything, by anyone who could be interested in her story; this failed suicide dragged onto a shrink's couch with no ambition of returning to the world? The chorus won't explain. A male voice joins hers (Luke Haines, late of the Auteurs and Baader Meinhoff) and they slip just a centimeter sideways into melody, into the infinite distance of formula. "Life is unfair; kill yourself or get over it." That's it, that's all the singing the song will allow: the cliché as psychic terrorism, nothing happening, her self poised perfectly static exactly on that "or," stuck in the middle with you.

In southern Mexico, where I am writing this from, the half-dozen local bohemians who've heard of Tori Amos like to run her name into a single word out loud, toreamos, invented but consistent: Literally "we are bullfighting," it's understood more directly as "we bullfight." Apparently this is hilarious; I suspect at least in part because Tori is an elementally female principle, and bullfighting, well, bullfighting is all about balls.

Not to say that radical femaleness can't be as powerful and fearless and confrontational as any spasm of machismo, without the childishness of blood sport attached. In Rockville, the classic example of this (it appears emblematically in the crucial essay collection Rock She Wrote, for example) is Kathleen Hanna ripping up her shirt and shouting at the audience, "Suck my left one!" (a Bikini Kill title from their first EP). That was revolution girl-style then: co-opting boys' suck-my-diction, demanding pleasure or even subjection, assuming the right to make any and all such demands. And all the time refusing theorist Luce Irigaray's famous philosophy of body parts to the effect that "man is what is always touching something else; woman is what is always touching herself." It's hard to imagine Tori Amos reading Irigaray or, for that matter, giving a second thought to Kate Hanna. But she knows all this and more, and she's ready to take the two and go one better.

The buzz is that "She's Your Cocaine" is the Ballad of Trent and Courtney: "She's in control and then she says to control her then she said you're controlling the way she makes you crawl." But it's not going to settle for being a celebrity skin flick. For two minutes the song is a murderous blue streak, banging and furious, noisier than anything we've heard in three and a half records. Then everything falls away: The multitracked guitars and bitchslap bass, the drums and the metallic digital whistle all yield. It's an area opened up within the body of the song, and she invites you inside: just the familiar piano and the voice gone from sneering to direct, suddenly in the first person, as close to plain speech as Tori Amos will ever come--"If you want me to, boy I could lie to you--you don't need one of these to let me inside of you."

The moment for which we wonder what "one of these" might be is a brief one. And the boys cringe and the girls smile, all the debt that the romantic idea of "inside" always owes to the physical utterly put paid; the abstraction collapses and we remember there's a real inside, that this belongs to the girls, and everyone knows this is somewhere.

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