Listen to this track by fearsomely talented pianist and singer-songwriting auteur Tori Amos. It’s “Jackie’s Strength” as taken from her strongest selling record to date, 1998’s From The Choirgirl Hotel, a record named after a mythical place where the songs ‘”live”. The song was the second single from that album, and was a minor hit on the U.S hot 100. Yet, in the UK it was top twenty, complete with a club remix as approved by its author.
The record was loosely tied together by musings on the subjects of marriage, motherhood, and the experience of loss that is unique to them. In this song, the image of an American golden age is contrasted with the experiences of girls coming of age, and what awaits them as they journey into womanhood.
There is something of dread in the story, as that golden kingdom ends, as alluded to in the evocation of the name of Jackie Kennedy neé Bouvier, once wed to an American King Arthur, and as another marriage begins.
Musically, the moods of doubt, and of nostalgia live together, with Amos’ voice and piano against a gauzy, sonic ambience, complete with strings and vaguely menacing cello. Images of tragedy in the Kennedy assasination, and teenaged sleepover parties all live together in one place. This creates a great tension. But, what this song really hits on is the idea of identity.
One’s identity is both a source of empowerment, and of insecurity. And cultural perception rides along with it. That’s what this song deals with – a woman who is asked to render her identity up to another, yet feels the pull of independence, as well as the influence of the mythical figure of Jackie Kennedy standing as a paragon of marital virtue while growing up in America. What is it that the narrator wants? Which will unlock her true self? Should she marry? Should she not?
One of the things about this song that appeals is that so much of the kinds of cultural pressures on women in the West to be the Great Woman behind a great man is revealed just by evoking the contemporary mythology. Also, there is the personal mythology of marriage – the wedding day, the bridesmaids, the pomp and circumstance of a wedding in general to which little girls are encouraged to subscribe long before the day comes, and “feeling old by 21”. But, how do you take the truth out of the myth, and make it make sense to your own life? That’s the central conflict here in this tune.
Amos had been asked to marry at the time, with this song being the expression of her trepidation, by the very guy who recorded and mixed this song; Mark Hawley (they married in February of the same year). It was one of the first of her singles recorded in her home studio in Cornwall. So, if this song comes from a very personal place, it’s understandable. It was created at home. But, what the song also does is to tell the stories of women in general, at least in the West, who are asked to measure up to mythical expectations of marriage, while also fighting with the self-doubt that goes along with it.
While prayers for Jackie’s strength are rendered up in this song, one gets the impression that the one praying is praying for herself.
Make sure to check out Tori Amos’ official site!