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.
Here’s a clip of piano-centric singer-songwriter Tori Amos with a powerful track off of an equally powerful album Under the Pinkreleased in 1994.
I don’t think there is a more delicate, or more quietly smouldering track having to do with religion and masturbation out there. I guess maybe there aren’t many in that particular genre to which it might be compared. But, the point is, Amos is dealing with more than just naughtiness here, and is certainly not indulging in an opportunity to shock. And I think that’s where it succeeds; by taking the issue seriously.
Further, this song is not about female empowerment either, which I think is a common error when interpreting work by any woman who happens to be singing about sex. No. “Icicle” is about empowerment in general, particularly for those in a subculture which frowns upon that sort of thing.
The scene is a bedroom, with a lone female occupant listening to the sounds of a bible study and worship below her, while she conducts a little bit of worship of her own. The meat of the song lies in the contrast between the two solitudes of spirit and the flesh, between ideas of spiritual ecstasy and the very experiential ecstasy to be found in one’s own body. Sure, I guess there is a level of mischief going on here with the centerpiece lines in the song leaving nothing to wonder about:
and when my hand touches myself
I can finally rest my head
and when they say take from his body
I think I’ll take from mine instead
In many religious circles, the body is a thing which is not to be trusted. It is a part of you that is little more than an impediment to your spiritual growth, needing to be reined in at all times, and needing to be denied almost constantly when it comes to matters of carnality. This song is about the secret moments in the life of a member of this kind of subculture, which Amos was at one time. And, it’s about a comparison between one thing and another.
This is the sound of the narrator of the song letting go of herself, even if it is for an instant, and giving in to the forces which predate any ideas of spiritual loftiness, or ideas of spirit at all. And with the act, she gains the perspective she needs on what is occuring downstairs. For her, the ice that keeps her suspended in expectation (“Greeting the monster in our Easter dresses/Father says bow your head like the Good Book says”) is beginning to melt.
To me, this song is an indictment against the nature of denial in many senses of the word. First, it’s against the act of denying one’s self the joy of loving one’s own body. And second, it’s against the kind of denial it takes to reach the point where this first type of denial becomes a way of life. In a few short verses, Amos mines this for all it’s worth. Of course it helps that this music behind the words is so hypnotic, atmospheric, and so full of tension.
Amos has other more prominent tunes, and she’s gone on to create more vivid explorations of the healing power of sex (‘Raspberry Swirl’ from the album From the Choirgirl Hotelis only one example…). But this one is one of her most effective just because it strikes such a sharp contrast from the all-encompassing drive of biology and the ultimate futility of systems which are meant to deny it.