How Tori Amos’s Boys for Pele rewrote pop by daring to be ugly

In an extract from her new book in the 33 1/3 series, Amy Gentry explains why its rejection of the ideals of feminine and musical beauty are crucial to an understanding of Amos’s 1996 album

Women and girls have a particularly complicated relationship with disgust. We learn at an early age to be grossed out by our bodies, with their ungainly fat deposits and nipples guaranteed to be the wrong size and slimy, bleeding, wrinkly holes. Later on, we learn that the things we like are also disgusting because we like them. These things include, but are not limited to: unicorns, romance novels, the colour pink, Tori Amos.

My first piece of published criticism was a pan of Boys for Pele for my high school paper, the Stratford Oracle. In my review, cleverly titled “Why can’t Tori sing?” to reflect the fact that I knew about the Y Kant Tori Read bootleg even if I couldn’t afford to buy it, I conceded “a developing sense of depth” in Amos’s instrumentals, but lamented that her vocals too often tended toward a “breathy, weightless, shallow whine”. I called the lyrics “low-quality gibberish” and the album as a whole “self-indulgent” and rounded out my review with an arch lip-curl of condescension: “If only Tori had been guided by flow, and not overflow, the album would not have tasted so distinctly and sadly of might-have-been.”

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