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Thursday, February 17, 2011

February 17, 2011: Times Like These

Each of the twelve songs on Tori Amos’s debut album Little Earthquakes (1992) feels in its own way intensely personal and intimate, a profoundly revealing glimpse into Amos’s experiences and identity and psyche; by the time we’ve gotten through the ninth song, “Mother,” it feels as if we have likely exhausted such personal topics, and indeed two of the final three songs, “Tear in Your Hand” and “Little Earthquakes,” are more conventional (if still lyrically complex and intense and musically rich and beautiful) accounts of romantic relationships endangered or ending. But those conventional tracks are sandwiched around, and greatly enhance by contrast the shocking power of, the album’s, the decade’s, perhaps the millenium’s most raw and intimate song: “Me and a Gun,” a track in which Amos sings, with no musical accompaniment, about the night in her twenty-first year when she was raped.
Trying to write about the track’s power feels roughly like trying to paint a nightingale’s song; the first link below is a live version which speaks for itself much better than I ever could. But if I had to pinpoint what makes the song as thoroughly impressive as it is, if I were forced to choose one among the many striking and powerful elements—the a cappella performance, the imaginary conversation with Jesus, the nonsensical and yet entirely logical refrain about Barbados—I think I would go with a three-line sequence from early in the second verse: “And I sang ‘Holy holy’ as he buttoned down his pants / You can laugh it’s kind of funny/ Things you think at times like these.” The casual but precise use of detail, the candor and black humor (although I can’t imagine that anyone not a psychopath ever takes Amos up about the laughing), the effortless inclusion of audience in a moment that could feel (at least to a man who has never been raped) so distant, all elements that are encapsulated here and present throughout. But what gets me every time is that final phrase, “at times like these.” There should be no times like these; there most definitely should not be a sufficient quantity of times like these that the phrase has any meaning; and yet the phrasing makes clear that Amos believes, that she knows and knows that far too many members of her audience will likewise know, that times like these are all too common and even familiar.
Today’s post was supposed to be the one on the two overlooked films about immigration, and that’ll be tomorrow’s. But the stories about the rape of CBS News correspondent Lara Logan in Egypt (where she was covering the unfolding events there), and even more exactly a very powerful blog post (the second link below) written in response both to that rape and to a few of the most egregious American media takes on it, have been on my mind for the last couple of days, and it didn’t feel right to AmericanStudy about anything else before engaging with this topic. While men of course can (as the blog post rightly and impressively notes) themselves be the victims of rape—prison rape, for example, is a hugely undernarrated national problem, and a corollary to the invisibility of that population and its horrors about which I blogged long ago—it’s nonetheless the case that I feel even less sure analyzing this topic than I did with the experiences of extreme poverty in yesterday’s post. But if I know anything about it, it’s that, to echo and second something said more eloquently in the linked blog post, Logan’s rape should not and cannot be simply attributed to the situation or the culture in Egypt—Amos’s song is far too clear a reminder that times like these can and do happen here too.
It is in fact precisely Amos’s clarity, her candor and intimacy and raw openness about what was done to her and what it felt like and meant and continues to mean years later, that makes her song so significant. Just last year the accuser in the Ben Roethlisberger rape case retracted her accusation rather than press charges, identify herself publicly, and testify in open court. Perhaps Big Ben was innocent, of course; but perhaps the level of silence and even stigma that still accompany the status of rape victim were the deciding factors in her decision. In any case, it’s in times like these that we need Amos’s song more than ever. More tomorrow, that belated film post.
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      An amazing live performance of “Me”:
3)      OPEN: If ever there were a topic where I know many readers will have links to add, this has to be it. Bring ‘em, and I’ll add ‘em.

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