Welcome to Sunny Florida

On the 20th anniversary of Boys for Pele, remembering listening to it in the Sunshine State.

I have this theory that the music of Tori Amos is a lot like the state of Florida: insiders understand and love something fundamental about both, while outsiders dismiss them as excessive and crazy. I happen to love both Amos’s music and the Sunshine State — you could say I lived in both in my teens and still like to frequently visit — but I think haters may also appreciate the parallels.

Like Florida, you wouldn’t call Amos’s music restrained. She’s a rambling virtuoso, but an uncomfortably feminine one. (It seemed like every piece written about her, for years, sexualized the way she sits on her piano bench as she plays.) If you enjoy Amos’s music, then you are along for a sensory, multilayered experience, but if you don’t, I could see how listening to her songs can be distracting.

Everything about Florida feels a little unchecked too. Its tropical climate is hospitable, so everything that decides to stay grows wild — and this means that anything that arrives in Florida demanding unlimited resources ends up in full flower. Nonnative plants take root and spread quickly: dark pink blankets of bougainvillea cascade in every yard. The tall, straight trunks of the Melaleuca quinquenervia, or “punk tree,” have spread out over hundreds of thousands of Everglades acreage, displacing those species who evolves to live in the treeless “river of grass.” And foreign fauna are no different: every fat cat, from the pet python to the law-evading white-collared Finnish tax criminal, grows fatter in Florida. The Sunshine State is neither for apologists nor the grateful. It’s for takers.

Like Florida, Tori Amos’s albums, in their ambition, instrumentation, and persona, somehow feel huge and selfish, unconcerned with your opinion. And she knows this connection, too: in 2004, she released a DVD of a concert she filmed in West Palm Beach called Welcome to Sunny Florida (a concert which I attended, watching rapt from the nosebleeds with my friend Kyle.) Amos is also still a Florida homeowner, another nonnative transplant that found the subtropic welcoming; her part-time residence is in the affluent peninsula town of Sewall’s Point, a few miles from where I grew up. (Also nearby: Jupiter, Florida.)

Boys for Pele — seen as Amos’s first departure from the mainstream, her first, self-produced foray into the truly weird — is my favorite. It’s extra long, even for an Amos album: she cut it down from 35 songs to a modest 18 (or 19, if you count “Beauty Queen.”) Musically, it’s adventurous, incorporating a veritable misfit orchestra: strings, church bells, a sousaphone, bagpipes, a gospel choir. Lyrically, it explores the roles, responsibilities, and dirty, dirty work of women across the expansive smudge of patriarchy’s horizon. It was recorded largely in a box inside of a church in Ireland, which in part explains its sound.

But OK, I’m not a music writer, and a lot has already been written about the sounds of this ambitious album. I am, however, interested in the ways it appears side by side with my beloved Florida. I know that some of my reasons are mine only — I was a teen in Palm Beach County when I found Amos. She toured a lot in Florida so I got to see her play there several times during those years when music was an all-encompassing emotion rather than a rational concept, so I also have a feelings-based attachment. But there are other parallels too, in the criticism of the work itself. Skeptics of Amos’s work use a grab bag of adjectives that you could also apply to the Sunshine State: it’s “enigmatic,” it’s “self-indulgent.” Another notable thread I only noted when I revisited reviews of this album: because of the boy sacrifices to volcano goddess Pele that the title envokes, reviews of this album tend to also touch upon the subject of murder, specifically the murder of men — something the news in Florida, home of Aileen Wuornos, also knows about.

But I return to the bedroom of my teenage years when I think about Boys for Pele. I received a tape of it from a friend of my mother’s. I don’t think I ever met this friend, but at some point she passed along to our house two relics that became very important to me: a basket of cassette tapes, and a Hefty bag full of size XS clothes, some of which looked suspiciously like clubwear. I rifled through the clothes immediately, keeping what I could fit into, and what fit into my secondhand graveyard of a wardrobe (memorably a minidress I wore to death with my combat boots, and a too-snug white tank top.) But it took me much longer to get into the tapes.

The image on the tape cover of BFP is a truncated version of the CD’s photo — the CD’s cover image has atmosphere and negative space; it leads you to speculate (what up with the roosters hanging upside-down on the left? etc.) But the tape cover is all Tori. The sides are cut off, so she’s boxed in, leaning onto the right edge of the frame like it’s a doorway, entirely muddy legs and shotgun.

I hated (still hate) listening for the first time to music that other people could hear, so I put the tape into my cassette player, laid down on my bed, and pressed play. The first songs are all piano and words: there’s “Beauty Queen,” a lull of a piano track with a repetitive vocal melody that leads into the beautiful, structured “Horses.” Then, “Father Lucifer,” the layered vocals of whose bridge, I later learned, belied some of my own teenage anxieties: “Girls who eat pizza and never gain weight.” But on that first listen, it wasn’t “Father Lucifer” that made me sit up, startled. It was “Professional Widow.” That. Motherfucking. Harpsichord. The suddenness of it. The unattractive, nasal note on which the lyrics begin, and their grossness: “Slag pit.” The unnerving tone when she pronounces “It better be big, boy.” The song was so unafraid to be ugly that it blew my mind. (It was also the first time I had paid attention to a female artist using the word “boy” rudely and dismissively.)

I listened to “Professional Widow” all the way to its end (“Give me peace, love, and a hard cock”), and then I sat there spooked. Then I broke my resolve to listen to the album all the way through, and rewound, and listened again. Then I finished the album, in my darkened bedroom, alone, and was forever changed. (Amos edited “Professional Widow” out of subsequent US releases of the album, and replaced it with a jarring house music remix that tore up the dance music charts. She also included the remix onto her greatest hits album. I skip it every time on both records; the song was already perfect to me that first time.)

“The real problem with liking Tori Amos is that it’s just too girly,” writes Sady Doyle in her wonderful 2011 essay about Tori-as-forever-uncool. True — Amos rose to fame by way of writing songs that were, at their most essential, about the internal lives and bedroom worlds of teenage girls: in her songs, there are girls with lunchboxes worshipping David Cassidy; there are girls in Easter dresses questioning the authority of Bible passages. There are girls with feelings and doubts. So it’s fitting that I discovered the album in my teenage bedroom.

Even more so that my bedroom was in Florida. The American media has a strong distrust of the internal lives of teenage girls — something that Amos and Florida also have in common. So, is Florida then girly by association? It’s a place of feverish growth, heat, and damp. It’s absurdly, exaggeratedly fruitful. Its national park is a wetland. It’s also a politically weird edge case of a state whose opinions we, on the national level, tend to distrust. Amos seems to be getting her due lately as a brilliant, nuanced songwriter, but Florida is still America’s crazy bitch, and Amos, to me, will always be her soundtrack.