Sunday, November 20, 2016

Tori Amos's "God" to an #AtheistEar

Tori Amos made a huge impression on me with her debut album Little Earthquakes in 1992. There were a lot of challenging ideas in her songs, and she often used the ideas and imagery from her religious upbringing to address topics like rape and depression in ways that were unheard of at the time - especially from a pretty pop piano player.

In the years since, Tori has earned a reputation for being more mystical and less grounded. She still addresses deep topics, and she can still be shocking, but as she and her fans have matured, her work has been more nuanced, and (to her critics) confused and un-directed. Some of this is no doubt due to the backlash she received from those who did not appreciate her attacking their points of view, and her attempting to be more inclusive and less divisive.

But among her most direct jabs at the God she grew up with is this song from her 1994 album, Under the Pink. Take a look at this candidate for Atheist Anthem:

(Lyrics available here.)

The bulk of the song is a repeated rebuke:

God, sometimes you just don't come through
God, sometimes you just don't come through, babe
Do you need a woman to look after you?
God, sometimes you just don't come through

The verses don't really add a whole lot to that, unless you project more meaning onto Amos's meandering lyric than I do:

Well, tell me you're crazy, maybe then I'll understand
(Come down and tell me what you mean now)
You got your nine, nine iron in the back seat just in case
(Inside, inside, what you doing?)
Well, heard you've gone south, well, babe, you love your new four wheel
(Hey, what do you know? What do you know?)
I got to find, find, find why you always go when the wind blows

Meandering or not, her point seems to be that the omnipotent God she was raised to revere doesn't seem to perform any better than random chance. Or, if he does exist, maybe he's busy playing golf in the Bible belt?

The satire here is more playful and less intense than her breakthrough hit, Crucify, which was really less about religion and more about breaking free of the baggage that we carry trying to please others. In neither case does she outright abandon the notion of God - that ineffable Being that permeates everything. Instead, she seems to reject only the interpretations and versions of God that are forced on people through organized religion. And that, my friends, is a very different thing.

Personally, I don't begrudge people their personal journey to find whatever it is they think they're looking for. I'm not going to mock Tori here for her leanings towards whatever spiritual  fulfillment she might have found. But when it came time for me to admit that the version of God I was raised to believe in didn't exist, I ultimately couldn't find anything else to replace it.

That was scary.

"My magic feather helps me fly...
not physics!"
This song helped ease that fear a bit, by making light of the damaging legendary being that I had been raised to fear. To some extent, that line - "why you always go when the wind blows" - helped me realize that the fear I felt was going to be there regardless of what I believed. Pretending that there was Something would not make the vast Nothing of the universe any less vast, or any less empty. I was using God the way Dumbo used his "magic feather" to fly; he didn't need it, because his ears could generate lift. But he needed something to give him the confidence to leap.

Once I realized that a "Magic Feather" was all the idea of God was to me - indeed, all it is to most people - I found that I was okay without it.

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