| Arts & Culture
Music Thirty Years After ‘Little Earthquakes,’ I’m Finally Ready for Tori Amos
With reproductive rights under threat in the US, I returned to an artist unafraid of telling her truth.
I was nervous in the weeks leading up to Tori Amos’s Austin, Texas, concert. What if she didn’t play anything from Little Earthquakes ? Although it’s still one of her best-selling albums, with more than 2 million copies sold in the US alone, it has been thirty years since its release. One could hardly blame her for wanting to move on.
But I could not move on without hearing at least a few moments of those songs live. I had recently rediscovered the album and its twelve transformative tracks, looking for something that had eluded me when I listened to Amos as a teen: healing. This wasn’t just a concert. It was a pilgrimage, three decades in the making. One that began in the 1990s, when I was growing up as a young woman in the South.
“Please, God, I cannot be pregnant,” I repeated as I pulled into the Walgreens parking lot early one Saturday morning. I’d been uttering the phrase for days, cycling from incredulity to dread. Now, with my period more than a week late, it was a desperate plea to God—the only hope I had left.
I cannot be pregnant.
By seventeen, I had become very good at compartmentalizing my so-called youthful transgressions. I drank and smoked cigarettes when I was out with my friends, but I was still an honor-roll student who spent much of my free time doing volunteer work. I snuck out on occasion and sometimes lied about where I was, but I still went to church on Sunday, and my friend and I once tithed the earnings we made from throwing a party at a local hotel. I wasn’t perfect, but I still wanted to be seen as good.
I had recently started having sex with my boyfriend. Our mutual belief in God was one of the tenets of our relationship, but raging hormones and young love are a powerful combination, even (or perhaps especially) for teenagers growing up in the Bible Belt. We rationalized sex before marriage by believing we would someday marry. My commitment to compartmentalizing also meant I didn’t ask my mom about going on birth control; I knew how that would be received. He would just pull out instead. The physical evidence of our sin would never enter my body.
I wasn’t perfect, but I still wanted to be seen as good.
But there I was, a cautionary tale of premature ejaculation, sneakily trying to buy a pregnancy test the day after junior prom. I picked up a large bottle of sunscreen and used it to cover the test as I rushed to the checkout line. Once I got home, I sprinted to the upstairs bathroom, locked the door, and began studying the instructions. I had an AP US History exam in a few weeks, but peeing on this stick had become the most significant test I’d take in high school.
I cannot be pregnant.
And yet, I was.
I ran to my room, test in hand, and collapsed on the floor. I wasn’t ready to face my mom. I decided to call my boyfriend first and turned on some music—my proven technique for claiming extra privacy. On the first page of my black leather CD case, which contained my newly alphabetized collection, was Tori Amos’s Little Earthquakes . I let the disk rotate into place and turned the volume up.
Every finger in the room is pointing at me.
I wanna spit in their faces, then I get afraid of what that could bring.
I got a bowling ball in my stomach, I got a desert in my mouth.
Figures that my courage would choose to sell out now.
I’d heard these lyrics before, of course, but had never related to them in such a profound way. In recent years, I’d designed my life precisely so that no fingers would be pointed at me, at least not publicly. I listened to “Crucify” for a few more seconds before picking up the phone.
When Little Earthquakes debuted in January 1992, critic Josef Woodard described it in Rolling Stone as “an often pretty, subtly progressive song cycle that reflects darkly on sexual alienation and personal struggles.” At that time, I was a round-faced sixth grader at a Methodist elementary school in Memphis, Tennessee, where I also attended church multiple times a week. Dark reflections on sexual alienations were not yet on my radar.
By the following year, however, my life had changed drastically. My parents’ marriage of seventeen years had ended and my father was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after a severe (and terrifying) manic episode during which he developed a religious fervor so extreme, authorities found him hiding in a stranger’s barn on Christmas believing he was, in fact, the baby Jesus.
Everything I thought I knew about my life—stable family, pillars of the church community, normal —was suddenly gone. We no longer fit the mold of what a “nice Christian family” looked like, and as many of our friends started to fade into the background, I began to realize our facade had mattered more than the reality that existed behind it. This fracture, coupled with the hormonal trappings of teenage angst and rebellion, left me curious about the world beyond Christianity’s walls. That curiosity led me to the grunge music beginning to dominate pop culture in the nineties. It also, eventually, led me to Tori Amos.
I didn’t hear Little Earthquakes until a couple years after it came out, when Amos’s follow-up album, Under the Pink , was released. I was fascinated, if not a little bit horrified, to learn that Amos also grew up in the church, the daughter of a Methodist minister in Maryland. She’s described this upbringing as “extreme,” telling The Guardian in 2012 that it was mandatory she attend church four times a week. When Amos pushed back against her grandmother’s belief to “Give your body to the man you marry and your soul to God,” she was sent to the corner to have the Bible read to her for an hour.
Amos was a child piano prodigy who, at age five, was the youngest person ever admitted to the Peabody Institute, an acclaimed conservatory for music and dance. She was dismissed from the conservatory six years later for, in her view, an interest in rock music and a disdain for having to read sheet music. But she continued to play. As the story goes, her father (in his clerical collar) became her first manager, taking her to all the piano bars and hotel lounges in the Washington, DC, area, where she was hired to play show tunes and piano standards. Eventually, Amos’s work led her to Los Angeles. There, she told Entertainment Weekly , she “started experiencing other spiritualities and ways of worshipping, going to Joshua Tree, opening myself to the nature, spirits, and energy of Mother Earth.”
But while Amos was finding Jesus not in church but rather “under a tree,” I wasn’t ready to let go. With so much change happening in my life, I relied on my faith to make sense of it all, even as I was beginning to push the boundaries of its doctrines. This may be why, at first, I had to hold Amos and her music at a distance. It was simply too uncomfortable for me to embrace lyrics like “I want to smash the faces / Of those beautiful boys / Those Christian boys / So you can make me cum / That doesn’t make you Jesus.”
That is not to say that I rejected Amos. I bought her albums, watched her videos on MTV, and saw her in concert once in high school—though I think I may have left early to make a weeknight curfew. I was a fan, but I could not commit fully to that fandom the way I had with other female musicians: first Amy Grant, then Debbie Gibson, and, for most of my teens, Sarah McLachlan. Those women, though undeniably talented, were also safe . They were “good” female idols to have.
Amos, on the other hand, was anything but. Straddling her piano bench with her legs open toward the audience, she sang unabashedly about sex, sexual assault, religion, and female identity. Her defiance was radical; it captivated me as much as it made me squirm. I had never seen a woman seem so unafraid of how she would be perceived for telling her truth, and I simply could not square that with my deeply rooted desire to be perceived as good.
Those women, though talented, were also safe. Tori Amos was anything but.
And then, I got pregnant. I knew what the church would have me do. I also knew that less than half of teen mothers finish high school and fewer than 2 percent finish college by age thirty. For someone who started touring colleges in the eighth grade, this reality was devastating. My mother, an adoptee, told me adoption would be too painful a choice for her. I knew I wasn’t ready to be a mom.
There were no “good” choices, but there was one that was best for me.
In the twenty-five years since I had my abortion, I have keenly suffered the cruelty espoused by the antiabortion community each time the topic of reproductive rights comes up in the news (or on my Facebook feed). I’ve heard their cries about murder; been held hostage at stoplights in front of the white-cross memorials certain churches put out for “aborted babies”; and, perhaps most painfully, felt the sting of my own father when, during another manic episode, he publicly stated that women who have abortions should be jailed. But until recently, it had been decades since I’d lived in a state that enacted hostile legislation over a pregnant person’s right to choose.
Then, in March 2021—almost a year to the day after my family and I moved from California to Texas—Senate Bill 8, otherwise known as the “Texas Heartbeat Act,” was introduced. Effectively banning all abortions after six weeks, the bill also calls for the unprecedented enforcement of the law by private citizens, allowing them to sue anyone providing an abortion or “aiding and abetting” in one after that time. It is cruel. As Alexis McGill Johnson, president of Planned Parenthood, has noted, the cruelty is the point .
In the months since the bill was approved, went into effect , and then wasn’t struck down by the Supreme Court , I’ve been preparing myself for what the GOP has been carefully plotting for decades: the end of Roe v. Wade . In that time, I found my way back to Tori.
I was alone in my car this past February when a DJ announced Amos would be coming to Austin in support of her new album. I hadn’t listened to her in years, save for the occasional time I heard “Cornflake Girl” on the radio, but this news prompted me to cue up Little Earthquakes on my Bluetooth. I rolled down the windows and turned up the volume. I realized where I’d once kept this music at arm’s length, it now pulled me in soul first. The thirty-year-old lyrics were astoundingly germane to my current state—one in which I sought to move beyond the pain of my past so that I could take more meaningful action against the war being waged on our bodies. By the time I got to the third track, “Silent All These Years,” I felt roused by Amos’s intimate intensity as she sang:
But what if I’m a mermaid
In these jeans of yours with her name still on it
Hey, but I don’t care ’cause sometimes,
I said sometimes I hear my voice
I hear my voice, I hear my voice, and it’s been here
Silent all these years.
I wouldn’t say that I’ve necessarily been silent about my decision or my pro-choice stance. But I’ve been measured, cautious. I’ve carried too much hurt, and I’ve cared too much about those who hurt me. And what I realized in hearing those lyrics is that I needed to make my own voice louder than the voices of those who would judge me.
I no longer care what anyone thinks about my abortion. Much like Amos, I found spirituality beyond the walls of the church, where God can’t be used as a pawn to gain political power. I am also now a mother to two wild and beautiful humans more magical and challenging than I could have ever imagined. I am now aware of the peace and power that come from celebrating my sexuality instead of feeling ashamed of it.
The night of Amos’s concert, I had a bird’s-eye view of the crowd from our mezzanine seats. I watched as people clutched their hearts, deep in conversation with those around them. I got the sense I wasn’t the only person on a pilgrimage.
When she took the stage, her signature red hair shining under the spotlight, a group of young men in the front row rose to their feet, dancing and pounding on the stage. Their euphoria was contagious. The healing was already happening.
Fourteen songs later, Amos exited without playing anything from Little Earthquakes . But it was okay. More than okay, in fact, because the healing didn’t come from what Amos played, but how she did it. Bearing witness to her genius while receiving the abundance of love she bestowed upon her fans felt, in a word, divine.
And then came the encore. I knew the song before she reappeared. Her musicians started playing an extended version of the unmistakably eerie, seemingly supernatural opening chords of “Precious Things” as the entire audience screamed in anticipation. When she got to those lyrics about the boys who thought they were Jesus for making her cum, I remembered how uncomfortable they used to make me. This time, along with everyone else in the crowd, I sang them at the top of my lungs.