The word shocking has become pretty meaningless, reduced to being just another hyperbolic adjective tossed into headlines to continue the churn of outrage that fuels the bulk of Internet content. Is it really shocking that Kim Kardashian would take her clothes off for a magazine cover, especially considering she initially staked her fame on a sex tape? Is Miley Cyrus miming masturbation really shocking? Is any takedown by Jon Stewart or John Oliver all that jaw-dropping? Effective, sure, but not really the type of thing that inspires collective gasps.
We need a new word, then, to describe something that genuinely takes us aback, because “shocking” no longer seems like a strong enough sentiment for Tori Amos’ “Me and a Gun.” The track, performed entirely a cappella, finds Amos recounting her terrifying rape, which she suffered in Los Angeles when she was 21 years old. It’s a raw, direct set of lyrics that run down the ordeal and centers around a strange thought that Amos had while she was being attacked, which she notes in the song. “It’s kind of funny, things you think at times like these/ Like, ‘I haven’t seen Barbados, so I must get out of this.'” Without any musical accompaniment, the words are all they have, and every one cuts like the knife that Amos’ assailant employed.
“Me and a Gun” was actually intended to be the lead single from Amos’ solo debut Little Earthquakes, which arrived in 1992 and, along with 1994’s Under the Pink, just got a deluxe reissue. It turned out to be too scary for radio, though modern rock stations did end up turning the b-side “Silent All These Years” into Amos’ first radio hit. “Me and a Gun” is the strangest, most bracing, most shocking moment on an album full of them, and even 23 years later, the impact of Little Earthquakes hasn’t been blunted. It was a miraculous statement of purpose from an artist who had already washed out of the music world.
In 1988, Amos put out her first album as the centerpiece of a band called Y Kant Tori Read, which was met with received frigidly both critically and commercially. Though Amos has essentially wiped Y Kant Tori Read from existence (CD copies of their self-titled album can go for as much as $800 on the collectors’ market), there are a handful of songs that still show up in her live shows (most notably the single “Cool On Your Island”).
So when Little Earthquakes arrived, Amos was double the underdog: First because she had already been tainted by Y Kant Tori Read, and second because her new music had no relationship to anything else that was getting played at the time, especially on mainstream modern rock radio. (Consider this: When Little Earthquakes arrived in January 1992, the number one alternative song in the country was U2’s “Mysterious Ways,” as splashy an arena-pleaser as there was on the rock dial.) But in reality, Amos had arrived at exactly the right time, as the same week Little Earthquakes hit stores, Nirvana’s Nevermind toppled Michael Jackson’s Dangerous to take the top position on the chart as the top-selling album in the land. Sonically, the two albums have no real relationship: one is a glossy primal scream, the other a piano-based blast of pagan poetry. Still, rock audiences were shifting allegiances and becoming more open-minded, embracing the types of naked confessions that Amos was doling out. (That circle was finally closed when Amos covered Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirt” as the b-side to “Crucify” and transformed it into a cabaret meditation about identity.)
Still, even though Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain was openly talking about the mostly unspoken of evils of rape and misogyny in his interviews, nothing was going to properly prepare the world for “Me and a Gun.” It’s raw immediacy was stunning, enlightening, thrilling, and terrifying, and in the 24 years since it was first presented as single, it hasn’t lost any of its punch.
The rest of Little Earthquakes holds up remarkably well. Amos got her first real taste of mainstream acceptance with the single “Crucify,” which rocks pretty hard thanks to Amos’ commitment to rhythmic intensity generated both by the thumping drums (provided by Brazilian percussion guru Paulinho da Costa, who also hit things on Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Madonna’s True Blue) and her piano. Her burned-in sense of pop is always prevalent, most often on the more playful tunes like “Leather” and “Happy Phantom,” but it also comes through in the more confessional songs like “Silent All These Years” and “China.”
She fares even better on her second album Under the Pink, which is also getting a deluxe re-issue. A classic follow-up, Under the Pink both hits harder (the chart-topping minor-key funk rocker “God,” the Trent Reznor-assisted growler “Past the Mission,” the arena-pleasing single “Cornflake Girl”) and twists into far weirder shapes (the Bjork-esque twinkles of “Bells for Her,” the epic swoop of “Yes, Anastasia,” the borderline-blasphemous masturbation fantasy “Icicle”).
Perhaps nobody had a better ’90s than Tori Amos, who followed Under the Pink with three more exceptional albums—1996’s Boys For Pele, 1998’s From the Choirgirl Hotel, and 1999’s To Venus and Back—that flirted with mainstream attention and continued to find Amos darting wildly back and forth between her stately classical training and her urge to bang her head. (The gleefully guitar-centric From the Choirgirl Hotel is particularly intense in that regard, and thus a personal favorite.) The last few years have been less kind both critically and commercially, though as the reissues of Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink prove, her legacy is set. There was never anything like “Me and a Gun,” and there never will be again.