Resistance: A Songwriter’s Story of Hope, Change, and Courage by Tori Amos
Reviewed for Riffs by Jenny Cubin
On the first page of Resistance: A Songwriter’s Story of Hope, Change, and Courage, Tori Amos tells her reader: ‘we are living in a moment of crisis. Of unprecedented crises’ (1).
Reading Resistance in a world ravaged and beleaguered by a global pandemic, ‘unprecedented crises’ feels both like an understatement and recurring sentiment of the past eighteen months, but it is worth nothing that Tori announced this, her second book, towards the end of 2019 with a publication date of May 2020. Resistance was composed in a pre-pandemic world and consequently, attends to global issues that were extant before we were gripped by COVID-19. Climate change, gender inequality, gun violence, war, violence against women, racism, transphobia, homophobia and hate crime culminate in Resistance in a ‘Now or Never’ moment and are engaged as the consequences of the ‘dark forces’ (1) that seek to silence, divide and control. Tori is concerned about power in society; where power is concentrated, who carries it and how it is weaponized. Her motivation for writing Resistance is made clear from the outset: she is seeking productive ways to resist and defy the political systems that produce and sustain inequalities. For Tori, the answer lies in artistic creation, and she weaves multiple narratives to advocate for the vital role art plays in strategies of resistance and recovery.
The first and most striking way Tori mobilizes the central thesis of Resistance is through the book’s style and structure. Resistance combines memoir, autobiography, social and political commentary, as well as guidebook to aspiring artists, to create an auto-ethnographic manifesto on the possibilities of art and the realities of the artist’s developmental journey. The passages alternate between reflections and recollections of both a personal and political nature and are divided by italicised transcriptions of song lyrics. The songs, chosen by Tori, create an autobiographical playlist providing additional context and commentary for both subject specific discussions and the overarching agenda of Resistance. Tori also includes press cuttings from early in her career and photographs from her family albums, which supports and further contextualises the intersecting narratives. The more time I spent with the book and its range of incorporated media, the more its idiosyncratic presentation reminded me of Tori’s musical style: contrapuntal textures, complex voice-leading, unusual phrase design, manipulation of song form, references to multiple genres, experimental instrumentation and arrangements are characteristics identifiable in the structure and style adopted in Resistance. The combination of these different elements alongside the swift movement between different temporal spaces — particularly the oscillation between public and private, and personal and political spaces — creates a multilayered text that resists linear narrative progression and textually embeds the key messages of Resistance.
The centralization of memory and the recollection of lived experience gives readers of Resistance a way to further engage with the book’s structure. Memories can be unstable; they are affected by multiple variables — including but not limited to time, place, context, physiology, and social and cultural factors — and can return to the forefront of our minds when we least expect, often having laid dormant for extensive periods of time. Recalling memories does not always happen chronologically and this is realized in the way Tori writes Resistance; the complexity of structure represents the complex processes that underpin the formation and recollection of particular moments, the perception of those moments, associated experiences and the lifeworld in which the memory was formed.1 Recollection and reflection are vital in the way Tori expresses these processes, and I consider the practice she adopts a form of memory-work.2 Whether she is delving into her song history, reflecting on the creative process, sharing significant life events, or recalling major political moments since the 1970s, Tori draws on memory and the practice of remembrance to ‘provide a window into, or a bridge between, the personal and political’ (Fraser & Michell, 324). She asks, ‘How did we get here?’ (7) and follows a ‘narrative’s thread to its tangled past’ with the hope of recovering a better future (110). Memory retrieval is framed as its own strategy of resistance, and as the primary vehicle for this expression in Resistance, song writing is presented as a form of political engagement capable of demonstrating the impact of dominant power structures upon individual and collective lives.
The relationship between the personal and political is vital in Resistance, and as I was reading, my mind kept returning to the evocative phrase, ‘the personal is political.’ In three words, this phrase brings to life decades of feminist struggle, and I found myself thinking beyond the coining of the phrase to earlier examples of testimonial activism, where women, for example Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells, used their voices, stories and experiences to interrogate and critique socio-political structures. Tori quotes this phrase when writing about the song history of “Silent All These Years” released on the Me and a Gun EP in October 1991. At this time, she was battling ‘intersecting artistic and personal failures’ and “Silent” marked her emergence from a personal period of darkness, but the release of the EP also corresponded with Anita Hill’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee where she gave voice to ‘being a survivor of sexual harassment’ (118). “Silent” and “Me and a Gun” similarly gave voice to Tori’s personal experiences, but they also spoke to Hill and her refusal to be silenced. This is just one example where Tori shows the complex interconnections of personal and political spheres. Others include: the murder of John Lennon, the September 11 attacks, the Trump presidency, female genital mutilation, and the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford in 2018. Interspersed between these recollections are discussions of people Tori has met whilst touring, people who have endured significant losses and trauma and have felt compelled — having found comfort and courage in her music — to share their stories.
During her recollection of “Silent” and Anita Hill’s testimony, Tori warns about powers that seek to claim experience and narratives from others; ‘perpetrators, bullies, and predators’ who engage in the ‘nefarious act of silencing’ (117). Acts of silencing are prevalent in patriarchal power structures and have been challenged in various ways by feminist and women’s liberation movements but silencing, as a discourse of power, also brings the complexity of ‘the personal is political’ slogan to the fore. The politicization of experience is connected to a troubled dynamic between the privileged and marginalized in feminist history, a dynamic which continues today (Phipps, 2016). Resistance prompted me to think about the ways experience is commodified in political strategies that seek to promote specific ideologies, which often translates to the exclusion and marginalization of specific groups.3 Just as common is the vocalization of experience on behalf of societal ‘Others’ by those in positions of socio-economic privilege — another form of the commodification of experience. I wondered if this latter dynamic was present in Resistance, particularly in passages where Tori writes about how the stories she has heard have planted the seeds of future songs. This was a troubling thought and is one I reflected upon for some time, but throughout Resistance, Tori demonstrates an awareness of the power dynamic that is initiated when a moment of trust is woven into song, and she acknowledges the risk of projection (32). She treats songs as historical documents – records of people and their experiences committed to memory so they cannot be erased from history. Listening underpins this process and is a practice Tori evokes to encourage a relationship of understanding, empathy, commonality, and collectivity: ‘I have found there is no greater value than hearing about someone’s own experience’ (171). Recounting the experiences of others both in song and in the pages of Resistance, does not, I realized, initiate a process of appropriation. They are recalled as acts of defiance and remembrance, spoken to show the impact of trauma, and to form points of connection and empathy. That the courage to speak out often follows an intimate relationship with a song testifies to the importance of music in confronting and overcoming trauma (125-127).
As Resistance progresses, the act of sharing as the foundation for collective expression becomes central to Tori’s understanding on the role of the artist in forging strategies of resistance. She considers the work of documenting through song a practice of ‘bearing witness’ (74). Whilst ‘bearing witness’ permeates all aspects of Tori’s approach to politics and song writing, she addresses the idea directly through her recollections of being on the road after 9/11; of seeing and hearing previously opposed groups finding solace in collective mourning. At this time, Tori was about to embark on the Strange Little Girls tour and was encouraged to cancel her concerts as a mark of respect. She did not. People were seeking a safe space to ‘exchange information’, to process, ask questions and initiate healing through engaging shared loss (78). She heard this as she listened to people sharing their experiences and created the space that was needed. The feeling of intimate exchange owes much to Tori’s non-hierarchical approach to songwriting and the active role she gives listeners in the process of song creation. Along with the Muses and the songs, we, her fans and listeners, are her co-creators, with set lists producing ‘time capsules’ that both evoke and represent the space in which it was created (166). Tori sees this as part of her responsibility as an artist; to hold and respond to the space of her concerts where people have gathered together in commonality and unity over a shared experience. This dynamic, and the way it is engaged throughout Resistance, evokes Judith Herman’s work on trauma and recovery:
The solidarity of a group provides the strongest protection against terror and despair, and the strongest antidote to traumatic experience. Trauma isolates; the group re-creates a sense of belonging. Trauma shames and stigmatizes; the group bears witness and affirms (Herman, 214).Judith Herman
The collective experience of Tori’s music — which takes multiple forms beyond the concert space — signifies a ‘complex mirroring’ of ‘cohesion and intimacy’ where ‘mutually enhancing interaction[s] can take place’ (Herman, 215-216). This dynamic resonates in Resistance, particularly in Tori’s regard for her fans and in the centralization of art in the recovery of courage and hope, and the realization of change.
Aside from the more overt political narratives I have engaged here, Resistance also contains a lot of valuable advice for artists of all types and provides insight into Tori’s own creative process. She reflects on the music industry, her love of the piano — a relationship any musician will appreciate and understand — and explores the autonomy of art versus commercialization, and how this tension impacts creativity.
One of the book’s greatest strengths is its power to evoke in the reader a complex series of recollections and reflections. Reading, I found memories stirring of the moments mentioned in the text — how I felt the first time I watched Anita Hill’s testimony, where I was on September 11th 2001, my feelings of anger and disbelief at the multiple injustices caused by the world’s governments — but I also found myself reflecting on my twenty-year relationship with Tori’s music and the songs that have accompanied my life, giving me unconditional comfort, hope and courage. I felt compelled to curate my own playlist, to document and bear witness to the intersection of personal experience and politics since I first heard Tori’s music. I include the link to this playlist, and to the official playlist accompanying Resistance, at the end of this review. Whilst I do not intend to offer any sort of insight or interpretation into the narratives that run through my playlist, I chose the final group of songs after reflecting upon everything that has happened since the publication of Resistance in May last year. Increasing reports of police brutality; systemic and institutionalized racism; the consolidation of extreme forces; the sociopolitical impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the widening of inequalities; the devastating consequences of climate change; government corruption; rising cases of violence against women and femicide — the ‘dark forces’ seem to have gained ground but as Tori shows us, we are not without hope.
Towards the end of Resistance, Tori writes of the threat to the arts by those in power: ‘they target artists specifically because they know that artists have the ability to reach the public in ways no one else can’ (251). This feels like a timely warning. In October 2020, a UK ad campaign backed by HM Government, titled ‘Rethink. Reskill. Reboot’, featured a young ballet dancer tying her shoes next to the text: “Fatima’s next job could be in cyber. (she just doesn’t know it yet)”.4 This coincided with Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, suggesting that musicians who were unable to work due to the coronavirus restrictions should retrain. Whilst Sunak rephrased his comments, the message was clear. But art refused to be silenced. In response to a lack of financial support during lockdown, 400 professional musicians staged a socially distanced protest at Parliament Square, London on October 6th, 2020. They performed 20% of the “Mars” movement from Holst’s The Planets to represent the 20% maximum salary aid they received from the government. This was followed by two minutes of silence; the absence of music during this time was deafening.
I have chosen to end this review by highlighting the #LetMusicLive campaign because it, and protests like it, are the glimmers of hope and possibility that encapsulate and realize Tori’s call to arms. In tumultuous times, we must create: ‘Yes. We must Out-Create destruction’ (254).
Amos. T. (2020) Resistance: A Songwriter’s Story of Hope, Change and Courage. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Bergson, H. (2000) Memory of the Present and False Recognition. In: Durie, R (ed.) Time and the Instant: Essays in the Physics and Philosophy of Time. Manchester: Clinamen Press, 36-63.
Fraser, H., & Michell, D. (2015) Feminist memory work in action: Method and practicalities. Qualitative Social Work, 14(3), 321-337.
Haug, F. (1987) Female Sexualization: A Collective Work of Memory. Translated by E. Carter. London: Verso.
Herman, J. (2015) Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York: Basic Books.
Phipps, A. (2020) Me, not you: The trouble with mainstream feminism. Manchester: Manchester University Press. Phipps, A. (2016) Whose personal is more political? Experience in contemporary feminist politics. Feminist Theory, 17(3), 303-321.
1. I refer here to Bergson, and whilst I am unable to fully detail here how Resistance intersects with Bergson’s understanding of perception and memory — or, indeed, the wider field of memory studies — his reference to memory as ‘a shadow is next to a body’ combined with his focus on the movement between the lifeworld, the body, perception, memory, and conscious and unconscious states feels salient to Tori’s expressive style (Bergson, 83).
2. Originating in the 1990s, memory-work is a feminist research method that links individual and collective experience to socio-political structures of power. Central to the practice is storytelling; drawing on past experiences to understand the role of the individual in the maintenance of social relations and to offer an intervention into structures of power through collective and co-operative awareness. See Frigga Haug’s Female Sexualization (1987).
3. I am thinking here of the transphobia in recent branches of radical feminism and the tactics used to justify the exclusion of transwomen, in addition to acts of appropriation in mainstream protests movements. See Alison Phipps Me, not you (2020) and Whose personal is more political? (2016).
4. It was claimed that the advert belonged to 2019 campaign, however the image went viral in 2020 after being shared on Twitter by theatre casting director, Anne Vosser.