It is one of the most harrowing things in the history of pop music. The bulk of adjectives for it seem to fall short, fatally undermined by the fact that they’ve already been used for so many lesser songs. Brave? Raw? Powerful? Obviously. But all of these are understatements. Ultimately, the vocabulary of pop music begins to falter here. “Me and a Gun” exists in a different space than anything else. Alex Reed, writing about industrial music in Assimilate, notes that nose forms an extreme limit that you cannot progress past: there is simply a boundary past which you cannot create more or harsher noise. In its own way, “Me and a Gun” does the same thing. Its aesthetic project is closed definitively after four minutes; nothing else like this can ever be done except as a pale and frankly offensive imitation.
In January of 1985, a few months after moving to Los Angeles, Tori Amos agreed to give a guy a ride home after a show at a bar. He raped her over the course of several hours holding her hostage. He demanded that she sing hymns for him, which she did while literally pissing herself, listening to his threats of how he’d take her to share with his friends and then kill and mutilate her. Eventually, needing a drug fix, he let her go.
For years, Amos was unable to deal meaningfully with the experience. Much of the vapidity of Y Kant Tori Read comes from the fundamentally doomed contradiction of an artist whose internal landscape is dominated by one thing trying desperately to write about anything but that. Even Little Earthquakes has an odd relationship to it, spending most of its time processing adjacent thoughts and emotions. But while in London in August of 1991, Amos went to see Thelma and Louise and found herself assailed by the memories of what had happened six and a half years earlier. Withdrawing into herself for several days, she wrote “Me and a Gun.”
It is easy to see “Me and a Gun” as a simpler thing than it is. Amos’s decision to arrange it a capella and its aggressively vulnerable autobiographical nature conspire to make it seem straightforward: a woman narrates the events of her rape. This obscures the degree to which the song is carefully crafted. To take the most obvious point, Amos’s rapist used a knife—Amos changed it to the more dramatic sounding title. And Amos makes a lot of careful choices about what to focus on. Obviously one cannot narrate one’s own rape without a degree of abjection, but Amos doesn’t really lean into that aspect of it—the detail of her urinating on herself, for instance, comes from an interview, not from the song. As with the intimacies of “Leather” and “Precious Things,” this song’s brutal rawness is not simply the product of raw and unfiltered emotional openness; it’s something Amos has worked on and honed.
More broadly, the song generates a very specific emotional tenor that is only one of many possible emotional reactions to rape. It does not, for instance, attempt to focus on the traumatizing fear for your life. It does not focus on the way in which you doubt your own memory of events, constantly asking yourself if you made it all up. It does not focus on the difficulties with consensual sexual activity (and indeed with the notion of your own consent) that follow. It doesn’t focus on the nightmares or the out of nowhere sobbing or the way that some minor detail of your assault will turn into a bewildering PTSD trigger for decades after so that you freak out every time you get water on your face in the shower.
Instead, it is a song about dissociation. Its opening verse, with Amos narrating the hours after her assault, driving around aimlessly because she “can’t go home, obviously,” is one of the most chillingly familiar depictions of dissociation in pop music. But even more brutal is the song’s engagement with morbid humor, set up first by the leadup to its chorus-closing line: “you can laugh / it’s kind of funny / the things you think / at times like these / like I haven’t / seen Barbados / so I must / get out of this.” This continues into the strange absurdism of “yes I wore / a slinky red thing / does that mean / I should spread / for you / your friends/ your father / Mr. Ed,” a line that displays the sort of whimsical non sequitur that Amos does in other songs, (c.f. “I got the antichrist yelling at me from the kitchen again” or “I don’t believe you’re leaving cause me and Charles Manson like the same ice cream”) only with an effect of utter horror. And so on to the final verse, with its morbidly funny whiplash of “these things / go through your head / when there’s a man / on your back / you’re pushed / flat on your stomach/ it’s not a classic / Cadillac,” which is possibly an even better account of what being massively dissociated feels like than the opening verse.
Past that, it becomes difficult to know what to say about the song in its brutal singularity. Its scope deforms the album around it. Numerous other songs—“Leather,” “Silent All These Years,” and “Precious Things” to name just a few—take on new meanings and inflections in its wake, becoming songs that are, in addition to all of their surface meanings, also tangibly and meaningfully about survivorship. Other songs take on small but uncanny new tinges—“mother the car is here” carries a newly ominous implication, to name just one example. To name another, Amos’s concern with death in “Happy Phantom” feels far less like an intellectual exercise.
“Me and a Gun,” in other words, makes Little Earthquakes about something other than Amos getting her mojo back after recording a really bad first album. It’s why the album is so seminal and so landmark. Rape and survivorship simply weren’t topics pop music had considered in any confessional depth. To those for whom this was an agonizing oversight, “Me and a Gun” and Little Earthquakes were the first time pop music gave voice to them. Even to those fortunate enough not to have experienced sexual assault, there’s an obvious rebalancing of the scales here—of essential things being said.
All of this, of course, is rooted firmly in the context of 1992. In 2019, during what is endlessly referred to as the “#metoo era,” the door Amos broke down has been walked through countless times by women and men. Harrowing accounts of rape, albeit not ones this carefully aesthetically crafted, are seemingly routine elements of the endless parade of news stories about terrible people. Documentary exegeses of the crimes of various people, celebrity or otherwise, abound, not least in the immensely popular sphere of true crime podcasts. None of this makes “Me and a Gun” any less harrowing, but it makes its chilling horror less extraordinary, dimming its power. It becomes fair to ask what “Me and a Gun” is for anymore. Indeed, Amos has clearly asked this, deciding against performing the song on any of her tours after 2011, and mostly eliminating it after 2001. (It’s the third-most played song off of Little Earthquakes, with 356 documented performances, all but nine of which took place in 2001 or earlier; the lion’s share of these came on the Dew Drop Inn tour, where it was played at 99% of the shows.) Her reasons for doing so are unknowable, and could well be simple—one can scarcely begrudge someone for deciding that performatively reliving one’s own rape 356 times is enough.
But it’s also worth considering carefully what performing “Me and a Gun” live does. Once the song is performed as “that well-known classic off of Tori Amos’s first album,” its transgressive power evaporates. One of the most perplexing and troubling experiences one can have watching Tori Amos performances on YouTube is watching as people in the audience cheer upon realizing that she’s begun playing “Me and a Gun.” It’s easy to see what’s happening there: fans are responding with instinctive thrill to finding out that a particularly beloved song is getting played at the concert they’re at. But there’s also no real way to make that reaction something other than “oh hey, it’s your rape! Awesome!” And at the point where that’s happening, it’s tough to seriously argue the song is doing anything other than potentially triggering survivors.
The culmination of these tensions arrived in 2007, in one of the final performances of the song. This was the American Doll Posse tour, in which every show was divided into a short opening set that Amos played as one of her four alter-egos that she’d designed for the album, followed by a lengthier set as herself. Amos had previously played the song twice on the tour, on a pair of Australian dates where it slotted into her solo piano portion of the set. But in November of 2007, at a Chicago date, Amos debuted a radical reworking of it during her opening set. The character for this occasion was Pip, the most aggressive and brash of Amos’s personae for the album—Amos describes her as “a warrior [who] does confront issues and sometimes it’s explosive, but I really love her energy and her casual approach to rubber.” A more useful fact might be the fact that she inserts a bridge into performances of “Cruel” in which she issues a screaming threat to would-be rapists that she’s going to rip their cock off.
Unsurprisingly, then, a Pip performance of “Me and a Gun” is unlike anything else that Amos has ever done with the song. Clad imposingly in a black and sparkly ensemble with positively kinky numbers of buckles, and following a barnstorming performance of “The Waitress” that ends with Amos panting convulsively into the mic as she rocks back and forth, Amos strides to the microphone, swaying ominously as her band provides a looping bass line with hypnotic drums. When she hits the first line of the song, which had never before been done with backing instrumentation, the audience is audibly stunned, with gasps of “oh my god” and “holy shit” continuing through the first verse.
Amos effectively takes the song and reassembles it, making it into a self-cover. In her previous a capella versions, she sings the song as if in a dazed trance, almost seeming to dissociate anew in order to sing it. Here, however, her performance is a thing of ominous swagger. She is commanding, her delivery at times veering towards an unsettling sultriness. But this shatters abruptly in places, most obviously for the first “me and a gun / and a man on my back,” which she delivers in trembling, barely controlled fear. As she hits the second verse, she reaches over to her piano and pulls a knife on her audience, dancing seductively with it at first, them miming thrusting motions with it held phallicly at her crotch as she spitefully spits out the the “does that mean I should spread” section, and finally holding it to her own breast. Finally she pulls out a gun, holding it to her head as she sings the chorus with increasing pained, furious desperation.
It’s stunning, disturbing, and upsetting to watch. Is it, however, good? That’s harder to answer straightforwardly. Perusing reviews of the concert (essentially all of which discuss “Me and a Gun”), the overall theme is an audience that was enraptured, shocked, and at times outright terrified by the performance. In some abstract sense, this is good, in that it is an effective performance that skillfully conjures the emotional response it sets out to produce. But what is the value of this reaction? Again, one is forced to wonder how any survivors in the audience felt—indeed, even moreso than for a regular performance of the song, which at least invokes a part of Amos’s career they are probably familiar with and have navigated their relationship with. This performance is not that, and the emotional state it is designed to produce is not something anyone in the audience could reasonably have expected or prepared themselves for. More than that, though, it just feels cheap, reducing the song into a haze of abjection and retaliatory violence. A nuanced account of trauma written as part of a powerful act of self-reclamation becomes a leather-clad remake of I Spit on your Grave of the sort that requires discussions of the male gaze. Amos, in any case, declined to repeat the performance on any future American Doll Posse dates, playing the song precisely five more times since, all of them in its traditional a capella arrangement.
More than most pop songs, and indeed more than almost any piece of art I can think of, the defense that the song is of its time feels substantial. Just consider going up to the woman who, after a dissociative fugue, has just engaged with and written about her sexual assault for the first time in six years and telling her, “ah, but there are keys ways in which the song ages out of relevance and so that wasn’t a worthwhile endeavor.” This is self-evidently an absurd thing to ask of an artist or a song.
If the degree to which “Me and a Gun” was dangerous and important has faded over the quarter-century plus since its release, this is largely irrelevant. In 1992, it was both, and both to an absolutely stunning degree. And if it’s less so now, this owes more than a little bit to Amos and to “Me and a Gun.” By making her breakout album a work about survivorship, by playing the song on numerous TV appearances and forcing audiences to contend with this reality, by using her platform to advocate for the Rape and Incest National Network, and simply by visibly an openly being a survivor, Amos changed the way in which rape is talked about to the point where her own song became unnecessary. There are classic pop songs and great pop songs, but what we have here is something altogether rarer and more extraordinary: a song that changed the world.
Recorded in London in 1991, produced by Ian Stanley. Played regularly on tour before its retirement in 2011.
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