A political song (973.928—History of North America:Politics of Illusion, according to Tales of a Librarian), but let’s immediately be cautious of treating that as a way of distinguishing it from other songs we’ve talked about, as if “Crucify,” “Leather,” or “Silent All These Years” are not also political. The more accurate assessment is that “Sweet Dreams” is a song that is overtly about electoral politics, with a second verse that makes overt reference to George Bush’s “thousand points of light” speech at the 1988 Republican National Convention.
For the most part, there is something vaguely unsatisfying about this sort of thing. It’s not that there aren’t good songs about electoral politics in pop music. But it’s a routine quagmire in which artists turn out badly over-earnest and strident songs about how bad the President is. The problem is not that Amos is wrong that George Bush is “a constipated man” whose friends “got the earth in a sling / the world on her knees / they even got [his] zipper between their teeth.” It’s not even that these are bad lines—“constipated” is a pretty funny insult for Bush, even if the “zipper between their teeth” feels like a cheap and mildly homophobic dig. It’s just that they are so obvious, so direct in their targets, that they pale before the delightful and singular strangeness of Amos’s other material.
Things improve a bit in the third verse, which dips into a psychedelic vision of “lizards and snakes / running through my body” while the summer wind offers strange prophecy, but honestly, even this is a bit Tori-by-numbers—a chain of willful strangeness that doesn’t actually point anywhere.
Amos took another swing at the song in 2003 for Tales of a Librarian, where, as with “Mary,” she rejigged the song. The effect is much the same—the song’s youthful exuberance is traded for a polished control that ultimately saps the song of its appeal. The biggest trick is her updating of the song for the second Bush era by adding a couple of snapped “who’s your daddy” lines throughout.
This set up the song’s larger second life in Amos’s career, its use in the 2007 tour for American Doll Posse, which makes up fully a quarter of its fifty-nine live performances. There the song was reinterpreted to be the work of Isabel, one of the five personae Amos created for that album. Isabel is a photographer, and an overtly political figure—she’s the singer of the album opener, “Yo George,” which is directed squarely at the second Bush. This also served as the traditional opener for Isabel’s live sets, with “Sweet Dreams” the usual follow-up to give an intergenerational approach to whingeing about the Bush family.
The song made a few appearances in the 2009 tour before Amos finally admitted the obvious, which is while Sweet Dreams”’s heart was in the right place, the right place was 1990, when it was recorded. With a US release on the “Winter” EP in the same month that Bush lost reelection, it was already a period piece by the time it was released.
Recorded in Los Angeles at Capitol Records in 1990, produced by Davitt Sigerson. Re-recorded in Cornwall at Martian Engineering in 2003, produced by Tori Amos. First played live in 1994, and retired in 2009.
Top: George H.W. Bush checks the time (1992)