In September of 1990, Amos submitted an initial version of the album that would eventually be called Little Earthquakes. The track list was in several regards perverse, even given that Amos only had the Siegerson sessions to go on—most puzzlingly, “Mary,” and “Sweet Dreams,” both made it on while “Silent All These Years” and “Upside Down” both missed out. Atlantic rejected this version of the album, however, and so Amos went back to work.
With next to no budget left for improving the album, Amos found herself working at a home studio with her then-boyfriend Eric Rosse. They brought in a handful of session musicians including Steve Caton, Amos’s guitarist from Y Kant Tori Read, and Amos set out to write a new batch of songs. The songs from these sessions generally skew a bit heavier than the Siegerson sessions—Amos’s piano is backed by Caton’s guitar on all of them, and they make much heavier use of conventional drums. This does not mean that they were poppier per se—it’s notable that none of the album’s four videos came from these sessions—but they marked a clear effort to make the album harder and to give it a bit more of an edge.
Even among these songs, however, “Precious Things” stands out. Indeed, there are few if any collections of songs that “Precious Things” would not stand out among. It’s a chilling piece, flush with both fury and emotional vulnerability. This combination is not unprecedented in pop music, but it’s most commonly associated with the genre of breakup songs. “Precious Things” is not a breakup song, although that’s not the worst starting point for understanding what it is.
Like a breakup song, “Precious Things” is at its core an exorcism. The emotional engine of a good breakup song comes from the push and pull between the singer’s anger/contempt and the singer’s pain/sorrow. Its central paradox is that the singer still cares enough about whoever they’re disavowing to be singing an impassioned song about them. Getting over someone is manifestly not the same thing as being over them. And this is the same dynamic at the heart of “Precious Things.” Its furious plea to “let them bleed / let them wash away” is undermined before it begins by the description of these things as “precious.” The song seeks to expunge, but the nature of this is that whatever is being rejected must at the moment of rejection have its teeth in you. “Let them break their hold on me” can only be said from within their grasp.
But again, “Precious Things” is not a breakup song; its targets are bigger than that. Not a boy, nor boys in general, but the entire patriarchal ecosystem in which female sexuality exists. This is no small thing to rip out of one’s self, and it’s unsurprising that it hurts coming out. “Precious Things” is agonizing and agonized, at times whipping itself into an almost animalistic howl. Amos sounds in places genuinely unhinged, her voice whipping from pained sorrow to triumphant rage in a heartbeat.
The song opens with the sound of panting breath—someone on the run and out of breath. The piano line pushes insistently forward, a chain of anxious triplets resolving into a stuttering two count that puts the emphasis at the end of the measure, a panicked stumble toppling into the next measure. Amos’s vocals arriving late, starting in media res: “so I ran faster / but it caught me here” even as the panting flight continues behind her. The song is disoriented, but this confusion is immediately pushed onto the listener as Amos deploys a sly syllepsis, “yes my loyalties turned / like my ankle.” In a stroke, Amos is wielding a sense of poetic distance and control, the same trick that underpinned the performative intimacy of “Leather” deployed with even more gusto and confidence.
But where “Leather” ultimately resolved with Amos straightforwardly in control, “Precious Things” is ultimately simply too intense to allow that to happen. This is a song where the first verse ends with a rifle shot and Amos letting out a pained scream as if her retreat has been brought to a swift and violent end, where the climactic moment is an explosive crescendo of “with their nine inch nails / and little fascist panties / tucked inside the heart of every nice girl,” a searing acceleration that more than justifies the invocation of Trent Reznor’s industrial rock setup. All the wordplay in the world isn’t going to tame this down to practiced artifice.
What’s interesting, though, is that the song doesn’t have anything in the lyrics that’s actually especially vulnerable. Its most vulnerable section is probably the second verse, with its “but I thanked him / can you believe that? / Sick.” This is certainly intensely personal and confessional material, but it’s nowhere near the level of the opening of “Leather,” little yet something like “Me and a gun.” (I mean, nothing is vulnerable like “Me and a Gun.”) This is an intense and personal song, but it doesn’t involve the same sort of confessional intimacy as other songs.
This observation is key to understanding how “Precious Things” works. Its vulnerability comes not from opening up, but rather from the way in which it extends itself. Much as a boxer is most vulnerable when throwing a punch, Amos spends the entire song on the attack, exposing herself not through revelation, but through a recklessly uninhibited lack of guard. It is here that Amos’s poise and poetic distance becomes crucial. Because when one is engaged in this sort of artistic practice, the path to safety is simply to remain so relentlessly on the offensive that any vulnerability is simply neutralized. And so Amos’s agonized shrieks and self-castigations ultimately only leave the listener more unsettled, even less able to get any purchase on the song. We are firmly in Amos’s control as she allows herself to unfurl.
For a practical demonstration of this, pull up the 1996 performance linked above, from her Dew Drop Inn tour in support of Boys for Pele. Over the course of this tour her performance of the song grew steadily more extreme, with her delivery of the word “girls” at the end of the bridge devolving into a long, low growl worthy of Diamanda Galas delivered as she literally clawed at her thighs. The song’s resolution, meanwhile, sees her repeatedly demanding “wash me clean, daddy” in an increasingly erratic delivery, first allowing her delivery to stutter as she adopts an unsettlingly vacant wide-eyed expression, then returning to a frenzied, barely intelligent yell as the song concludes, the final lines delivered with her face in rictus horror, her voice a pained whisper: “I’m so horny / wash me clean / daddy.” It is a staggeringly disturbing spectacle—Amos seems at times possessed, visibly and audibly pushing herself into extraordinarily intense emotional spaces that are simply outside the realm of ordinary function and understanding.
And yet there is never even a momentary sense of fragility. Amos may be engaged in a psychological demolition/exorcism of the sort that are seldom experienced and even less often witnessed, but she remains utterly in control of her enraptured audience. The power dynamic that exists runs one way. Amos makes us bear witness to her agonies; we sit slack-jawed and behold them. She’s in control of everything except, perhaps, herself.
That’s how the song works. But we’ve still to discuss what it actually does. Amos is, after all, hardly the only musician of the era to work this way—Courtney Love, more about whom another day, made a career out of this sort of vulnerability through aggression, to say nothing of the entire riot grrrl scene. Amos is notable for having an entirely different musical style than those more punk-based acts, but the underlying dynamic remains a close match.
As mentioned, “Precious Things” is an exorcism of sexuality under patriarchy. Its most iconic line is the laceratingly triumphant end of the second verse: “so you can make me come / that doesn’t make you Jesus.” Again, a comparison to “Leather” is apt, as the line finds power in a mesure of apathy or indifference towards sex. But where “Leather” is ultimately wholly cool on desire, “Precious Things” spreads its bets, simultaneously evincing skepticism of sex and remaining firmly in its clutches. This does not mean that it is an overtly horny song, Dew Drop Inn performance included. But desire stalks within it, scraping at the walls and trying to get out.
But the line is more interesting the further one takes it from any autobiographical context. We’ve talked before about pop music as a vehicle for identification. More than once we’ve seen Amos achieve this with taboo-breaking lines. But this line is, across the whole of her career, the most iconic instance of this. In a song about escape from patriarchal notions of sexuality, this is the line that does so, giving audible and concrete voice to a brutal kiss-off to an entire vision of male sexual prowess. It’s an intensely relatable line in the face of countless men who seem to view their partner’s pleasure primarily in terms of their own accomplishments instead of a goal unto itself—the sort of thing one wants to say in the face of way too many unsatisfying Tinder dates.
And yet the line is obviously not a triumph. The song never mounts its escape, ending with a series of unanswered pleas before breaking down to the word that complicates and inhibits all of its liberation as Amos twice intones “precious” before allowing the song to resolve. Its rage and anguish and desperation beat and tear at the walls, furious and brilliant. It is a moment of sustained and agonizing ecstasy stretched over four and a half unrelenting minutes.
As a teenage girl unknown to herself, the song was slightly off-putting. Its major beats landed—“so you can make me come” felt mighty and illicit, while the “nine inch nails” bit was the first thing to make me think I might want to check the band out. But the song as a whole was too much and too big, a storm of feelings so far from my own frame of reference that I could do little more than flinch away from the sense that this simply wasn’t for me.
As a trans adult, the song is foreign to me in different ways—a chronicle of experiences I never quite had. Certainly no one dared to tell me where the pretty girls were, but not in the same way as Amos. My adolescent sexuality ultimately ran closer to the messiah complex Amos derides than to her own frustrating and repressed desires. But in the end, I had just as much of a frantic need to exorcise the patriarchal system governing my sexuality. That is not quite to say that “Precious Things” is easily claimed as a trans song (the obvious choice for that remains “Silent All These Years”). But its power is visible and tangible to me now. Its mix of frustrated desires and inadequate femininities feels all too real and vivid, whether or not it’s my lived experience per se.
Unsurprisingly, “Precious Things” is a mainstay of Amos’s live shows—it’s been played in more than 2/3 of her concerts, and that’s with incomplete data for the Little Earthquakes tour and a complete lack of performances in the deeply sedate Original Sinsuality Tour of 2005. It has unsurprisingly had a sizable arc over the course of that. Its emotional peak came in the Dew Drop Inn tour, where it grew more and more chillingly unhinged as the tour went on. (The linked version is from late in the tour.) The 1998 Plugged tour (Amos’s first with a backing band) saw Amos switch to using the instrumentation for intensity instead of whipping herself into quite the crazed frenzy of the previous tour—the effect is documented on To Venus and Back, although for my money the version with which she opened her Glastonbury Festival set is the best iteration of this approach. From there the song sunk slowly into a more stately approach. Individual performances would retain some of the flourishes of earlier versions—the “girl” growl at the end of the bridge, perhaps, or a bit of thigh-clawing—but the song gradually became a recital of itself, bottoming out in the excruciatingly sterile remake on Gold Dust.
(A fleeting mention, just because I’m me and someone would otherwise ask, should probably be given to Seeming’s cover of the song, which plays up the song’s menace with a battering drum beat and its own set of peaking flourishes [its disturbing vocoded repetition of “make me come” is particularly memorable], but which ultimately serves to demonstrate the folly of a dude covering the song.)
Ultimately, however, there is no getting around or past the album version. More even than “Crucify” and “Silent All These Years,” it is a song that changed the course of Amos’s career, making Little Earthquakes a fundamentally different album than it would have been comprised purely of the quieter and confessional pieces of the first recording session. It is an audacious, dangerous song, unprecedented and unrepeatable—a shot across the bough that you can still hear masculinity quaking in the wake of.
Recorded in Los Angeles at Eric Rosse’s home studio in 1990, produced by Rosse and Tori Amos. Orchestral version recorded in at Martian Engineering in 2011-12, produced by Tori Amos. Played throughout Amos’s career.