The Pain of the Respect Thereof (Girl)
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In many ways the slightest song on Little Earthquakes, “Girl” is hamstrung most obviously by its positioning as the second track on the album. Coming off of “Crucify,” it is doomed to be the markedly inferior of the two post-80s empower ballads. Coming immediately before the jaw-dropping triple threat of “Silent All These Years,” “Precious Things,” and “Winter,” it is subsequently doomed to be forgotten by “that doesn’t make you Jesus” at the absolute latest. That it made the album over “Upside Down,” ”Take to the Sky,” or even “Flying Dutchman” is in hindsight one of the more baffling decisions made about Little Earthquakes.
It’s not fair to say that “Girl” is a bad song. Indeed, individual moments are as fine as anything on the album—the haunting, arrhythmic male vocal over “sit in the chair and be good now,” or the mad spaghetti of sounds that make up the bridge. Really, the overall soundscape of the song is solid, even if there’s a slight degree of overproduction (a problem that arguably plagues all four of the Rosse/Amos tracks, but “Girl” is the least suited to maximalism).
The problem really is in its precise sequencing. Musically, it has the same debt to the 80s as “Crucify,” but where Siegerson’s restraint and desire to foreground Amos and her piano made for a well-crafted pop song with the 80s inflections you’d expect something in 1990 to have, Rosse and Amos’s excess begins to tilt the song towards the same mistakes as Y Kant Tori Read. There’s a profound difference of degree—“Girl” is a mile ahead of even the best songs on Y Kant Tori Read. But the basic error is the same, and coming after a song that does the same sort of thing musically only with vastly more panache is damaging. In the other direction, meanwhile, it also feels like a pale echo—“she’s been everybody else’s girl / maybe someday she’ll be her own” is the same sentiment as “Silent All These Years,” only dissociated onto an unnamed third party and made tentative as opposed to emphatic.
All of this oversimplifies. There is a dark mystery to “Girl” that the songs on either side lack—its skulking piano line laid over a firm drumbeat gives it a sense of strange menace, while its lyrics, with the girl crawling through the shadows, hints at a sense of abjection that makes it clear that this belongs to the same set of songs as “Precious Things” and “Little Earthquakes” as opposed to the cheerier confessionalism of the Siegerson songs. This isn’t simply a song that’s failing to live up to the ones on either side of it. But nothing that it’s doing comes off cleanly and decisively enough to distinguish it either.
Amos has largely seemed aware that the song doesn’t quite do the business. It is by a considerable margin the least-reprised song off of Little Earthquakes—the setlist database has it at 70 performances across her career, and while it’s missing a tremendous amount of both the Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink tours, the set lists we do have suggest the song was a rarity even then, being played substantially more rarely than a number of the b-sides. Amos eventually warmed slightly to the song (a plurality of its performances were in the 2002-03 tour for Scarlet’s Walk), but even still it sat out the 2005 and 2007 tours entirely. One suspects this later life resurgence is, ironically, due to the very thing that held the song back initially—as the second song on Amos’s breakthrough album, it’s well-remembered despite not actually being particularly memorable.
Ironically, then, it is in live versions that the song has found some measure of success. The 1998 tour, for instance, offers the version that saw release on To Venus and Back, where Amos fully commits to rocking out on the chorus, giving the song a cheeky swagger that goes well for it. The most interesting version, however, is surely its lone performance on the Dew Drop Inn tour, in a show that nearly got interrupted when Amos fell ill, only for her to come back out, discard the set list, and have at it. After bemusing Steve Caton with the instruction “this next song is in G Minor” and a reassurance that he’ll know what to do (he had played on the record), Amos takes off on a half-improvised version of the song, its main piano riff turned to a staccato dance, the vocal line turned tense and insistent.
We should probably also consider “Thoughts” in this context—an improvisation recorded while Amos was working on “Girl” and grew frustrated. Eric Rosse encouraged her to take a break, and while she did, she stayed at the piano and began playing. The resulting song is clearly improvised, with lyrics that are clearly generated through on the spot repetition and variation, (“Burning witches / burning books/ burning babies in their looks”) but it incorporates the chorus of “Girl” towards its middle. When Amos finished playing, Rosse informed her that he’d left the machine running, and they had a song in the bag
This account raises several questions of timeline, however. For one thing, “Thoughts,” which saw release on the “Me and a Gun” single in the UK, is most commonly attributed to the London sessions produced by Ian Stanley. This is poorly attributed—the “Me and a Gun” single doesn’t credit a producer for either “Thoughts” or the title track, and the assignation appears to come purely from a 1992 interview in Keyboard where the interviewer is paraphrasing Amos. But it raises the fascinating possibility of a lost attempt at a second version of “Girl,” as if Amos was aware even then that the version she’d made with Rosse didn’t quite cut it.
More likely, however, is that “Thoughts” does hail from the Amos/Rosse sessions and the interviewer for Keyboard got it wrong. In any case, its existence represents a power play on the part of Rosse, who created the song by, in effect, tricking Amos and committing to tape something that was not actually intended for a wider audience. It’s easy to overplay this—Amos surely consented to its eventual release, after all. But the song represents a loss of control for Amos, and marks the first sign that her partnership with Rosse would have an expiration date, even as it was in the midst of producing some of the best tracks of her early career.
Recorded in Los Angeles at Eric Rosse’s home studio in 1990, produced by Rosse and Tori Amos. Played occasionally throughout Amos’s career, with a break from 2003-09.
December 28, 2019 @ 10:28 pm
The passage you quote from “Thoughts” is strangely similar to lines from ”Maybe” by The Wonder Stuff, released in 1991:
“We’re still building churches, burning books/ Killing the babies to feed the cooks“
No idea which way the influence (if any) might run.
May 1, 2020 @ 6:49 pm
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