Little Blue World vol.7 n°3 fall 2007

Guys and Dolls: A loan from the guy zone

Thursday 25 August 2011, by Cécile Desbrun

"Let’s reinvent the gods, all the myths of the ages/ Celebrate symbols from deep elder forests..." Jim Morrison, "An American Prayer"

Discussing the Genesis of American Doll Posse in the Spring issue of LBW, Tori commented that the major male musicians and songwriters of the 1960s and 1970s were a driving force in her development and in the composition of the album. Given that the primary concern of her new record is the exploration of feminity in all its diverse aspects, Tori’s admission that she went to the "male rock Gods" such as The Beatles, Queen, Led Zeppelin, The Damned, Elton John, Leonard Cohen, The Doors, The Sex Pistols and Jimi Hendrix for inspiration may seem somewhat surprising. But her decision to do so can perhaps be best understood as an attempt to fuse male and female essences on ADP, and to bring the influence of rock’s "male Gods" into sonic balance with that of the "female Gods" — Artemis, Athena, Aphrodite, Persephone, Demeter — who provided the inspiration for the five personae employed throughout the album. These females are no strangers to strenght and masculinity themselves hanging with the Greek gods of mythology, they’d have to know how to hold their own in and out of the underworld. Looking at ADP, we can identidy some of the major male influences on Tori’s new record and explore its productive interaction of "guys and dolls."

As a long, dense and stylistically diverse concept album, ADP immediatly announces its debt to the seminal double-albums of late 1960s and early 1970s, works such as Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and The Beatles’s The White Album. These lenghty opuses were formative records for Tori, ones which she has frequently praised as pinnacles of rock music artistry. Another primary inspiration for the overall structure of the work is glam-era David Bowie, whose creation of musical personae such as Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane is echoed in Tori’s construction of Isabel, Pip, Clyde and Santa. In Strange Fascination - David Bowie: The Definitive Story, David Buckley identified in Bowie’s music and image of the early 1970’s a playful but radical kind of gender subversion: "In the hands of Bowie," he writes, "glam challenged pop’s masculine ethos" (145). It is easy to see how such statements might appeal to Tori and relate to the challenge to stereotypical gender roles which she mounts throughout ADP. Arguably, however, Tori has taken the persona-concept much further into the realm of character-building than Bowie ever did, an endeavor made possible by modern technology and her extensive use of online blogs to develop the personalities and perspectives of the "dolls."

In ADP, Tori challenges the role of the feminine, prompting women to question female stereotypes by presenting four dolls that are anything but bimbos. They’re smart, sensual and fierce and strong — not the Britneys or Jessicas of pop culture. Taking on the female influence and using mythological archetypes, Tori brings the feminine to the forefront and lets the audience rework and recreate the feminine for themselves.

From its illustrious foundations (Elton John, The Beatles, Bowie), ADP constructs a formidable tower of songs which mine and meld a diverse selection of male influences, merging them not only with Tori’s own distinctive sensibility but also with those of the album’s characters. To listen to the songs track-by-track is to bear witness to the assimilation — and transformation — of an amazingly varied set of inspirations. "Yo George" has the directness and sarcasm of solo John Lennon at his most bitingly political, while the southern-fried "Big Wheel" owes a debt to Ry Cooder. "Digital Ghost" is an overt Bowie homage on which Tori’s crisp piano lines and luxuriant backing vocals, along with "Mac Aladdin’s" blazing Mick Ronson-style guitar riffs, evoke some of the finest moments on Aladdin Sane.

The furious punk attack of "Teenage Hustling" has been described by Tori as "inspired by The Damned." But the fierce energy of Queen is also evident here, both in Mac Aladdin’s Brian May-style guitar and in Tori’s protean Freddie Mercuryesque vocals, which veer from growling (the "you better know" refrain) to lilting (the "you play wounded in his cockpit" line in the middle of the song). Sartorially speaking, Pip’s penchant for rubber evokes the signature leather pants of a range of rock Gods, not only Mercury but also Jim Morrison and Robert Plant. Not only Mercury’s voice, but also his aura as a performer comes through as Tori takes on the glam rock stylings on the piano. Anyone who has seen Tori live in concert knows that this is no sedate show — she moves, she grooves — and if there ever were performing soul mates, they would be Freddy and Tori (a la Pip).

Long recognized as one of Tori’s majot influences, Led Zeppelin surge to the fore on "You Can Bring Your Dog." Tori’s command "Please now, bring your love" conjures flashbacks of Plant in-heat on "Whole Lotta Love" and "D’yer Maker." There’s a very sly teasing that goes on in the lyrics here — "I’m not making any promises... you still got that somethin’ pretty boy" that aligns itself with Plant’s flirtatious, pouty "When I read your letter you wrote me, it made me mad mad mad." Again, Tori’s band makes a significant contribution in bringing her songs into the realm of the rock gods of the twentieth century. The bass lines in "You Can Bring Your Dog" take the song to a different playing field. Like Freddy Mercury, Plant was never shy on the stage, and we can see Tori has inherited a lot of his sensuality and fervor as a performer. Is Santa really all that far from Robert Plant? Three words come to mind to describe both: blond, sultry and smooth.

"Secret Spell" could be the result of an assignation between REM and Fleetwood Mac, and Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham-driven "Tusk" can be felt in "Beauty of Speed." "Father’s Son" conjures the spirit of The Doors, with Tori’s tense, pensive piano-Rhodes combo reminiscent of Ray Manzarek’s keyboard work on the likes of "Riders on the Storm." Unsurprisingly, The Beatles are also a major stylistic influence. Combining a jaunty ambience with dark lyrics, "Mr Bad Man" evokes the Fab Four at their most playful and deadly, while "Girl Disappearing" — with its string quartet accompaniment to Tori’s plaintive piano — rewrites "Eleanor Rigby" through the prism of "She’s Leaving Home" in order to question the inevitability of a woman’s apparent obliteration. Lyrically, "Smokey Joe" adapts Hendrix’s "Hey Joe," changing both the gender and the motivation of the prospective assailant.

ADP also sees Tori paying homage to the music of folk-based songwriters such as James Taylor (on "Roosterpur Bridge"). Similarly, the intricate wordplay and shifting tempos of "Almost Rosey" suggest Don McLean’s "American Pie," a particularly apt reference point here, given that this song, in McLeans’s words, "describes America as I was seeing it and fantasizing it might become." Such a description might be applied with equal relevance to ADP.

What about more contemporary influences? "Dragon" conjures memories of The Cure — being equal parts darkness and sweetness, while the murky waters of "Code Red" feel like a part of Pearl Jam’s repertoire.

The re-working of songs by male artists such as Nirvana, Zeppelin, Cohen and Hendrix has long been a staple of Tori’s repertoire and seemed to have reached its apex on the ambitious and underrated Strange Little Girls project. However, ADP takes this concept in a nex and productive direction, allowing Tori to draw from a deep well of influences and inspirations while producing a record that is distinctively and unmistakably her own. Blending male and female perspectives and influences, ADP is at once retro and contemporary, playful and political, loud and lyrical, and Tori’s intelligent engagement with the work of male musicians is part of what makes the album such a rich and compelling work.

Maureen Paley and Alex Ramon