Song Analysis

Curtain Call

Sunday 14 August 2011, by Cécile Desbrun

“Curtain Call” sees Tori reflecting on her career and struggles in the music industry. It sounds pretty disillusioned at first, as though she was approaching the end of her career (“ebony beauty pass this shade”) and was giving some advice to younger female artists before passing the torch. Of course, we know that Tori didn’t choose to end her career, but her conflict with Epic (she split with the label some time after the end of the ADP World Tour, in May 2008) seemed to have affected her at this time.

In an interview for Red Alert in May 2009, she explained how things went crumbling down between her and the label: a day before the Chicago concert where Christian Lamb shot her performance of “Me and a Gun” as Pip, the executives let her know that they didn’t want to put more money in the live DVD. When she offered to bring her own money to the table, they let her know that she could bring as much money as she wanted, but she wouldn’t have a percentage on the sells of the DVD if it recouped. “The idea of Sony shoving their fist up my business chute was just… shoot, OK, not only will I not allow them to put one penny into it, I will pay for everything. And I will never give them any future children ever again.”

However, she was so beaten she seriously considered to put an end to her career at this moment (which is why she told some interviewers at the time it would probably be her last world tour). “Mark and I sat down and I said, you know, ‘This is Tash’s future. This is the retirement. We’re blowing it. We’re going.’ And he said, ‘What retirement? You’re playing till you’re 80 in high heels. What are you talking about? You’re not retired.’ And I swear to God, Tash said, word for word, ‘Mummy, I may not want to go to university. Use the money, Mummy. Use it.’ With tears in my eyes… at the time, I had no idea where it was going.” Finally, when she decided to go independent, she talked to Doug Morris who talked her out of it because “there is no money in independent” and proposed her to sign a joint venture deal to release Abnormally Attracted to Sin.

But these events were strong enough to understand why she wrote a song where she takes a look at her career and what she achieved, the mistakes she made, the pitfalls she met. In the visualette for the song, it is thus no coincidence if we can see briefly shots of Pip’s “Me and a Gun” performance in Chicago where she holds a knife.

But, however dark and haunting “Curtain Call” is, the look the artist has on her career is definitely positive: “By the time you’re 25/ they will say ‘you’ve gone and blown it’/By the time you’re 35 I must confide/you will have blown them all/Right on cue just act surpised/when they invite you to take your curtain call/you climbed China’s wall/your curtain call.”

The fans will recognize clear autobiographical references to her conflicts with record labels in those lines: she was 25 when her first record, Y Kant Tori Read, miserably crashed (it sold only 7,000 copies). The music wasn’t good and her looks were quite vulgar and a stereotype of 80’s fashion, but she had faced years of rejection with her piano, and finally began to believe the big cheeses who told her that the “girl and her piano thing” was dead and that she had to do music that could sell to be signed on a label. She gave them what they wanted and it didn’t work, and the general opinion was that she would never be anybody. Billboard Magazine called her a bimbo and she even faced disdain from people she knew in the business after the review was published.

She finally wrote Little Earthquakes and managed to have it released after a long struggle with Atlantic Records who didn’t think at first they could sell it ; it was a success and launched her as one of the front female singer songwriters of the 90’s. But, in 1998, the label didn’t give enough support to her fourth solo release, From the Choirgirl Hotel, and she tried to get out of her contract... but they didn’t want to let her go until she gave them three full albums. And they made a point of letting her know they thought her career will be over when she would be released of her contract... because she would be “too old” then. In 1998, Tori was only 35 and the blow was pretty hard on her.

However, although they sold less than her previous releases, To Venus and Back and Strange Little Girls were quite successful and when she moved to Epic Records, her new label promoted greatly Scarlet’s Walk, and the first single for the album, “A Sorta Fairytale” became her biggest hit in the US.

She has seen executives come and go over the years, but she’s still here and this is clearly what she acknowledges in the song. She has won those battles.

She also reflects on the mistakes she has made when she sings lines like “I have done what I’ve done/and it has the ultimate consequence/then a voice calls me back/"this is not business, no/its more like spiritual"/is that what it is” or “Then you ram your hand in your bag/for a little protection.”

“When you’re first making records, you haven’t tasted the tip of the devil’s wand,” she explained to Polari Magazine in May 2009. “But on your tenth album you’ve done more than taste it. You’ve enjoyed it, and you’ve gotten ill from it. And I think the song ‘Curtain Call’ covers that. Sometimes you don’t realise that you’re being totally and completely absorbed. So you stop your message, and your questioning of control. Sometimes you think that you’re in a place of power, and yet you don’t realise you’ve signed up to something that is going to make sure your message is either broken or not put out.”

Besides her experience with Y Kant Tori Read, she may refer to her Beekeeper phase here (her most criticized album to date), which she straightforwardly talked about since then by saying that the people at the head of the label at this time were “money people”  [1] and that there were issues about that. By signing with Universal Republic, she turned a new page of her career and this deeply personal song emphasizes the battles she had to fight in order to keep her integrity intact as an artist. She climbed “China’s wall” and can face posterity right in the eye because she’s in peace with herself.

information sources

Gay & the Night, April 24, 2007.
Red Alert, May 2009.
Polari Magazine, May 2009.

[1Gay & the Night, April 24, 2007.