Song Analysis

Blood Roses

Monday 8 August 2011, by Cécile Desbrun

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

“‘I shaved every place where you been.’ I began to live these songs as we separated. The vampire in me came out. You’re an emotional vampire, with blood in the corner of your mouth, and you put on matching lipstick so no one knows.” (Chicago Tribune, January 18, 1996)

The second song on Boys for Pele, “Blood Roses” was the first song to be written for the album in May 1994 (at the moment of her break-up with Eric Rosse) and according to Tori, it had to be the opening track before she eventually wrote “Beauty Queen/Horses” (Musician, May 1996). Played for the most part on the harpsichord (although the Bösey is present), it is a major track of the album, both musically and thematically, that “sums up Boys for Pele as Tori puts it in the booklet of A Piano.

Musically, the presence of the harpsichord, with its medieval sound (as sharp as razor blades so it doesn’t exactly sound medieval) allows the artist to follow her bloodline back to Europe, in Ireland (her father’s family originates from Ireland and Scotland) and right into the New World, her descendants having moved to the Virginia hills with the settlers. Her paternal grandparents were ordained ministers and Tori often talked about her moral conflicts with her grandmother over religious issues, so the idea behind the music was really to trace back the bloodline of Christianity in her life as well as in the American history.

Hence her decision to record most of the tracks in an Irish church in Delgany, before mixing the album in New Orleans, Louisiana, one of the greatest symbols of Southern America, Tori of course being a native southern girl. ” I was following a bloodline musically as well as geographically and how religion and music had come over to the New World,” Tori explained in the booklet of A Piano. “Following the bloodline of the piano back to the harpsichord was a subtext of that concept.”

Thematically, “Blood Roses” is striking counterpart to “Me and a Gun”, as the artist has now become a victim of herself. The anger is palpable in the song (Amos playing sharply on an harpsichord plugged to a Marshall amp) and the whole thing is not anymore about healing wounds but bleeding them to death.

The symbol of “blood roses” is then a sexual and vital one: through blood, enslaved sexuality, it feels like Tori is symbolically ripping open her veins, allowing men to drain her from a vital substance she lets dripping on the floor. The gun, or the thorns, as we might say, are then oriented not toward this “demon lover” sucking her blood, but toward herself, the real agressor. Tori said in interviews that this song was about her “finally being aware that I’m choosing to be defecated on .” “I consciously wanted to surrender myself to the mercy of the men in my life. I wanted to be... dominated. Why? ”

Then, lines such as “He likes killing you after you’re dead” are quite representative of this self-sacrificed integrity. This is a dreadful experience, in a pretty similar way of “Me and a Gun” except the terror and shock reside in the realization that this woman is an hostage of herself cutting out “the flute from the throat of the loon,” the loon being that enslaved part of her being she doesn’t want to look at but can’t segregate from herself, reducing her to silence instead. “Blood Roses” is then the statement that she didn’t stop being a victim after writing “Me and a Gun” but is still on war path, needing to make peace with herself.

The song might be a powerful description of the emotional issues a woman have to deal with after being sexually assaulted, but unlike “Me and a Gun”, the lyrics don’t focus overtly on rape issue and the song can strike a chord in women on a larger level. Nonetheless, it echoes back to what Tori said in earlier interviews about the denial and repressed anger she felt after being raped in the 80’s. “[...] in New Mexico [where she recorded Under the Pink, ndrl] I did finally realise that I have to take responsibility for the fact that the man who originally violated me is not stopping me now- I am. But, still, there is a part of me that hasn’t been able to open up since I came to terms with ‘Me and a Gun.’”

She also pointed out during the promotion of Pele that she had several affairs with men during the Under the Pink Tour, after the demise of her relationship with Eric Rosse and that these lovers weren’t necessarily good for her but that she wanted to feed from their blood/fire, that strong essence they held and that she thought she lacked at the time. “I jumped off a lot of cliffs on this record as a writer, as a musician and as a woman, “she told New Musical Express in December 1995. “Until now, I haven’t allowed myself to explore the part of me that could be so vicious and decadent. I’m talking about blood-lusting, about living through them, whether they can get to their dark side. Sometimes I think women need to be defecated on and yet you are negotiating your contract. Nothing was ever enough, not enough records, not enough fame, not enough men, not enough women.”

Something as addictive as dangerous since it gives one the illusion to be in a situation of power. “You know you will not gain strength from this path. You know you will not get peace from this path. But you are addicted and on this path. You just know you need energy from an outside source because you don’t know how to access it for yourself,” Tori told Musician.

The song is about becoming a willing slave of men’s desire because of the guilt (often denied) a lot of women may feel about being desiring subjects and not only objects but it’s also, on a larger level, about that “emotional vampirism” Tori talked about in interviews (and that was quite misunderstood by the mainstream media as pure kooky pose). “Blood Roses” is one of the angriest songs on Boys for Pele and Tori acknowledged in the Chicago Tribune in January 1996 that it was one of these songs in which “the fury of it made me step back.”

“[‘Blood Roses’ is] very aware of a thing that I haven’t dealt with: faithful anger,” Tori told Musician. “Anger expressed faithfully. I think she’s come to visit me to explore that side that I’ve blocked away. There’s a real stigma that gets put out on a woman’s anger. You become a madwoman, instead of, ’I’m very loose about this moment, and you have just really pissed me off.’ I’m trying to use compassion - passion coming into its fullest - so that I can explore these ’dark sides’ of Woman: the anger, that power, the destruction, the manipulation, the parts that lead to a label of ‘hysterical’ for women, to bring them into balance, the balance of destruction and creation.” Claiming a balanced and fulfilling sexuality then has to pass by exploring this dismembered feminine to let inner demons out. In this sense, the song, like the whole Boys for Pele album, can be related to an exorcism.

Interestingly enough, two other “blood roses” can be found in the arts : the first is a movie, the second being a painting of the famous surrealist painter Salvador Dali.

Vadim’s Blood and Roses is a renowned vampire movie directed in 1960 which tells the story of a young and beautiful woman, Camilla, who’s in love with the fiancé of her best friend and finds herself possessed by the spirit of one of her ancestors, who looked just like her. Legend pretends that the17th century woman became a vampire and killed all the successive brides of the man she was in love with during her living. By a curious coincidence, the man Camilla and her friend love is a descendant of the vampire’s love interest.

Possessed by the spirit of the revengeful vampiress, Camilla kills the inhabitants of the town she lives in; when she wakes up in the morning, she can’t remember anything but she begins to fear sunlight and hears music from the 17th century. Her neighbours are unsure if she’s lost her mind or is truly possessed by the spirit of the vampire but they finally throw her off a cliff and she finds herself staked on a piece of wood and dies. The end reveals that her friend Georgia, who managed to marry the man she loves, is now the one possessed by the vampire when a red rose appears in her hand and then magically fades.

Blood and Roses (which was quite influenced by Hitchcock 1958 masterpiece Vertigo for the possession and morbid obsession with a tragically deceased ancestor), beyond its title, shares a similarity with the song of Tori Amos by its theme: feminine vampirism serves as a metaphor for a woman’s obsessive and self-destructive lust for men she can’t or shouldn’t have. Tori never cited the movie as a personal influence for the song (but, again, she’s the first to claim she never tells all about her songs and likes to keep some of her influences close to her) but the parallels are quite puzzling and it would seem likely that she at least heard about the movie.

Anyway, the song isn’t about the movie or doesn’t reference it in a direct manner; still, it’s interesting to see they both use a more or less similar symbology.

The Bleeding Roses (Roses sanglantes in French, which exact translation is “blood roses” or “bloody roses”) by Salvador Dali (1930) however, seems like a very possible influence, although Tori (who often claimed during the Under the Pink and Boys for Pele eras that the surrealist painter was one of her biggest influences among visual artists) never spoke about the painting.

The metaphorical self-mutilation (“I shaved every place where you been,” “you’ve cut out the flute from the throat of the loon...”) and sexual dimension of the song can be found in a striking way in Dali’s painting, which shows a Venus-like blonde woman whose flesh is being ripped off by red roses coming out of her belly. Blood comes out of the flowers and drips off onto the desert. The painting pretty much reminds the viewer of the Venus of the medicine men (1781), a wax model named after the Love Goddess and which served in anatomy classes. The belly of the model could be removed, revealing all of her insides and every organ could be removed. Several essays were written in the area of art history about the dual representation of Venus in the arts throughout the centuries and during the Renaissance period in particular.

Georges Didi-Hubermann’s Ouvrir Vénus (Ed.Gallimard, 2002) focused on that particular subject and how the nudity of Venus (or Venus-like female subjects) was shown as ambivalent, beautiful but cruel, in these various representations, whether it’s the obviously repulsing Venus of the medicine men (Venere de’ medici in Italian) or the seemingly sweet and beautiful The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli (1484). In all those examples, the woman is an object of both desire and repulsion, a seductress whose beauty and nudity draws fascination but also fear.

Tori’s song focuses a lot on the body of the narrator, with very graphic imagery. Like in Botticelli’s painting Story of Nastagio degli Onesti (1482-1483), in a sense, this woman’s body is doomed to be butchered again and again through her destructive relationships with men. If Boys for Pele was about “a woman who descends, who finds fragments in the unconscious to bring back into the light,” according what Tori said in an interview for The Baltimore Sun in January 1996, “Blood Roses” is all about dismembered body parts, so to speak, as testifies the dreadful lines “when chickens get a taste of your meat” and “when he sucks you deep/sometimes you’re nothing but meat.” The first line more than seemingly finds its origin in Alice Walker’s The Secret of Joy, a novel Tori cited as an influence for her vision of women controled by the patriarchal system and betraying each other in “Cornflake Girl.”

The novel tells the story of a girl in Africa whose mother forces her to have her clitoris removed. Her sister suffers the same fate (and eventually dies from her injuries) and, after her clitoris has been ripped off with a butcher’s knife, the mother takes it and throws it casually at the chickens to feed them. Of course, Tori’s song talks about self-mutilation in a spiritual sense, but she conveys images of physical violence, mutilation and self-mutilation to symbolize this and make her point. Her writing is quite stunning here in the sense of, even if you don’t know Walker’s novel, this phrase “when chickens get a taste of your meat” conveys a very strong and graphic image that’s simply dreadful and gives an idea of the self-loath and destructive aspect involved in this woman’s story.

In the same spirit, “you gave him your blood/and your warm little diamond/he likes killing you after you’re dead”; “I shaved every place where you been” and “you’ve cut out the flute from the throat of the loon” all convey the same kind of images to mind.

About the vampirism aspect, aside the title of the song and the choice of the harpsichord for the music, we could argue lines such as “he likes killing you after you’re dead;” “God knows I’ve thrown away those graces” and “when he sucks you deep/sometimes you’re nothing but meat” are vampire-related and that Tori uses them as a metaphor for what she calls “emotional vampirism,” the need to feed from the other’s energy, to live through your partner and his desires. It’s almost like the narrator has already turned into a vampire, hence the “god knows I’ve thrown away those graces” since vampires are unholy creatures and, in the Middle Age, people who committed suicide didn’t receive sacraments from the Church because it was feared they would rise again to walk the earth as vampires.

Also, a lot of vampire and voodoo stories happen in New Orleans ("The Belle of New Orleans/tried to show me once how to tango"); it is the case, among others, of a part of Ann Rice’s Interview With the Vampire.

Tori performed this song regularly during the Dew Drop Inn Tour in 1996 then during the 5 1/2 Weeks Tour in 1999 but, to her fans despair, she played it on fewer occasions over the years because she considered it as too emotionally draining. It is no less one of her fan’s favorites.