Great Moments in Badass Rock History: Tori Amos and “Me and a Gun”

It'll make you cry, and it'll make you cry.

Oct 7, 2011 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

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In 1992, Tori Amos released her second album, entitled "Little Earthquakes." Not many people realized it was her second album at the time. Her first album was 1988’s "Y Kant Tori Read," a curiously antiseptic synth-driven effort that sounded more like a Berlin cover band than anything she would subsequently produce.

"Little Earthquakes,” however, met with some resistance from her record label. For one thing, it jettisoned the glittery pop polish of her debut in favor of an acoustic piano and some curious lyrics. And the final version featured an acappella song about being raped. How many popular songs about rape do you know? This is not generally radio-friendly fare.

Amos wrote “Me and a Gun” about a rape that occurred roughly eight years before. At the time she was an unknown, playing piano in bars and trying to make ends meet. One night following a performance, a male patron asked her for a ride home. She obliged, and over the course of a terrifying multi-hour abduction, he raped her.

Amos told “Rolling Stone” of the song’s genesis: “Difficult work. Raw. I had seen Thelma & Louise and after seeing it I went off and spent some time by myself. Days. Days. And days. Processing so much that I hadn't been able to begin to become conscious about. And it was through gut-wrenching pain -- hysteria, I think -- that the music began to come.”

Raw is a good word for it. “Little Earthquakes” was an important album to me as a teenager -- alright, this is putting things rather mildly. I listened to "Silent All These Years" like it was my job. The bridge in "Tear in Your Hand" still puts a lump in my throat. The title track turned me inside out. Even today I will sing "Happy Phantom" to myself when I am sad.

Yet I always skipped “Me and a Gun” after the first time I heard it. I have probably heard the full song fewer than 10 times in my life, and most of those were live versions in which I could not escape. It is a difficult thing to listen to; there is a bluntness and a numbness to the words, and to Amos’ delivery, that is just shattering.

It was me and a gun
And a man on my back
And I sang "holy holy" as he buttoned down his pants
You can laugh
It's kind of funny
things you think
at times like these
Like I haven't seen Barbados
So I must get out of this

Like most of us, I know many, many women who have been sexually assaulted. Because it happens to too many women; if it happens to even one woman, that is too many. I would later learn from many of these women that this song was an almost spiritual sonic balm, a reassuring voice, a religious chant acknowledging shared experiences too often kept in dark psychological corners, hidden behind shame and guilt.

One friend told me about listening to the song on repeat over headphones for 12 hours following her own rape; another said hearing it led her to recognize and accept that an experience she had put down to her own bad choices many years before was, in fact, an assault that she did not deserve, and which was not her fault.

Bolstered by the popularity of this difficult song, Amos went on to co-found RAINN -- the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network -- an organization that sponsors annual rape awareness campaigns, and which manages a National Sexual Assault Hotline, which connects people with local rape crisis centers.*

It couldn’t have been easy for Amos to become the poster girl for rape for so many years, but through her willingness to be raw and to tell the truth of it, she’s helped many surviviors not to feel so isolated and alone.

Sometimes, being a badass isn’t about being tough -- it’s about being vulnerable. Tori Amos does both, and by her example many people have been helped to survive. It doesn't get more badass than that.

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* It's worth noting that RAINN has come under fire recently for partnering with groups that refuse to provide services to transwomen, which is frankly very uncool.