A music video changed my life one summer’s night 27 years ago, in 1992. This happened in Malad, a suburb of Bombay, where I was born in a tiny Roman Catholic neighbourhood the size of a few football fields strung together.
The video in question aired because MTV had arrived in India a year earlier, overwhelming a country that had been weaned on nothing but state-sponsored television until then. The government referred to the process as economic liberalization, changing its policies in 1991 to expand the role of foreign investment and finally allow the world in. One of the results of that decision was a shift from one television channel in 1962 to approximately 100 by 1995. I suppose I simply happened to be sitting before a television set at the right moment in my country’s history. All I remember of the preceding years are episodes of Star Trek on Sunday mornings, followed by the original animated Spider-Man that everyone else had outgrown in 1970. We were starved of entertainment but didn’t even know it.
I was 16 when my father granted us permission to get MTV, paying the cable guy after my siblings begged him for months. It sucked me in almost immediately, smack into a maelstrom of gangsta rap, grunge and the mystifying presence of video jockeys who quickly became minor celebrities. What flickered on my screen that particular evening, however, was something completely beyond my limited experience with pop, rap or rock. All the Grammies had given us were tracks like We Are The World, Radio Gaga, and Careless Whisper. That evening brought me Tori Amos, singing a song called Crucify. The fifth single from her debut album Little Earthquakes, it was released on May 12, 1992, with a promotional video that happened to air in Bombay because someone at MTV Asia thought it should.
In retrospect, there should have been nothing about that track or video to arrest my attention the way it did. It was certainly catchy, and she was pretty, but there were all kinds of videos being pumped into the ether regularly, given that piracy had yet to drag music industry profits down to Earth. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen though. There were visuals of Tori in a bathtub, snippets of her playing piano, a montage of her dressed as a queen, and clips of her doing what appeared to be a cheerleader routine. It was hard to process, as were her lyrics about dirty sheets, domestic abuse, and sex as a defense mechanism.
A minute earlier, and I could have been in another room, doing something else entirely. A minute later, and MTV could have switched to Kris Kross, En Vogue, Whitney Houston or Right Said Fred, all of whom did rather well that year. I sometimes compare it to the possibility of someone walking past a Monet at a museum, missing one of his Water Lilies and going through life never knowing what that feels like. What I experienced could possibly be compared to what people behind the Iron Curtain must have felt when confronted with illegally procured bootlegs of The Beatles singing Twist And Shout.
For lovers of music in the West, watching a music video could generate an itch that was easily scratched. They could simply walk to a local record store and pick up a cassette or CD. This wasn’t the case in India in the nineties. Pirated cassettes were available but restricted to stars who could sell in large numbers. Michael Jackson’s Dangerous could be bought for the equivalent of 50 cents, but nothing that wasn’t considered mainstream was available because fewer copies didn’t justify import costs.
All we had was George Michael and Madonna, Bon Jovi and Metallica, hair bands and pop princesses. Local music companies decided what we could and couldn’t listen to, their choices shaping the listening habits of generations who simply couldn’t be bothered to seek out powerful new voices like Bjork, Kate Bush or PJ Harvey. If the video I saw that evening hadn’t made as profound an impact as it did, I would never have gone down a rabbit hole of my own making, that introduced me to new sounds, images, and writing that eventually changed my worldview.
Tracking Tori’s music took me years. I began by asking relatives abroad if they could help, called local music shops requesting imports, then began saving all I could of my meagre salary to risk purchases on Amazon. Deliveries were never guaranteed because orders had a habit of disappearing. This was, after all, a country that had only just opened up its borders to imported goods.
When I think of those years now, specific moments stand out: Holding a copy of Little Earthquakes that a friend got me from America five years after it was released; finding a secondhand copy of Under The Pink in 1994 at a bootlegger’s stall; being gifted a bad recording of Boys for Pele by a friend who spotted it in a tourist’s backpack in 1996 and asked if he could make a copy; logging on to the Internet for the first time and discovering a community of fans with forums devoted to each album. By the time I turned 26 in 2002, Tori had seven studio albums, and I had copies of them all. I knew her lyrics, printed out every interview she gave, and spent as much time as I could on a website called The Dent, which served as a meeting point for fans across the globe. I was always the only one from India.
Getting hold of the music did get easier, eventually, thanks to the rise of peer-to-peer sharing sites and a growing economy. I found myself with more money for the first time, and no one to be accountable to. This isn’t to say my fix was cheap. My monthly salary was Rs 4,000, or roughly $60. Given that an imported CD or cassette still cost between $5 and $15, every purchase had to be carefully evaluated. It got easier as I rose up the corporate ladder, but took over a decade before I could pay for music without it affecting my social life in some way.
The investment continued to pay off though. Tori’s music was a gateway to all kinds of ideas because she sang about things few other musicians appeared to consider. While friends and neighbours danced to Summer of 69 and hummed along to Hotel California — both cultural touch-points that, at least on paper, ought to have been meaningless to Indians — I was thinking about sexuality, sadomasochism, the pervasive influence of patriarchy on religious texts and the idea that women masturbated, all because these were things Tori talked about. The albums became a soundtrack to women’s studies courses I took, as I worked towards a doctoral thesis on gender attitudes implicit in nineteenth-century Indian fiction in English.
For someone growing up in a culture that willfully encouraged repression, Tori’s music was revolutionary, a fact that is lost on listeners in the West, who tend to approach feminism from an egalitarian perspective. In India, equal rights are a far-fetched notion given that a large portion of the country still denies women access to what much of the world has long taken for granted. For me, that music set off fireworks in my head. I couldn’t conceive of a world where sexuality was to be celebrated, or where a reference to God could be radical. For example, on one of her earliest tracks called Precious Things, Tori sang: ‘So you can make me cum, that doesn’t make you Jesus.’ That lyric alone pushed me to evaluate my own troubled relationship with the Catholicism of my parents, prompting an eventual and irrevocable break from a Church that refused to give women the right to worship reserved for men.
There was no real reason for that music to resonate with me, an Indian boy growing up in a town far from big city America that Tori called home. There was no reason for her references to Anne Boleyn, Thomas Jefferson, Henry VIII or Princess Anastasia to move me, but they did. Art, I learned quickly, gained power with its ability to treat the human condition as universal.
Listening to Tori in those formative years shaped not just the way I listened to music but governed some of the choices I made about what I wanted to explore in a more academic setting. Her music pointed me to topics as diverse as the Native American Trail of Tears and the influence of long-forgotten myths related to the sacred feminine, prompting a series of questions I continue to ask to this day.
17 years after that video aired, I met Tori Amos in person. It took over a year’s savings, an incredible amount of homework on emerging social media platforms, and a great deal of luck before I could face her in Vienna, in 2009, and tell her my story. She was everything I expected her to be, which is why I don’t subscribe to the school of thought that dissuades us from attempting to meet our idols. In the years since that meeting, I was fortunate enough to chat with her on a number of occasions, before performances in Frankfurt, Manchester, Berlin, and Glasgow, all of which seems like a dream for a young man who had yet to see the inside of an airplane in 1996.
I learned a number of things after that first concert. I found out, for instance, that all kinds of people turn up to see Tori whenever she decides to perform. Some fans plan their lives around each tour, saving up for years to follow her across a continent for a few months. I met people who had seen her 50 times, and others who had put their 600th show behind them.
An interesting thing about these concerts is the Meet and Greet events that take place as often as possible, depending upon her schedule. A lot of people turn up hours before each show in the hope of meeting her. They use the opportunity not just to tell her what she means to them and get their CDs signed, but to share their personal stories. Some talk about their inability to feel accepted on account of their sexuality, others talk about pain, suffering or heartbreak. I don’t fully understand why they feel the need to share this, but respect their need to do so because I sense that speaking to her brings them comfort.
I haven’t seen Tori perform as often as I would like to, thanks to the fact that she has never performed in India and probably never will. I blame insurance laws and economic viability for this. Over the years though, I have found and retained ties with fans from cities as diverse as London, Italy, Romania, and Dubai. They continue to track her every move with the same zeal, year after year, introducing family and friends to her music, sharing bootlegs on Facebook, discussing each album release with the kind of enthusiasm that greeted her work in the 90s. Those corners of the Internet are, for me and thousands of others, places that stay forever young.
I am often asked about this obsession with an artist that has now lasted over a quarter of a century. Why do I feel the need to see her as many times in concert as possible? Why do I continue to listen to her music, given that tastes evolve and the heroes of our youth are so rarely the prophets of our adulthood? Why have I invested so much time, energy and money into what should have been little more than a youthful infatuation? Will I keep going, following her from stage to stage well into the twilight of our respective years?
My answers change with every decade. I see her as often as I can because no two performances are alike. She now has a repertoire of 15 studio albums, innumerable B-sides and covers that span a number of genres. She sometimes performs solo, brings in a band at other times, and even toured with an orchestra a few years ago. The venue dictates what she might sing on a particular night, or interactions with fans before a show may prompt a change in the set list. She once performed the song Bells For Her a few hours after I gifted her a set of bells, a gesture I like to delude myself into thinking was a personal one.
What I have learned by following Tori for 27 years now is that the relationship between an artist and fans is symbiotic, and evolves together. There are highs and lows, great music and forgettable songs, moments that underscore one’s own life events and tragedies that affect how albums are received by those listening in. My favourite Tori songs change every other year or so, as old tracks reveal nuances I hadn’t noticed before or live performances awake some long-buried meaning. I continue to invest time, energy and money because I believe the pursuit of art in any form enriches us, and engaging with it helps us understand ourselves and the world around us a little better.
There are a number of reasons why I recommend sticking with an artist for years. You get to know the music really well, obviously, which helps during singalongs on tour or when you need a lyric that fits a particular life situation just so. More importantly, it teaches one that the appreciation of art is a lifelong process, one that compels us to look at a painting, read a book, or listen to a piece of music differently at various stages in our lives. The creator’s relationship with a piece of art evolves too, affecting how an audience receives a new cover or interpretation of what it thought it knew. That music video pointed me towards a path that molded not just my tastes in music but my character itself.
I am at present, like thousands of other fans like me spread across the planet, waiting patiently for Tori to announce a new album and tour. She turns 56 this year and has professed an intention to perform until her dotage, so the chances of more music continue to be high. I look forward to joining a congregation of the faithful again, and paying homage to the musician, teacher and idol we all refer to as our goddess.
As I grow older, I think about the choices I have made and wonder about the impact Tori has had on my life. This has never been obvious, or tangible in a manner that would allow me to pinpoint the ways and means in which she has changed the trajectory of my personal history. It definitely exists though, not just in the music I still listen to, but in the stories I heard along the way, the places I visited and lessons I chose to learn inside and outside a university setting.
As Tori Amos and I grow old together, I ask myself if I would do it again, given another 27 years. I can say, in all honesty, that I would in a heartbeat.