Tori Amos Sheds a Little Light with "Flicker"
By Etan Rosenbloom, ASCAP Director & Deputy Editor, Marketing & Communications • December 21, 2016
When Netflix needed a song for their documentary about high school sexual assault, Audrie & Daisy, they reached out to ASCAP member Tori Amos, a fearless songwriter with a personal connection to the subject. Amos is a longtime spokesperson for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), and a survivor herself (documented in her song "Me and a Gun"). With her end credits song "Flicker," Amos channels the pain, anger and resilience of the young women at the heart of Audrie & Daisy into a song of great emotional power. We spoke with her about her unique writing process for "Flicker," and the work that still needs to be done to end sexual assault in our high schools.
How did you get involved with Audrie & Daisy, and what about it resonated with you?
Netflix reached out to me, and said “Would you listen to this? We know of your work with RAINN.” After I watched it, I was speechless. I was aware of how pervasive sexual assault was and is on our university campuses. I was not aware how much it was happening within our high schools - that our high school kids were sexually assaulting our high school kids. And then of course there’s the cyberbullying component that involved the bullies being our boys, as well as our girls, against the victims.
There are so many different pathways that a songwriter could take for a song for this film, so many different emotions to access, so many stories you could choose to tell. What was your access point into the song “Flicker?”
I talked to the directors and understood some of the issues they discovered over the last two years. They learned that the communities - there is a culpability there too. You’re dealing with the assault, you’re dealing with the victimization. In Audrie’s case, she died without moving into “survivor.” She died in victim consciousness. And Daisy and Delaney, they have had a tough pathway, and a tough road, but they’ve moved from victim to survivor. All of that had to be acknowledged in the song.
Knowing some of these things though, you know it and you know you have a responsibility to weave all that in. How to do that is part of diving into the deep end, and hoping that the muses are gonna show up. And the muses, when I was watching it again, it was almost a valkyrie-yelling pitch when the mantra came up that said “Monsters are made, not born” [this phrase is painted on the wall of Daisy’s brother’s room]. They were just screaming in my ear, and told me to pause, and said “This is not the lyric,” because monsters are not the subject [of the film]. We’re not dignifying the monsters to be the subject.
Were there other scenes from the film that particularly inspired the creation of “Flicker”?
[The lyric] “Underneath the scarring from his defiling” - the idea that Audrie was written on with marker, and the physical assault, the sexual assault, and the the writing on her - and then of course the photographs - it was important that the song was not shy about the assault. But also then, the second verse held the community’s feet to the fire. “When neighbors and friends / Only give you their burning silence.” It was important that the reaction to the attacks, how that then affected the cyberbullying. The silence that Daisy met from friends, and the journey she had to take in order to get where she is today. So it was very much Delaney and Daisy. The phoenix out of the ashes is really what their story is. Some lights ignite. Some lights flicker out. And unfortunately, the tragedy is that Audrie’s light was extinguished at 14.
Fire is a recurring theme in the film - Daisy’s house burns down, and she ends up burning herself with cigarettes when she’s at her low point. Your song definitely reflects that in the lyrics “Fire purifies / It’s redemption time” and “The torch is raised.” And of course there’s light, too: “Shed a little light on this.”
The muses really were directing me on this one. At first, I was going down the wrong pathway, metaphorically. In songwriting, you don’t always know what you’re looking for. The mantra was there, but until the phoenix got locked in, it became clear then that it was fire - that was another key. Then you start piecing it together, because it might seem obvious, but you’re starting with a blank piece of paper, really. And I don’t discover these things ‘til I discover them. On one hand, this might sound strange, but it’s sort of a paradox in writing that I find, which is that you have to surrender, and not know where it’s leading, and not know the answers. And that can feel very vulnerable. And yet at the same time, you have to be a hunter. You have to be hunting. They seem like opposite actions, and in a way they are. There is a tension with those opposites, where you’re standing in the middle of those extremes.
This song couldn’t come from anyone other than Tori Amos. The contour of your melodies, the kind of imagery you use...how does that translation process work? You’ve hunted, and been vulnerable to these ideas, but then you have to translate it into an actual lyric and melody.
It’s happening all at the same time. It’s not outside. Imagine the song lines are all there. They exist, but you are having a relationship with them. And some of them are not right for what becomes “Flicker.” So you acknowledge them as you’re walking through them, those kind of grids.
In songwriting, I don’t “go to work” and write. It’s about co-creating with the muses, and sometimes I get silence. And so, it’s not like I say “Okay, I’m gonna go off and work on this song for Audrie & Daisy.” You kinda go “Over the next three weeks or so, muses, we’re gonna take a journey, we’re gonna just chop wood, carry water.” And that might mean you’re stalking a city, you’re in coffee shops, walking through wherever they are.
I don’t always tell people where I go. Because you’re driven to go. But a lot of times, when I’m dealing with very emotional and violent subjects, I take myself out of being a mom and a wife, and I go off as a musician who is surrendering to the muses, and hunting at the same time. I go a-hunting. And that’s what it is. I don’t need an instrument, but I will find an instrument. And I’ll make my way to an instrument.
It’s about finding the energy and recognizing clues. But sometimes you get clues and you realize, okay, this is a clue to something, but it’s not to what became “Flicker.” You have books with you. You read. If I’m in the library - I’ve been building up a library for over 25 years - then you’re chasing ideas. I mean, the phoenix image came through a Native American book that I happened to have with me. And as soon as I read about the phoenix, the muses were there again, screaming like the valkyries, and you go “Okay. This is another piece. We’ll take this piece.”
Are there fragments of song that came to you during the writing process for “Flicker” that you’ve saved for something in the future?
I don’t know. I know that sounds like a copout to you, but there’s a part of me that sometimes is in denial. Because the focus has to be - it’s just, “no.” You can sing it into whatever you’ve got - your radio on your iPad - and that’s a two-bar phrase for something down the line, but it’s not for this. And sometimes they’re whizzing by, and you go “No, no - That’s for some club night, if I were a gay man. Come find me in a few weeks please, when I can embody being my gay man self!” And hopefully that will be on the next record.
What role do you think that music has in “shedding a little light” on social problems we face?
I grew up with some of the greatest songwriters. The Leonard Cohens, the Lennon and McCartneys, the Joni Mitchells, the Robert Flacks - there’s so many. Jimmy [Page] and Robert [Plant] of course. Kate Bush. Peter Gabriel. Sting. Elton [John] and Bernie [Taupin]. Stevie Wonder. Prince! It’s endless. And we didn’t even talk about Billie Holiday - on and on and on. Nina Simone! One of the great writers of social consciousness and heart at the same time. And so yes, these were teachers. Part of learning is crawling inside their structures.
There’ve been so many songwriters who have shed a little light for me. And by just sitting with their structures, you learn. That’s how you learn to build yourself. You can either build or you can’t, okay? This is true! I guess if I’m honest with you, builders - they can build something every day. But I’m not saying anybody would ever want to listen to it. Because unless it has that kinetic spark, unless the intention is there, that little bit of gold dust...It’s that sparkle that makes it a being, and not just two-dimensional. You know the songs, to me, they’re alive. They’re beings.
Every great songwriter has studied his or her influences, knows the great songs inside and out. But they go beyond that. They ask “How do I apply those lessons to what I have inside me as a songwriter?”
Yes, that’s right. And I think if I’m honest with you, playing piano bar for 11 to 13 years, starting at 13 [years old helped]...but I’d been doing weddings and funerals before that. My dad was a minister, so he got me two for one. Usually funerals in the morning, weddings in the afternoon. You learn your trade, you learn the energy, what songs speak in that moment, what people need to hear and what they’re relating to. So maybe some bride wanted “We’ve Only Just Begun” in the afternoon - you might play that for the funeral, but maybe not! It depends on who it is. There are not a lot of people who ask for “We’ve Only Just Begun” at the funeral. However, it is an interesting concept!
Hey, that’s a Paul Williams song! He’s the President of ASCAP.
Oh, I didn’t know that! See? Muses - coinkidink. He wrote Bugsy Malone! Oh. Magic. Tell him to rock on.
As a longtime spokesperson for RAINN, you’ve seen firsthand how the conversation about sexual assault and consent have changed over the last 25 years. From your perspective, what progress has been made - and what still needs to be done?
There’s a regression that seems to be happening right now in the idea of what is “consent,” what is respecting somebody else’s physicality. It’s been an eye-opener to realize that. For instance in the film, the boys at the time didn’t realize that they were acting as predators, that they were perpetrators. We as adults, we have to look at the fact that we’ve got a lot of high school kids that don’t know that they’re committing a crime by taking a picture of someone unconscious, and putting it up [online].
The idea that if somebody can’t consent - we’re back to the cup of tea commercial that the Brits did - “If you can’t say ‘Yes, I would like a cup of tea thank you,’ then no tea!” It was one of those moments when you say “Well maybe she’s really thirsty, and I’m doing her a favor by giving her tea.” It’s just NO! No tea!
Working with Audrie & Daisy, it made me realize that we as adults have to do better at communicating what is a healthy relationship. What’s respectful? What’s disrespectful? When, as a teenager, have you become a bully? Our girls are involved with bullying as well as our boys. And so that’s what the film was trying to make us aware of - it’s not happening to communities “out there.” It’s happening everywhere. It can happen anywhere. And also, I think what’s happening right now in England, I think it’s very brave for soccer players to talk about their sexual assaults, and that it happens to our boys as well as a girls. It’s very important that we talk about that.
Audrie & Daisy is available for streaming on Netflix: www.netflix.com/title/80097321
Visit Tori Amos on the web: www.toriamos.com
Click hear to hear Tori Amos perform "We've Only Just Begun" at a wedding in 1978.
Photo of Tori Amos courtesy of Netflix