Feb 14

TORI AMOS – “Professional Widow (It’s Got To Be Big)”

Popular57 comments • 10,367 views

#756, 18th January 1997

Widow Remixing rock or alternative tracks could be one of the 90s’ more thankless tasks. Keep the structure intact, stripping out and replacing the song’s undercarriage, and fans might sniff about crass chop-shop philistinism. Really go to work on it, though, rebuilding a track entirely, and the same fans might howl about not recognising any of it. But not all listeners were so precious, and in any case the remixes kept coming. It wasn’t just a case of filling the obligatory ‘CD2’, either: There was something irresistible about the idea of them, the thought that turning songs into cyborg versions of themselves might be a way of getting at an artist’s essence.

That’s not quite what’s going on here, though given his remix was apparently non-commissioned it’s fascinating to imagine quite what Armand Van Helden heard in the original “Professional Widow” to spark his collapse and reconstruction of it. I am not a Tori Amos expert, or even fan, so I asked The Lex about the record, and he told me “Widow” is from Amos’ “most difficult/stark/piano-harpsichord-shrieking-catharsis” LP (Boys For Pele). A listen bears this out – it’s a compelling event, fragmented lyrics and venomous singing across a wheezing, mixed-down harpsichord, but it defeats me as a casual critic. I get a feeling that to begin to decipher it I’d need an immersion in Tori Amos continuity. This isn’t a failing of the track as opposed to its listener, but this is a blog about how music works as pop, and “Professional Widow” isn’t playing that game: this is not a song that cares very much for the traditional pleasures and payoffs of a pop record.

And yet here it is at Number One, in a form which also, frankly, isn’t wedded to those pleasures and payoffs. Beyond its found vocals, Armand Van Helden’s do-over of “Professional Widow” has two things in common with its source. It likes to disorient you, throwing disconnected ideas and snatches of sound out across its reliably solid beat. And it concedes nothing to any alternative use you might want to make of it: this is still music with a fixed context, but now that context is “dancer” not “Tori Amos”. I’d probably have to go back to “Jack Your Body” to find a dance music Number One that cares less about working outside the club.

So to get any purchase on it I need to rewind, and think of “Professional Widow” not as a remix but as a track that happens to sample Tori Amos. Most of the dance music hits we’ve bumped into recently owe more to rave and hip-hop than to house and garage music, making “Professional Widow” a window on a scene Popular hasn’t looked at for 18 months or so. In some ways “Professional Widow” is a good snapshot of developments – in others it’s already roving forward.

The familiar first – one mid-90s tendency in house music was to break down vocals even further, until they became just one more little event in a track, something to trigger a rush or a cue to move. The bits of Tori Amos that van Helden pulls out, edits and speeds up aren’t doing much more than making the track sound trashier and hotter. They sound a bit dirty, which probably did them some good chartwise, but the real action is happening lower down, in those quick, dipping snatches of bassline under the track.

This sound – fast, bass-led, with a distorted breakdown and a chaos of high-end sounds flashing past like lights from a car window – is the “dark garage” van Helden was already exploring in 1996. His remix of Sneaker Pimps’ “Spin Spin Sugar” – used a lot of the same tricks as “Professional Widow”, just less brashly deployed. That remix has been credited with helping invent ‘speed garage’, the London sound of 1997, which mixed in jungle and ragga influences to get to a more menacing place.

It’s rare to have to write paragraphs that genre-dense on Popular, because usually clubland trends don’t break through into the Number One list as dramatically as here: more often, dancefloor innovation reaches us pre-chewed. “Professional Widow” is closer to the edge of dance music, though, which is one reason for its odd, raw, provisional sound: it’s a style that’s not quite ready to crossover yet, doing so anyway. What we’re left with are fleeting emotional impressions – the joyous hedonism of early-90s house music tipping over into something rougher-edged, more decadent, and more intoxicating. The moment on “Professional Widow” that brings this most home is the breakdown, Tori’s fractured “Beau-ti-ful ang-el” sung high over a swirl of sleazed-up, echoing keyboards before the party starts again. So it was her track, all along.



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  1. 31
    Alan not logged in on 3 Feb 2014 #

    Back in the day that Q article (Bjork-PJ-Tori) that YMOF linked to marked my first attempt to appreciate Tori. With all the other Kate comparisons floating around, and now being trifected with Bjork and PJ it seemed a cert. It was not. That cover of “97 Bonnie & Clyde” Lex mentioned killed any hope that she’d ever be my sort of thing.

    My main memory of this song is that it was out-of-time somehow – and I note people saying it was one of those “big in the clubs, took ages to get an official single” affairs, which would explain that – thanks! This was from a time when I was clubbing a lot, but it fell into a genre I didn’t actively chase or talk about. Even a few years later I’d be enjoying the speed garages oblivious to any heritage owed (apparently) to AvH, and probably way after it was “in” (Home, Leicester Square, 2000 had a good floor of SG).

  2. 32
    Cumbrian on 3 Feb 2014 #

    #29/30: I’ll take that advice re: chronology cheers Lex. Probably more thoughtful than just listening to a load of random live gigs from 2007 (after enjoying the PW versions, I just started listening to the gigs to see if there was anything else that I enjoyed as much – unsurprisingly, this was not a clever way to start my listening, but seemed like a good idea at the time).

    Re: the Kate Bush stuff – maybe someone else can say why they see that – but the point I wanted to make is that these sorts of comparisons happen a lot in sport too in my experience (i.e. ones informed by personal characteristics rather than artistic choices in music, in playing style for sports). There’s currently a minor wrestle going on in American sports about the fact that black players are only ever compared to other black players in the major US sports, even if they actually play much more like white players. It’s the type of thinking that claims, to pick only one example, Sloane Stephens is the “new Serena Williams” even though she has none of the attributes of Serena that I can see (besides the obvious, getting away from which is the point of the wrestle). Now that I think about it, I don’t tend to see female musicians compared to males too often.

    Re: your theory. I can believe it’s been said – but still, WTF?

  3. 33
    Andrew Farrell on 3 Feb 2014 #

    I was listening to a lot of Tori Amos during her first few albums – I’m ashamed to say it was largely due to an American girl I was fond of, and disappeared after that ended – but her devotion to interpretation is pretty thoroughgoing – there was many-copied fan album passed around amongst the faithful of her covers – several of which were amazing (and several after a while seemed “Generic Tori”).

    #30 I understand that distinction, but I can’t really get on board with it because Kate Bush has always seemed to be playing up the witchy woman – it’s one of the reasons I don’t really like her work.

  4. 34
    Chelovek na lune on 3 Feb 2014 #

    To me the major distinction between Bush and Amos (but there are others) is that the latter has this religious pathology (neither work intended to carry any pejorative implication) that informs and intensifies and shapes some of her work (I might say “much of her work”: but as I am not – yet – familiar with anything she has recorded after 1997, I don’t know if that would be accurate…for the earlier stuff it certainly is) – I guess this ties into the description earlier of Amos’s work as being “visceral” in a way that Bush’s generally isn’t – or at least not to the same degree. Bush is a bit more playful, even when she is being “deep”; Amos not only “means it man”, but she opens wounds in public and lets the anger bleed out.

  5. 35
    anto on 3 Feb 2014 #

    I’m gonna need more time with this one. Two artists whose respective works have largely been a matter of indifference to me. It’s undoubtedly radical – relentless but somehow elusive, mercurial even. I haven’t heard the original and Courtney Love happens to me an unfashionable cause of mine. Actually now I think about it I think is one of only two Tori Amos songs I’ve ever heard from start to finish. I seem to recall there were a lot of plaudists for her first album followed by an insidious backlash (i.e you could detect it but it was more raised eyebrows than verbal bashings). Unusually it was Q magazine that was probably her strongest champion in the UK – albeit in a slightly squirmy ‘ooh shes’ a girl and she writes her own songs’ sort of way.
    After such a long review I was expecting this to be a 9 or 10. That 7 looks a bit anti-climatic sitting there.

  6. 36
    23 Daves on 3 Feb 2014 #

    #30 You’re probably right, and I think that possibly sits in tandem with the fact that a lot of her fans are rather fanatical about her work, could occasionally be accused of being guilty of over-analysing it and also occasionally seem somewhat deranged in their enthusiasm. I think that’s counted against other artists in the past as well – for example, Depeche Mode. Music journos seem really suspicious of any modern artists who have a slavish pencil-chewing, note-taking following. Perhaps because they see that element as being their job? Or every time they put pen to paper about them they get a bunch of angry emails/ letters correcting them? Who knows?

    On another subject, did this record actually win Tori Amos any new fans? A good friend of mine was a huge Tori fan and was visibly delighted when this went to number one, because she felt it would bring her to a whole new audience – whereas I don’t get the impression that many people who went out and bought this single were suddenly converted to her other material.

  7. 37
    Lex on 3 Feb 2014 #

    #32 Very familiar with the bizarre and unwarranted Serena/Sloane comparisons despite having little in common in terms of game style, mentality, personality or background – there was even the awkwardness of the media assuming Serena was Sloane’s mentor this time last year.

    #34 Yes, the religious pathology is def one of the key differences – and the same goes for the ways in which they tackle family, sexuality, patriarchy etc as well. Kate Bush populates her songs with characters and largely absents her private self from proceedings – of course that’s a bit reductive but the point is no one analyses her life for clues to her lyrics. Whereas Amos’s characters all seem to come from, or end up as, parts of her in some way. Or to put it another way, Tori was more interested in catharsis whereas Kate was more interested in performativity. And when Tori stopped being interested in catharsis she ended up having even less in common with Kate Bush than previously.

    Tori’s discography summed up for new listeners –

    Little Earthquakes: the “canon” one that probably tallies most with what your idea of her is. Production sounds dated but tension between conventional arrangements and confessional lyrics was always key

    Under The Pink: Half of it is as close to radio-friendly pop as Tori ever got. Then in the second half she starts displaying her sonic ambition with a bunch of complex, loosely structured solo piano songs influenced by 20th century Russian classical composers

    Boys For Pele: the latent Diamanda Galás tendencies come to the forefront. I’ve said this is her most difficult album but the starkness of the arrangements and the wholesale abandonment of verse-chorus-verse structure belies the fact that it’s actually unbelievably generous melodically (compare this to eg Joanna Newsom – another songwriter with virtuoso talent who is largely hook-averse). Lyrics on BFP are more, uh, opaque than ever; also more riven with meaning

    From The Choirgirl Hotel: About-turn again for the album on which Tori’s sounded most in command of everything she turned her hand to: 4×4 house bangers, country storytelling, aqueous jazz, high-drama electronic experiments, cock-rock, piano ballads about Jackie Kennedy. Incredibly percussive even on the more conventional full band tracks

    To Venus And Back: Studio album one huge electronic trip; more abstract and less songful than FTCH but so rich in sounds and language, the production is absolutely incredible. Live album is pretty powerful (and it’s good to have a record of her full band show) but probably a bit forbidding for non-fans unused to her various live tics

    Strange Little Girls: a concept covers album made to get out of a contract that ends up being way more interesting and successful than it has any right to be – way more than just a curio, and probably foreshadowed the next decade where the only thing Tori’s any good at any more is reinterpretations of existing songs

    Scarlet’s Walk: at the time was massively disappointed by this very soft, very pretty-sounding, very AOR album wrapped up in an unconvincing state-of-the-nation concept; have come round to it in a huge way since. Overlong yes, but SO pretty-sounding and really her last great work. Fleetwood Mac fans would like this one

    The Beekeeper: Terrible on every level. Concept is bullshit, lyrics are banal, arrangements are boring

    American Doll Posse: Actually surprisingly good. Probably quite telling that Tori had to create five separate characters to tap into what used to make her interesting – especially the snarling, angry one; it seemed like an admittance that Tori herself couldn’t do that any more. Overlong again, but not as much as you might think

    Abnormally Attracted To Sin: The music wasn’t good enough to counter that fucking title

    Midwinter Graces: Christmas album with horribly Photoshopped artwork that I listened to once

    Night Of Hunters: Variations on a bunch of classical pieces in the service of another underwhelming concept (Celtic whimsy meets marriage counselling, basically). Opening track is amazing then it goes downhill. Her approach to classical music is a lot more staid and overthought here than it was back on Under The Pink. Good tour though, reinterpreting her back catalogue with the aid of a STRING OCTET

    Unrepentant Geraldines: the new one. Yes, that is the title. Dying inside

  8. 38
    Lex on 3 Feb 2014 #

    #36 The music press’s attitude towards Tori is probably a huge reason I became a music journalist myself. Rule number one, any music journalist disdainful of obsessive fans is not to be trusted

  9. 39
    Izzy on 3 Feb 2014 #

    I saw Tori in concert at what I thought was this time, but working backwards must’ve been around a year earlier.

    I’d like to fill you in, but embarrassingly it is by far the drunkest I’ve ever been at a gig, to the extent that I might as well not have been there. I hate that, completely forgotten experiences. What if it was amazing? So now I don’t.

    All I remember was kind of snapping to at the end to see Tori lolling from a grand piano, against a blue-and-gold starry backdrop. Then the audience, who seemed to be all young lawyers, flooding out and not even turning round when she came back for an encore. It was my first encounter with such a crowd*, and rather bewildering.

    * well almost. I do recall a cool guy behind the counter in Our Price telling me he’d been to Dinosaur Jr, but he ‘only stayed ’til they played Freak Scene’. I think he was a cool guy. If it was, say, Radiohead and Creep he’d seem like an abhorrent guy.

  10. 40
    Mark G on 4 Feb 2014 #

    Guys, let’s not forget her version of “Ring My Bell”


  11. 41
    Ed on 4 Feb 2014 #

    @40 Heh. To raise the tone a little, this is awesome:


    Good quote, too:

    “Sometimes you don’t know how music affects people. I embrace that because I don’t think that just because I talk about emotional stuff that it’s not motherfucker stuff. I’ll stand next to the hardest fucking heavy metal band on any stage in the world and take them down, alone, by myself. Gauntlet laid down, see who steps up. See who steps up! I’ll take them down at 48. And they know I will. Because emotion has power that the metal guys know is just you can’t touch it. Insanity can’t touch the soul. It’s going to win every fucking time.”

  12. 42
    swanstep on 4 Feb 2014 #

    Like a lot of people here I was a huge fan of Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink but kind of lost the thread after that. The original version of PW, whose vid. I vaguely remember from the time, is pretty interesting even if not entirely pleasant. The remix, however, isn’t quite my thing, principally because of the drum track – it’s too washing-machine like for me (quite a lot of dance music falls at this hurdle as far as I’m concerned). By the six minute mark, I’m sick of feeling stuck in the laundry-room and hearing the same bass-loops and vocal grabs over and over. And then ‘Pretty Good Year’ comes on my iTunes, what a relief!

    Anyhow, amazing that this, I would have thought, fairly hard core club track got to #1. I mean this isn’t ‘Pump Up The Volume’ or ‘Tom’s Diner’ which were structured like pop records for all their novelty, really did break out to the mainstream, had great mainstream videos, etc.. The January low-sales period has tossed up some memorable oddities before, but the new precision marketing and general chart fragmentation of the time is raising extraordinary possibilities: maybe Ornette Coleman can get a one week #1 in January soon? Hard to grade – want to give props to Tori A. for making an appearance here, so:
    5 or 6 (depending on mood)

  13. 43
    swanstep on 4 Feb 2014 #

    @ed, 41. Thanks for that link – amazing!

  14. 44
    Tom on 4 Feb 2014 #

    #42 as is often the case with dance #1s, the radio edit is the thing that puts it into pop context – or the nearest thing you’re going to get to pop context, in the case of this record.

  15. 45
    flahr on 4 Feb 2014 #

    Dance dance dance (but I guess with a Pig instead of a Sheep Man?) [6]

    I utterly love her “Ring My Bell” cover.

  16. 46
    Rory on 5 Feb 2014 #

    Another track I was unsure if I knew before I YouTubed it the other day, but once again did; I imagine it got a fair amount of play on Australia’s JJJ at the time. “Hey Jupiter/Professional Widow” with the same Van Helden mix (radio edit) spent 29 weeks in our charts in 1996 and peaked at number 17; I’m not sure if it got re-released in its own right, but given that long run I’m guessing not.

    It’s certainly a cut above the run-of-the-mill. I picked up Van Helden’s Killing Puritans a few years later and listened to it for a while, but it hasn’t been one for the ages. (I see that “Koochy” reached number 4 in the UK. Did people here know what the title meant? Was there any harrumphing in the press?) Van Helden’s greatest Popular moment is still a fair way off for me; I think I’ll be conservative here and give this a 6.

  17. 47
    Weej on 6 Feb 2014 #

    Taken me a while to get round to re-listening to this, genuinely surprised at how much I like it – afraid I found it flimsy and forgettable at the time, which seems bizarre now. Hearing the original for the first time, I was surprised at how much of the spirit of the song remained despite it being sonically worlds apart, so will try to check out some more Tori.

    Lex @38 – “Rule number one, any music journalist disdainful of obsessive fans is not to be trusted” – this is really spot on.

  18. 48
    Steve Mannion on 6 Feb 2014 #

    Don’t most music writers become so having been (or still being) fanatical about certain kinds of music (or at least specific artists)?

    Disdain of obsessive fans is more based on what or who the obsession is for surely – and the perceived hierarchy of what to idolise and why.

  19. 49
    Weej on 6 Feb 2014 #

    That’s part of the point, yes, and while we might debate the existence of such a hierarchy, you have to admit that the concept leads more often to ad-hominem attacks on fans of a group / artist than as a bridge to understanding, empathising, a gateway to the music, etc.

    There are also a few writers out there who seem to take as an axiom that music = just entertainment and people taking it seriously = losers. Not sure what they are doing writing about music but they are certainly out there.

    Of course points one and two can intersect if people write about singers / bands / genres they don’t consider art.

  20. 50
    Auntie Beryl on 7 Feb 2014 #

    I’m going to take the opportunity to give “Eugina” by Salt Tank its second Popular mention, not only because I like the idea of singles that peaked at number 40 bring prized, but also as it predates PW in incorporating snippets of Tori Amos vocals into convincingly seamless enjoyable electronic music.

  21. 51
    Steve Mannion on 7 Feb 2014 #

    Good call Beryl, I never realised that was a TA sample on ‘Eugina’ – did they pitch her voice down? It actually sounds a bit more like Joan Osborne or even Stevie Nicks. Must listen to ‘Me & A Gun’ again.

  22. 52
    Cumbrian on 7 Feb 2014 #

    #2 Watch: Tori Amos and AVH kept Backstreet Boys’ “Quit Playing Games With My Heart” off the #1 slot.

    My progress with Tori Amos’ back catalogue continues. Have been listening to little else in fact* – I’m still sorting through how I feel about it. Not much of it grabbed me on first listen but the work is clearly dense with ideas and stuff going on, that subsequent listens have revealed more. I think I need to spend more time listening to this stuff to form coherent opinions – nevertheless, at this point, I think Under The Pink and From The Choirgirl Hotel are the ones that I am getting most from.

    *Not even the PWC entries, nor have I yet got to White Town (I don’t need to listen to Beetlebum to be able to comment on that really, as I probably know that record backwards by this point in my life).

  23. 53
    lonepilgrim on 2 Mar 2014 #

    this recording featured during the week just ended in OneWeekOneBand focusing on Tori’s work which can be found here: http://oneweekoneband.tumblr.com/tagged/tori_amos/chrono

  24. 54
    Gareth Parker on 22 May 2021 #

    Can’t quite take to this one I’m afraid. Some nice touches here and there, but I can’t go any higher than a 5/10.

  25. 55
    Rigmarole on 22 Feb 2022 #

    First heard this one on a Ministry of Sounds ‘Classics’ compilation in about 2002 – it led of disc 2 I think which for a long time was my favourite CD. I played it to death a little bit and to my ear now not enough really happens to be amongst my favourite songs; love that bass though. 7 for me.

  26. 56
    Mr Tinkertrain on 4 Mar 2022 #

    As commented on elsewhere, we’re coming into a period of massive turnover in the charts. Some people may argue that this devalues them, but the upside – certainly as a kid just getting into music – was that there was a huge amount of new music in the charts each week, and quite an eclectic mix too, even at the very top. Which, to me, seemed a lot more interesting than big hits hanging around at number 1 for ages.

    This is one of the more unusual chart-toppers – I don’t remember hearing much else of Tori at the time and I still don’t know a huge amount about her, although I gather she’s well thought of and Little Earthquakes is a very good album. I knew this was a remix but I’m not sure I’d ever actually listened to the original until just now – it’s very different! This dancier version I do remember though – liked it a fair bit then and now. Gets a 7.

  27. 57
    23 Daves on 4 Mar 2022 #

    #55 – on the flipside of the coin, though, that meant that if you went on holiday for two weeks or were just plain busy or distracted, you could easily miss the entire top ten career of some number one hits, almost as if they never happened. That means there are number ones from this era which have left virtually no imprint on me whatsoever which feels wrong (although I realise “wrong” and “right” is dictated by the movements of the marketplace rather than my own personal preferences).

    The main thing I remember about this track is I had a good friend who was a huge Tori Amos fan, and she was just absolutely gleeful about this getting to number one and hopeful it would bring Amos to more people’s attention. Unfortunately, in reality I don’t think it did that any more than “Tom’s Diner” brought Vega a new audience in 1990, or at least not one that stayed the course. Vega’s album chart career goes in the opposite direction to the one you’d expect after that hit, as indeed does Amos’s after this single. I suppose it’s a bit much to expect clubbers of the period to want to chill out thoughtfully to their work.

    (As a side-note, Vega mentioned that after Tom’s Diner got to number two in 1990 people started taking their freshly bought copies of “Solitude Standing” back to the shops believing it to be a mispress. The original version was acapella and they assumed the instrumentation had somehow fallen off by mistake.)

    EDIT: Just for clarity, I’m not categorising this among the number ones that left no imprint on me. Its moment at the top may have been swift, but it had a huge afterlife in the clubs.

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