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Are You There, God? It's Me, Tori

Earlier in their careers, Madonna, Liz Phair and Tori Amos routinely prescribed megadoses of overt female sexuality, and since their musical pills were alternately sugared with disco beats, indie minimalism and highfalutin piano classicism, large numbers of fans eagerly swallowed them. Recently, however, these high-profile women, each of whom came to prominence in part because she chose to publicly broadcast her gender's heretofore secret conflicts and predilections, stumbled simultaneously upon the inevitable threshold of such themes: fertility. This year heralds the release of Madonna's Ray of Light and Phair's whitechocolatespaceegg, a pair of postpartum labors of love that give passing nods to the vocalists' new roles as mothers, and Amos's from the choirgirl hotel, which likewise pivots on the subject of maternity. But since Amos miscarried three months into her pregnancy, her CD is filled not with joyful declarations, but with ardent and varied conversations about her truncated mission.

A libidinous former child prodigy raised in the Christian tradition, this minister's daughter has always displayed an interest in both the sacred and the profane; on her previous albums, including 1992's Little Earthquakes, 1994's Under the Pink and 1996's Boys for Pele, God and religion popped up as frequently as did sex and relationships. So when she lost her child two years ago after just one trimester of intrauterine life, it was only natural that the messages with which she was bombarded during her youth would resurface. "I was brought up with the belief that if you did X, Y and Z--if you prayed and went to church and didn't do certain things--that God would listen to your prayers," she says. "And the real truth is that the wolf will show up at your door sometime in your life no matter how compassionate you are or how loving you are."

The miscarriage left Amos empty and grieving--a condition that most people wouldn't find conducive to creativity. But Amos's pain thrust her into fruitfulness, prompting a cascade of songs. Some of the compositions occupy the wistful, windy moors of earlier offerings, as expected, but many others take listeners on rakishly seductive forays into trip-hop and glam. At their best, the tunes sound Tricky-sinister; at their worst, they suggest Kate Bush in a low rider.

Given the lamentable event that inspired much of the album, choirgirl's sexual tenor initially seems an odd component in Amos's process. But on closer analysis, her refusal to tiptoe around the topic can be seen as a way of countering the puritanical belief that a female's essential goodness is dictated by her sexuality. In other words, Amos gives voice (and vibrating bass line) to a more complex image of femininity.

"I think there were a lot of guilty notions put across when I was growing up--that if you became a certain type of woman, certain things would happen to you," she notes. "But I believe in the integration of the sexual and the spiritual life for all people. That's really what my goal is--to have a balance, because it was really a polarity when I was brought up." For Amos, this split is embodied by two New Testament figures: prostitute Mary Magdalene and the queen mum herself. "In my own faith system, I've tried to marry the Marys together so that the Mother Mary's sexual being isn't circumcised from her anymore and Mary Magdalene's wisdom isn't circumcised from her. I've restored that in my own faith system, and that's how I see them now--as a whole."

To put it mildly, such views are not shared by Amos's family, whose traditional Christian thinking and often pat notions of cause and effect tend to leave her intellectually dissatisfied. "My mother--she's such a Christian woman and I love her dearly--would tell me a story of people in a storm that were holed up in a church," she says. "They prayed, and they feel the angel saved them from death. And yet other people were killed in the storm. And their comment was, 'The angel saved us.' Well, what about those people who didn't get saved? What about the mother who loses her baby? What do you say to her? 'Your prayers weren't enough'? 'You didn't know the right things to say'? 'You weren't enough'? Then you're talking about a hierarchy that God has for saving certain people and not others."

Such conundrums have long troubled philosophers and lowbrows alike. But none has tried to plumb them in quite the way Amos has. "When I lost the baby, I guess I felt I had certain rights," Amos says. "There was a line crossed with me. They say that in fighting for your child--even though it was unborn--you'll do certain things that you wouldn't do in any other circumstance. I think it made me feel like I could approach any deity from any religion and ask questions. We don't know where souls go when they die. And nobody could give me that information." With that in mind, she adds, "I started to have weekly margarita sessions with the Christian god. And, you know, deities are deities. That's what they do, and obviously, they know things we don't. But as a human woman, I felt a loss that deities don't experience, and I needed to express what that loss felt like to those deities. So this record was really about me respecting the life force in a way that I hadn't, but also putting into perspective all the things I was taught and the untruths I was taught about the guarantees you are given."