“I guess you go too far when pianos try to be guitars” — it’s a classic Tori Amos quote, and far be it from me to decipher any Tori Amos lyrics (oh don’t get me wrong; I love me some Tori.) but I find this quote to be particularly interesting and evocative. I looked up her own comments on the song, which added an interesting dimension to the lyric:
The line, I guess you go too far/when pianos try to be guitars is just about never being enough. I felt that with my instrument sometimes, wanting to be Jimmy Page. You can only be you. A lot of times it’s never enough for people.”
And I started thinking about gender. Now there’s nothing inherently gendered about playing guitar or piano: Joni Mitchell, Joan Jett, and Ani DiFranco all rock(ed) the guitar scene. Elton John, Rufus Wainwright, and Billy Joel are piano men. Nevertheless, I think these instruments get gendered. For some reason I cannot fathom, all the indie rocker guys singing with intentionally rough/scratchy/stylized voices are don’t usually get dismissed as trying to be Dylan or a 60’s music throwback (or if they are, it’s considered a positive thing), and yet, you can’t be a woman with a piano without the Tori Amos/Sarah McLaughlin/your music is so 90’s comparison. I realize that there are exceptions to this (Regina Spektor seems to be doing pretty well for herself, thank god!), and so I’m going to full-out admit that I understand that there’s some generalizing involved. But that’s not the point…
Now, I love me some guys with guitars, but I also love some women with pianos. So I’m going to talk about two women with pianos who deserve your respect and your ears: Vienna Teng and Terami Hirsch. Are they trying to be “guitars”–make those kind of musical waves? I don’t know, but they do rock.
Vienna Teng is a Taiwanese-American singer-songwriter from the SF Bay Area (yay!). After graduating from Stanford, she went into computer engineering, only to give it all up to pursue her music. But before I get going on her music, let me get to the instance that inspired this post in the first place. Back in May, Vienna Teng launched her fourth album “Inland Territory.” I started searching for reviews of the album and came across this piece from Paste Magazine, which struck me as incredibly lazy. Not only did the author not bother to make sure he wrote down the track titles correctly (He called “White Light” “White Lie,”) but he also introduced the article with this rather telling statement:
With her nimble piano arpeggios and Lilith Fair balladry, Vienna Teng casts a backward glance during Inland Territory, a retro-minded release anchored in the legacy of Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan and other mainstays of the mid-‘90s female-songwriter boom.
It honestly felt to me as if Mr. Leahey heard the piano, thought “Lilith Fair,” assumed he knew what “Lilith Fair” meant, and shut his brain off. To be fair, Teng, in general, makes deceptively simple music. Upon first hearing it, you’ll probably think, “Well, this is pretty.” And it is. She creates lovely, stirring piano melodies. But just because something sounds pretty and has a woman singing it, does that mean we can assume what the content is and shut our brains off? Have we really reached the point where melody translates to shallow except when Sufjan Stevens sings “Chicago”*?
If he had bothered listening to the album, Leahey would have heard songs exploring people’s willingness to ignore world events, mistakenly believing that what happens in “3rd world countries” has nothing to do with them (“Radio”.) He would have heard a vignette from the point of view of a teenager in a hypothetical future in which Americans are sneaking over the border to Mexico, hunting for work (“No Gringo.”) He would have heard a song from the perspective of her Taiwanese grandmother, an attempt for her to understand her grandmother’s harsh criticism of her musical career while still portraying her grandmother as a brave, sympathetic individual who had to flee oppression in her homeland (“Grandmother Song.”) Throughout her songs, she puts on a variety of masks and personae to talk about contemporary issues, identity issues, and, yes, love. When she addresses political issues such as immigration (or gay marriage, as she did in her song “City Hall” off of “Dreaming Through the Noise,”) she focuses on the people these issues effects, forcing herself and others into the shoes of someone they may or may not find easy to relate to. I fail to see what’s so “retro-minded” about this kind of approach.
And that’s the thing about Vienna Teng: she seems so easy to dismiss, and this makes it all the more important that we don’t. Honestly, I think it’s because her music is irresistibly pretty that we allow it to succumb to our worst prejudices; at first even I was inclined to assumed that there was nothing behind the lovely, swirling piano. But pretty doesn’t have to mean hollow, and in Teng’s case, it certainly doesn’t. She’s a fantastic artist and performer, with remarkable empathy and sensitivity. I absolutely adore “Inland Territory,” but really, you can’t go wrong with any of her albums. I linked to her site above, which has some streaming music, and you can also check out her myspace.
As little-known as Vienna Teng is, singer-songwriter Terami Hirsch is one of the most obscure artists I listen to. That’s a fact, not
a bragging right–in fact, I wish she weren’t so obscure. Terami is a little difficult to classify. Though she’s piano-focused, she works with synths and keyboards to make highly textured, layered songs with mysterious lyrics. Her albums sometimes feel dark and heavy, but part of the heaviness simply comes from the digital layering.
I first fell in love with the song “Little Light,” off of Entropy 29. It felt like the theme song for an as-of-yet unwritten heroine of a dystopian tale. I know that is a terribly vague description; this is why I don’t describe music often on this blog–I simply don’t have the technical vocabulary to explain it. However, the rest of the album had such a specific mood to it that I found I could only listen to it when I had the energy to give it its deserved attention. A Broke Machine, her latest album, is no lighter, but perhaps more sophisticated and beautiful. Then again, I might be biased because it contains my favorite song of hers, “The Collector” (I’ll go back to that in a moment.)
I’m going to talk about “The Collector” in specific because I think it’s the closest I can come to encapsulating exactly why Terami fascinates me, despite it being more accoustic than her other songs. From the swirling piano intro, to the verse-chorus structure, there’s something instantly familiar about the song; it reminds you of a love ballad. And yet, something’s wrong. Maybe it’s the tone, the frightening lyrics, the sheer… obsessiveness of it.
Why can’t I let it go?
I’m tired of impossibilities
Chasing down a ghost
To pin it like a butterfly
And hang it on my wall for beauty
I was running through the noise
Playground photographs of me
Chasing down the boys
And tripping over shoelaces
I’ll hold them down to touch their beauty
Oh, I collect what I cannot hold
I collect what I ache for
I collect what I can’t let go…
I collect all I can!
It’s utterly creepy (and I do not condone unwanted touching of anyone, even if it’s children playing with each other,) but, ultimately, that’s what makes this song so interesting. It’s a broken love ballad, trying to contain beauty. And yet, there’s something so relate-able about this character, wanting to be closer to, to encompass what she finds beautiful/sexual. It’s disturbing, but thought-provoking, and utterly addictive to listen to. Some of her songs, of course, have a more of a sense of renewal: “A Hundred Flowers” has a sense of renewal; “There’s a Garden” is about remembering the happy person trapped within you during a bout of depression. But all of them twist your expectations. They are meticulously crafted little gems.
Unlike Teng, I think Terami is probably overlooked because she’s simply not commercial, despite the obvious care she takes in designing every aspect of her albums (down to the cover art!). And, you know, that’s not a criticism; plenty of people make music that’s difficult to get into. You can listen to Entropy 29 on her main site (linked above,) or check out her Myspace page for songs from A Broke Machine (yes, including “The Collector”.)
Sorry for the less-than-analytic post, but I’m tired and brain dead; I just wanted to post this before moss started growing on the mirror. I’m here, and I’m thinking, but I am but one woman, and occasionally susceptible to writer’s block. Hope everyone out there and reading is well!
*Disclaimer: I love Sufjan Stevens too.