Mossman on Music: Tori Amos at the Royal Albert Hall

Amos presents new album "Gold Dust" with the Dutch Metropole Orchestra.

A man in a pub recently told me that Tori Amos is every bit as good as Kate Bush, but people can’t see it because they “don’t actually like her very much”. Perhaps he was on to something. If Bush admitted on Woman’s Hour, as Amos did last week, that she likes to dress up in thigh-high boots and a faux-fur gilet and stand among the cows in the rural Cornish idyll she shares with her husband and child, it would be in-keeping with everything that makes her so attractive. But it made poor old Tori sound like a kook, and not for the first time. For many she does not inspire romantic awe like Bush, but rather the kind of cool feeling we have towards Yoko Ono. Looking at the tiny woman on stage tonight in the turquoise pant suit and specs, a superfan tells me: “Every year she goes somewhere in the Amazon and sees this real shaman and takes all this LSD. She is a proper free spirit!” My first thought is: groo. But I wouldn’t think groo if Joni Mitchell did it, would I?
 
Amos is performing her new album Gold Dust at the Albert Hall, a classical re-working of her songs with the Dutch Metropole Orchestra and two pianos. On this hallowed stage 43 years ago Deep Purple premiered their bombastic Concerto For Group And Orchestra with the Royal Philharmonic. Rick Wakeman and fellow prog giant Keith Emerson have also swivelled here over the years, reaching between multiple keyboards, the latter – like Amos – thrusting his hips out in gestures of neo-classical confidence. Tori may not stick knives in her piano but she does have a habit of punching it triumphantly as each song ends – and shedding her long sheet music with a flourish, letting each page tumble on to the floor like the scarves of Scheherazade. I don’t know when I last saw this kind of behaviour from a “popstar” – though she’s not the only one to have reworked her songs with an orchestra recently; Peter Gabriel and Antony Hegarty have done the same. Like them, Amos strikes you as a bit of a “cold fish” – musical ambition on this scale is intimidating in the pop world, and hard to warm to. It shouldn’t really be so – she grins broadly tonight; she even starts the first piece, 1992’s Flying Dutchman, in a different key to the orchestra and realises after a minute or a so with a great big “fuck! I fucked it up again!”  

 

Artists who baffle or turn off half the population always seem to inspire a burning, protective layer of hardcore fans who keep their career running. Tori Amos doesn’t need press.  Her concerts are quiet sell-outs – intense communions populated with sensitive men and women who dye their hair the same colour as hers. I first noticed the crowd’s hair back in 1994 at the Ipswich Regent, when I saw her with a school friend. I’ve seen Amos four times now, completely by accident, and each time I find the music surprisingly moving. Enhanced by the lush arrangements of John Philip Shenale tonight, it becomes clear how complex these songs are – how they appear to have been written backwards from a piano part, with lyrics forced to follow the strange, rugged path of the music wherever it leads; how the words tumble breathlessly so you lose your thread, and then a simple pearl of reported speech or household wisdom will pop up with alarming poignancy – like “feeling old at 21” (from "Jackie’s Strength"), or "Pretty Good Year" with all its repressed emotion. Amos was always stuck in her own extended adolescence and maybe that’s why these songs still work – her wintry psychodramas send you spiralling back to that claustrophobic but infinite space between childhood and adulthood, in much the same way a Bronte novel does. Who are the modern equivalents? Imogen Heap? Too friendly. Regina Spektor? Too normal. Amanda Palmer? Too much fun. In "Precious Things" she’s still angrily recalling a boy who said, “you know, you’re really an ugly girl” in the seventh grade – and in that respect she’s a bit like Taylor Swift. With the groin of Keith Emerson and the windswept aesthetic of a Scottish widows ad. Whatever, there’s still nothing quite like it.

Tori Amos. Photo: Getty Images

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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