Volume 10, Number 2, June 2004
Copyright � 2004 Society for Music Theory

Lori Burns* and Alyssa Woods*

Authenticity, Appropriation, Signification: Tori Amos on Gender, Race, and Violence in Covers of Billie Holiday and Eminem (1)

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KEYWORDS: popular music analysis, voice, gender, race, violence, authenticity

ABSTRACT: This paper studies alternative artist Tori Amos's cover versions of two original performances by Billie Holiday and Eminem. The narrative perspectives and musical structures of the original songs offer great potential to explore questions of authenticity, appropriation, and intertextuality, and Amos's distinctive revisions of the songs encourage reflection on her Signifyin(g) practices. The song "Strange Fruit" marked a shift in Billie Holiday's musical style and social consciousness. Her recording (1939) of this emotionally powerful song about the lynching of a black man is upheld as the benchmark ("authentic") version of that song. Over five decades later (1994), Tori Amos expresses a powerful commitment to the style and social message of Holiday's original, yet her musical presentation is not merely historical tribute; rather, Amos Signifies on the older text to offer a contemporary statement on race and violence. Eminem's song, "'97 Bonnie and Clyde" (1999) exposes the problematic theme of violence against women. In her version (2001), Tori Amos appropriates Eminem's lyrics, but casts a new perspective over the narrative by assuming the voice of the murdered woman. This paper analyzes the originals and covers using an interpretive framework that focuses on the voice as the site and vehicle of an artist's Signifyin(g) expression.

Received March 2004

[1] Recent studies in popular music explore the problematic attribution of "authenticity" to an artist's musical work.(2) Such an attribution might be an evaluation of the sincerity of the artist, or a judgment concerning purity of musical style. Sometimes an entire genre is evaluated on the basis of its authenticity, for instance, when folk is associated with the authentic and pop with the synthetic. The concept of "authenticity" becomes ever more germane when the analyst is considering an artist's borrowing of another artist's original material. In a simplistic evaluation of such "cover" songs, the original material might be described as authentic and the cover an appropriation, yet the interpretive process ought never to be that simple.

[2] The evaluation of an artist's authenticity relies heavily upon the subjective perspective of both artist and listener. Allan Moore identifies three possible perspectives on musical authenticity--the perspective of originator (the unmediated expression), that of appropriator (the borrowing of another artist's material), and that of listener (the reception of the expression as genuine).(3) Moore recognizes intersections among these three categories, for instance, an appropriation of another artist's work may still be considered "authentic" as long as the borrowed material is presented with "sincerity." Such attributions of genuineness, honesty, authenticity, suggest a unified statement, perhaps one could even say single-voiced utterance, which by definition does not admit of contradiction, irony, sarcasm.

[3] The interpretation of a univocal utterance is not in keeping with a postmodern approach to cultural and artistic expression. Indeed, a postmodern conception of art would embrace a multi-voiced, intertextual expression and an interpretive approach that would eschew an attribution of fixed meaning. Richard Middleton understands intertextuality in the context of popular music such that "all texts make sense only through their relationships, explicit or implicit, with other texts."(4) Although Middleton does not invoke the term "authenticity," its value seems implicit when, for instance, in his analysis of a Miles Davis remix, he concludes that Davis emerges as more of an auteur in the remix.(5) Again in his analysis of a remixed Bob Marley song, Middleton asserts that the producer makes the music "sound more like itself," whereupon he wonders "how this musical 'self' is being conceived and where it is located."(6)

[4] These questions of authenticity, appropriation, and intertextuality are all implicitly connected to the more basic question of authorship. While Middleton certainly writes a convincing argument for the dismantling of the concept of author in the realm of produced popular music, we still wish to acknowledge the social positioning of the recording artist or singer. And while we recognize the problems associated with the assertion of authorial intentions in a postmodern theoretical framework, we are loath to dismiss the concept of an author's voice, because of the strong social statements and political messages that can be found in popular song.

[5] An interpretive concept that acknowledges the self, the subjective social position, is "Signifyin(g)." The concept was developed by African-American literary and musical scholars as an interpretive tool for jazz, with its stylistic features of musical play, elaboration, variation, transformation.(7) Signifyin(g) is figurative, implicative speech that makes use of vernacular tropes and rhetorical devices.(8) Henry Louis Gates explains that the rhetorical devices themselves, the play of language, the manipulation of meaning, are the essence of Signifyin(g). The Signifyin(g) subject is referred to as the trickster, a master of technique, and the fascination with the expression is not that s/he signifies something, but that s/he "signifies in some way."(9) A natural corollary of this privileging of process over literal content would be the privileging of subject, the Signifier, over the signified. Thus, the process and the subjective voice are at the forefront of the Signifyin(g) expression.

[6] This conception of Signifyin(g) is valuable as we weigh the other terms that are active in the authenticity debate (authenticity and appropriation). Here follows a formulation of a question that could serve to reconcile these seemingly opposing terms: If an artist's subjective process of Signifyin(g) on a text is a way of making a personal claim, is that not simultaneously an authentic expression of the self and an appropriation of the chosen text to serve that individual expression?

[7] Before we turn to our analytic examples, we would like to reflect on the music-theoretical enterprise of analyzing an artist's vocal expressive practices. Since the music we have chosen for study is vocal music, with strong lyrical content, our primary analytic emphasis will be on the voice as signifier. We have developed an analytic approach that gives consideration to the space that the voice occupies, the perspectives that an artist's voice might adopt in the different contexts that comprise a song, as well as the locality of the voice within the domains of text and music. The strategies for the socio-musical communication of popular song derive from nuances of vocal expression in relation to text delivery, including the gamut of expression founded in vocal quality, range, and production, to text pronunciation and articulation, to the manipulation of musical gestures and structures. The following are our four categories for the interpretation of the voice as the site and vehicle of a Signifyin(g) expression.

  1. Voice as Subject in the Lyrical Narrative. The voice is situated as the speaking subject for the lyrics, adopting a particular narrative perspective. The singer might adopt the role of narrator (a third-person voice), or the role of a character (a first-person subject) in the lyrical narrative.(10) The subject is not necessarily fixed in a song performance--an artist's voice may switch from one character's subjective position to another, adopting more than one voice in the course of the song. Neither is the subject determined by the lyrical content alone, but rather is developed by the musical artist. That is, one artist might adopt a character stance for a given song, while another artist could assume a different voice in the story. The subjective position is a level of meaning for the listener to understand, based on that artist's ability to adopt that voice, that is, to communicate a social stance, through the use of dramatic and musical techniques.
  2. Voice as the Vehicle of Social Communication. The subject or character in a popular song narrative might communicate a social message, describe a situation, express an emotion. The lyrical narrative, with its potential for social affect and emotion, is transmitted by and through the vocal effects. Some of these effects might be considered to lie in the domain of dramatic presentation, achieved through pronunciation, accent, emphasis, as these are part of a system of socio-linguistic conventions. However, just as the subject of a song is not fixed, the social message of a song is open to interpretation. An artist uses such linguistic conventions to shape the meaning of the song, enhancing concepts or offering contradictory meanings.
  3. Voice as Participant in the Musical Codes, Conventions, Styles. A singer presents the lyrics in the context of the musical content, in which we find in operation the connotations of style and gesture that are part of a long history of musical codes and conventions. Conventional meanings and style connotations contribute to the context-based musical framework for the song. The voice has an important role in the structure of form, phrase, rhythm, melody, harmony and texture, and will participate in that musical design and structure in a variety of ways, sometimes strongly directing the formal structure, and sometimes being relegated to an incidental role in that structure. Since popular music is a performance-based musical art, an artist can choose to manipulate content to greater or lesser degrees. Rhythmic, melodic, and phrase content are subject to change and variation, leading to potential Signifyin(g) practices in those domains. For instance, the singer could replace the tonal convention of dissonance resolution with an avoidance of closure, indicating a deviation from the norm.
  4. Voice as Member of the Instrumental Ensemble. The singing voice participates in an active musical texture that features not only instruments but also, for recorded popular music, the production techniques that affect the sound. The musical content and structure of the song (form, harmony, melody, and rhythm, etc.) are transmitted or enacted through the instrumental ensemble. The voice presents itself in dialogue with the instruments, revealing a variety of musical relationships, the interplay of musical ideas conveying meaning that can be related to the socio-lyrical content.

[8] Our analyses provide reflections on authenticity, appropriation, intertextuality, and "Signifyin(g)," through these interpretive perspectives on the voice. Although these concepts may seem to exist only at a music-critical level, we present concrete music-theoretical techniques that bring musical content, structure, and design into the argument. We study here two recordings by Tori Amos of songs originally recorded by Billie Holiday and Eminem. Amos is well known not only for her original song compositions but also for her performance of cover songs. In addition to the Strange Little Girls album, which is a collection of covers, Amos has released many "singles" that feature remixes and covers. Some of her most famous covers appear on the Crucify EP (1992) where Amos reinterprets Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Angie" by the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin's "Thank You." The two Amos covers that we have chosen for this study are interesting for their thematic handling of race and violence within a particular social context. These songs take us from New York in 1939 to Detroit in 1999.

"Strange Fruit" (Lori Burns)

[9] Billie Holiday's decision to perform "Strange Fruit"--a song about the lynching of a black man--at the racially integrated Greenwich Village Café Society in its 1939 opening season has been credited as a turning point in her performing career. The producer from her early recording period, John Hammond, captured the essence of this transitional moment of both acclaim and criticism with the following remarks: "The beginning of the end for Billie was 'Strange Fruit,' when she had become the darling of the left-wing intellectuals. . . I think she began taking herself seriously, and thinking of herself as very important."(11) The political context and powerful social content of the song held very real consequences for Holiday--for instance, although she had a recording contract with Columbia, they refused to record "Strange Fruit." Columbia did, however, release her to record it for Milt Gabler at Commodore in April of 1939.(12)

[10] Holiday's singing style has been the focus of many critical remarks. With regard to this particular recording, Stuart Nicholson writes, ". . . she relies on the grain of her voice, hard and worldly-wise, and careful, dramatic enunciation that would have done credit to a classically trained actor, to exploit the unequivocal drama of the lyrics."(13) Nicholson also captures the spirit of listener-evaluated authenticity with the claim that the song "was a landmark recording, but a very different kind than was perceived at the time. It was one of the first examples of a popular song becoming impossible to disentangle from a single, specific recording of it."(14)

[11] Jazz critic Will Friedwald takes an interesting analytical stance on the recording that I would like to quote here and then develop:

Beginning with the overdramatic but startlingly effective 'Strange Fruit' (1939, Commodore), Holiday experiments with slightly suppressing her melodic embellishment as a means to turn lyrics into personal videos of the mind. . . [O]nly she can implant in your mind the horrifically powerful image of lynch mob victims hanging from the trees like so much strange fruit. One word from Holiday is worth a thousand pictures.(15)

[12] Without explicitly identifying the concept of cultural memory, Friedwald's comment explores listener response through the development of a mental image, implicitly suggesting that a listener will conjure such images through his or her acquired cultural memories. The concept of cultural memory is a powerful rubric for the study of any music, but in particular, African-American music scholars have made explicit use of this concept in their commentaries on black music traditions. In The Power of Black Music, Samuel Floyd writes, "Cultural memory, obviously a subjective concept, seems to be connected with cultural forms--in the present case, music, where the 'memory' drives the music, and the music drives memory."(16) In Race Music, Guthrie Ramsey writes about music as a means of accessing cultural memories, the access made possible because "cultural forms such as tales, stories, and music (especially the performative aspects of such) function as reservoirs in which cultural memories reside."(17)

[13] In his remarks, Friedwald suggests that Holiday can "implant" a response in the listener's mind. Contemporary feminists Marianne Hirsch and Valerie Smith develop a conception of cultural memory as based upon performative acts of transfer. Such an act of transfer is "an act in the present by which individuals and groups constitute their identities by recalling a shared past on the basis of common and therefore often contested norms, conventions, and practices."(18) Since we may not have access to the original experience the transmission of history and cultural memory is considered by scholar James Young as "twice-behaved behavior."(19) This conception of historical and cultural transmission resonates with the feminist belief that history is constructed and contested. Feminists tell us not to forget or suppress the past, but rather that we must contest such suppression with an "active remembering."

[14] With these ideas about cultural memory in mind, I would like to consider our first interpretive perspective, that is, Holiday's Voice as Subject in the Lyrical Narrative. Holiday adopts the voice of a narrator for this song. One might say that Holiday's version is quite believable, or authentic, given her social, racial, and historical positioning. Why are we quick to identify her performance as authentic--the benchmark--according to Nicholson? Here is where Friedwald's commentary is of assistance to us: Holiday succeeds at implanting in our minds the image of this horrific scene; it is her performative act of transfer--her own subjective positioning and historical context in relation to that cultural memory is an important vehicle in transmitting the meaning of this song. She conveys for us--witnesses, "behaves"--the past behavior that is the subject of "Strange Fruit."

[15] As the Vehicle of the Social Communication, Holiday's voice presents the lyrical drama through careful enunciation and word emphasis, developing the listener's awareness of the scene. Lewis Allan's song lyrics use the metaphors of fruit and nature to represent the hanging body in the tree, thus couching the horrible image in poetic terms. A transcription of the original melody, Holiday's vocal line, and Amos's vocal line for verse 1 are aligned in Example 1.(20) In lines 1 and 2 of verse 1, Holiday brings to the fore the words that describe a natural scene: trees, fruit, leaves, root. She ascribes to these words longer rhythmic values, directing the rhythmic flow to these words as anchors. In particular we notice this in line 2 where twice the expression "blood on the. . ." is passed over very quickly, thus de-emphasizing the word string that carries the human or social implications of the story. In line 3 Holiday draws out the words "swingin'" and "southern," taking us a step closer to that human story; that is, these words suggest social contexts, whereas the emphasized words in lines 1 and 2 represent nature. Holiday's emphasis on the nature words is achieved by durational values, but now in line 3 the emphasis comes through melodic elaboration and swung rhythms, clearly distinguishing the words "swingin'" and "southern" as carrying a particular musical style connotation. The final line 4 of the verse is offered as a direct communication of the lyrical statement. In both rhythmic and melodic presentation, this line is delivered with a straight feeling and a sense of resignation. "Hangin'" arrives with a relatively strong emphasis on beat 3. (It is important to note that these gestures in the Holiday version are not found in the sheet music. I will offer some comparative remarks between the original and Holiday's version presently.)

[16] I interpret the overall shape of this first verse in the following way: Holiday begins by emphasizing the words that represent the natural scene, not giving the human reality of this story much emphasis; the human context does come forward in line 3 with more emphasis on the social words, which are set to a lilting melodic pattern; the final line states the situation fairly clearly, yet the object of the hanging is still metaphorically disguised as strange fruit.

[17] Let us return to the quotation of Friedwald with this analysis in mind. Friedwald's commentary points to a kind of bare simplicity in the Holiday performance. I would like to connect this aesthetic of simplicity to a theoretical concept that has been developed in literary theory. In her article on "The Site of Memory," Toni Morrison analyzes the narratives of slave autobiographies written in the mid-19th century, and identifies some common features in the literary intent and expression of these authors. One writing strategy that she explores is the understatement of atrocity as an important means of retaining an audience. Morrison states: ". . . it was extremely important for the writers of these narratives to appear as objective as possible--not to offend the reader by being too angry. . ."(21) Morrison identifies her task in analyzing these texts as follows: "My job becomes how to rip that veil drawn over 'proceedings too terrible to relate.'"(22) Morrison's analysis illuminates the subject's perspective, revealing a self-consciousness over the trauma that has been experienced, and a desire to express the history of the trauma in objective terms, in forms that control and contain the content.

[18] Holiday begins her tale with the veil drawn over, but does allow herself to express strong emotion as she comes to the close of the song. In order to illuminate her expression, in order to rip that veil, I will turn to a more detailed musical analysis, and at the same time, to our analytic perspectives on Holiday's vocal Signifyin(g) practices.

[19] As a Member of the Instrumental Ensemble, Holiday is featured at the center of this arrangement. The song has a lengthy introduction, first featuring 27 seconds of a muted trumpet in a searching melodic solo against a non-rhythmic high-hat wash and harmony in the winds. This section comes to a close, followed by a 43-second piano solo, which establishes a somber and poignant mood in a slow swing style with the rhythmic pulse provided by the bass. By the time the voice enters, a great sense of expectation has been established, and she is well featured as the teller of the anticipated story. The piano continues in the texture, but at a lower level of activity; the bass has a quiet presence, as does the muted trumpet. The tempo of this song is very slow, at quarter pulse equals 58. It is, in fact, one of the few songs in Holiday's repertoire with such a slow tempo. In that context, the song is marked as unique.

[20] As a Participant in the Musical Codes and Conventions, Holiday reveals herself, as always, to be an innovator in jazz singing. As mentioned earlier, she develops the song from its original form. That would be true of all singers of jazz standards, but given that Holiday had no other performances of this song from which to receive influences, she certainly places her own particular signature on the musical content and style. She manipulates and enhances the unadorned melody of the original song.

[21] I have already drawn attention to Holiday's durational emphasis in lines 1 and 2, on the words trees, fruit, leaves, root. A voice-leading analysis tells us even more about the weight of those words: trees arrives on the tonic, B flat, fruit on C as the neighboring scale degree 2, and then those pitches repeated for leaves and root. In the original song, the melody consists almost solely of this 1 - 2 - 1 - 2 movement. There is one ornamental pitch, the third scale degree, heard over the dominant, at the verb "bear." When Holiday elaborates the melody, she takes that ornamental scale degree 3 and extends it even higher to scale degree 4, the E flat. The verb "bear" is particularly poignant when we know the ultimate meaning of the song (tree bearing fruit becomes tree dropping dead fruit). This verb is presented on the active contrapuntal scale degree 4 (E flat), stepping down on the word "strange" to the scale degree 3 and then 2, the goal of the melodic motion. "Strange" is also given an unusual rhythmic setting, arriving on a very weak second half of beat 2, but then being held over as the first part of a swung triplet rhythm. My interpretive point here is that the words that emerge most prominently in the lyrical emphasis and musical structure of the song--trees and fruit--are in fact enhanced by the more active and poignant words even though these active moments are fleeting and always brought back into containment by the strong structural arrivals.

[22] Line 2 also features a pattern of elaborative pitches being presented on the "emotional" or "active" words of the line, moving to the structural pitches on the strong words from nature. In the original song, "blood on the leaves" was set to a repeated tonic, and "blood at the root" to a repeated second degree. Holiday elaborates this simple structure, putting the contrapuntally active pitches on the emotionally active words in the text. "Blood on the leaves" moves from a neighboring scale degree 2, down to the fifth degree (a deep pitch in Holiday's range), and then to settle on the tonic. "Blood at the root" leans heavily on the minor third scale degree in repeated neighbor resolutions to scale degree 2.

[23] Line 3 emphasizes "swingin'" and "southern" using melodic and rhythmic patterning that departs dramatically from the feeling of structure and containment. Here the melody escapes. In the original song, the rising arpeggiation from scale degree 2 through 4 to flat 6 is the first dissonant melodic movement. The flat 6 settles to scale degree 5 on the word "breeze." Holiday heightens the musical expression in this meaningful phrase. Her rhythmic articulation is one means, but melodically her line is noteworthy because of the way in which she exceeds the structure of the original melody, going one pitch beyond the neighbor note that was flat 6, rising up to a flat 7 before settling back to 5. The effect of this G flat � A flat � F is to dissipate the impact of the flat 6 neighbor to 5 and its resolution. The expectations that a listener might conventionally feel for a G flat - F resolution, are suspended once the higher note A flat enters the dissonant field. From that flat 7, Holiday simply falls back to the scale degree 5, interestingly enough, one that is supported in the bass by a leading tone, a cross relation with the flat 7 in the melody.

[24] Line 4 answers the elaborative melodic pattern of line 3 with a strict presentation of the structural notes. The pattern of freedom and containment that was felt in line 1 and then again in line 2 is offered at a larger level by the whole of line 3 followed by line 4. The sense of rigidity or containment is further enhanced in line 4 by the contrapuntal relationship between bass and voice--they are in octaves, a rather unusual presentation, and one that contributes to this sense of containment or control. The first verse establishes this struggle between strict and free, nature and humanity. That struggle is certainly the essence of the song's lyrical and musical narrative. Based on Morrison's discussion of cultural trauma and memory, the struggle to control one's presentation of an extreme human tragedy was an important aspect of the African-American slave narrative. I will jump ahead to the final verse of the song, to illustrate a few points about Holiday's struggle within that narrative. The original melody of the final verse, as well as Holiday's and Amos's vocal lines are transcribed in Example 2.

[25] The final verse features the same harmonic and melodic relationships that were established in verse 1, but with a prolongation of the dissonant melodic excursion. In the original song, line 1 of verse 3 is melodically equivalent to line 1 of the first verse. Line 2, however, borrows the melodic pattern of line 3--the dissonant arpeggiation from scale degree 2 to flat 6, which then resolves to 5. Line 3 of verse 3 then introduces something new--a climb to flat 7, resolving to flat 6. Line 4 abandons the dissonant upper register and outlines an ascending leap from the low tonic to the fifth, followed by a return through scale degrees 3 and 2 to 1. In sum, this final verse heightens the emotional expression that was contained in verse 1, and yet still manages to return to control for the close of the song.

[26] Holiday takes this material and develops the dissonant expression while still achieving the aesthetic of restraint. Although, as Friedwald points out, in the context of her other performances, we might interpret her melodic work as "suppressed melodic embellishment," in the context of the original song, she does exceed the existing structure. Her greatest excess occurs in line 3 ("sun to rot"), where she elaborates scale degree 5 with its lower leading tone, and then ultimately where she treats the original flat 7 � flat 6 resolution ("trees to drop") as the moment to release her outcry at the horrific scene of the hanging. She moves chromatically from the A flat (flat 7) down through G natural and G flat, but then returns to the A flat before sliding down to F (scale degree 5). The accompaniment here fades out, leaving a long moment of silence before her final line, which conforms to the original melody.

[27] I will turn now to the Amos, even though it is difficult to wrench oneself away from Holiday's musical portrait of that powerful scene.

[28] How can a contemporary artist such as Tori Amos enter in to this historical narrative? How does she use her voice as a Subject in the Lyrical Narrative? We may not be able to see Amos as experiencing the same traumas of racism that Holiday experienced, but she does carry cultural memories and traumas authentic to her own experience and she has made such traumas a strong thematic feature of her work. Her work in general has revealed a contemporary social conscience regarding the boundaries and restrictions that are placed on women in certain social, cultural, and religious contexts. Her own cultural history (she is part Native-American Cherokee Indian) has raised her sensitivity to racism and gender discrimination. Many of her songs explore themes of power and what she herself refers to as patriarchal structures.

[29] Amos is a fine pianist and in this recording she accompanies herself.(23) Perhaps in keeping with the lengthy piano solo that introduces the Holiday version, Amos opens the song with a one-minute piano introduction. I will not discuss her instrumental Signifyin(g) practices here, but will restrict my comments to her vocal strategies. As the Vehicle of the Social Communication, Amos uses a wide variety of vocal techniques to convey emotions and meanings in her songs. She is not conventional in her singing presentation, but rather manipulates her vocal quality and intensity, and plays with rhythmic accentuation and diction to suggest and transmit meaning.

[30] A remarkable aspect of Amos's delivery of the first verse is the distortion of the original 4/4 meter and slow tempo. She slows down the tempo even further, moving at about quarter = 44 at the very opening, increasing to 50 as the verse proceeds. The meter shifts between and among 4/4, 5/4, and 6/4, such that there is no consistent meter for the first verse. We are held in suspense, temporally, not knowing when her vocal and pianistic events will happen and what accent they might receive. There are occasional moments of metric and rhythmic normalization, which bring a sense of expectation, only to have such expectations immediately denied.

[31]  The melody is parsed into individual gestures, the lack of continuity caused not only by the rests between vocal lines, but also by this rhythmic and metric unpredictability. The original melodic neighbor pattern between scale degrees 1 and 2 used as support for the nature words "tree, fruit, leaves, root" is still evident in her melody, but her angular patterns in the approach to those stable pitches, in combination with the unusual rhythmic accentuation, give emphasis to the active social words in the text and take away from the stable words from nature. If I return to the concept of restraint and freedom that I studied in the Holiday version, I would suggest here that Amos takes more liberties than Holiday, struggling against the controlling structure to a greater extent.

[32] Amos's handling of the dissonant arpeggiation (verse 1, line 3) is noteworthy for its avoidance of the pitch (A flat) that was the goal of that gesture in the original song. She achieves, at the beginning of her line 3, a more conventional sense of 4/4 swing timing through the rhythmic accentuation in the piano, but that familiar musical feeling is short-lived when she creates a 5/4 bar in the next measure. Melodically, she overshoots the expected flat 6 by leaping to the flat 7 on "southern." Holiday's original overstepping of that line by moving up to flat 7 could arguably be the inspiration for Amos's vocal gesture here. For the final line 4, Amos returns (as did Holiday) to emphasize the tonic in a rather unadorned melodic cadence, albeit in 6/4.

[33] I will once again skip ahead to the final verse of the song. In verse 3, Amos pushes against the structure of the original song to a greater extent than did Holiday. Holiday saved her most poignant gesture for the second half of line 3 ("for the trees to drop"), but Amos reaches that emotional height already at the end of line 2 ("for the wind to suck"). Amos's premature climb to the peak of the melody requires her to sustain that climax for a longer period of musical time than Holiday. Holiday's excursion was brief, checked under control immediately, a tempered outburst. Amos allows herself to linger in her outcry. Her actual melodic embellishments can be seen to derive directly from Holiday's line, but with a greater degree of repetition and resulting emphasis on dissonance (the sharp 4 neighbor to 5, the flat 6 and flat 7 gestures, and the chromatic slide from flat 7 to 5). Whereas Holiday offered a fairly conventional presentation of the final melodic line, Amos's final rising glissando from the expected scale degree 5 to a sharp 4 is a remarkably unconventional gesture.

[34] How to interpret the vocal strategies of Holiday and Amos in relation to this particularly powerful text? The original song reveals the narrative of nature versus humanity, of restraint versus emotional response, of musical control versus containment. Holiday and Amos did not compose the song. They do compose, however, their own "authentic" versions of the song, that is, they Signify on the song, claiming it as their own, and transmitting its meaning to an audience. Based on the vocal Signifyin(g) practices that I have analyzed, I would categorize Holiday's performance as that of a witness to the social scene, as someone historically connected to the context of the story, as revealed through strategies that are culturally prescribed (restraint in the telling of tragedy). I would categorize Amos's version as an active remembering of a historical story by someone who carries cultural traumas from other contexts. Not being a witness on the scene, not being held to a standard of restraint, she takes greater liberties in declaring her outrage.

"'97 Bonnie and Clyde" (Alyssa Woods)

[35] Rap artist Eminem's solo albums are named after his different personas: The Slim Shady LP (1999) after his alter-ego, The Marshall Mathers LP (2000) after his birth name, and The Eminem Show (2002) after his stage name. The song that I will study here, "'97 Bonnie and Clyde," is from The Slim Shady LP.(24) Alter-ego Slim Shady emerges as a character through which Eminem is able to express social commentary in a first-person narrative that does not necessarily reflect his own personal views or actions. He uses the Slim Shady character to shock people by presenting them with views that most artists would or could not express. This alter-ego allows Eminem to be detached from the strong social issues that he expresses in his music. He says, "Slim Shady is just the evil thoughts that come into my head, the things I shouldn't be thinking about. . . people should be able to determine when I am messing around."(25) Eminem has a wide fan base, but receives a lot of negative media attention due to the offensive nature of his lyrics, which have been accused of encouraging hate crimes.

[36] In the song "'97 Bonnie and Clyde," Eminem uses the voice of alter-ego Slim Shady to express social commentary in a first-person narrative--Slim Shady describes how he has murdered his wife, kidnapped his infant daughter, and then justifies his actions as he disposes of her body in the river. Eminem's song is loosely based on the Bill Withers and Grover Washington Jr. song "Just the Two of Us" (1980).(26) In Eminem's song, "just the two of us" refers to "just me and my daughter," the two who remain once the mother has been murdered. In the introduction we hear the narrator's statements of love and affection for his daughter as well as his strong desire to be with her ("Nobody in this world is ever gonna keep you from me"). The first verse takes place as the narrator drives to the beach with his daughter. The listener begins to discover details of the murder as the narrator explains this late night trip to the beach to his daughter. The chorus consists of eight repetitions of the phrase, "Just the two of us," the most obvious reference to the Withers/Washington original. In the second verse the narrator reveals more details of the crime as he attempts to explain the situation to his daughter in terms she might understand. After a second repetition of the chorus, the third verse describes the arrival at the beach and the disposal of the body in the water. After a final repetition of the chorus, the narrator once again declares his love for his daughter and reiterates that nobody will ever keep them apart.

[37] The title "'97 Bonnie and Clyde" refers to Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrom who were infamous criminals during the Great Depression.(27) With this title, Eminem invokes the early Americana story of the infamous criminals and places it into a 1997 context. By aligning his story of a father and daughter with the well-known characters of Bonnie and Clyde, Eminem implicates the daughter in the crime, and elevates her role in the narrative to a level--to a voice--that must be addressed. That is, by bringing an innocent child into the scene and act of violence, Eminem intensifies the implications of that domestic violence. If we consider the Voice as Subject in the Lyrical Narrative, Eminem adopts the role of the criminal father, but also raises our awareness of and gives a realistic presence to the daughter whose life will be forever affected by the crime.

[38] The realistic roles of father and daughter are enhanced by Eminem's use of non-musical sound effects to place the listener into the scene, establishing the physical setting. During the first thirty-six seconds of the song, a remarkable length of time in the context of popular music, the listener hears the sounds of something heavy being dragged, a car being unlocked and something loaded into the trunk, passing traffic, and finally a car door being opened and closed, which is followed immediately by the introduction of the rhythm and vocals.

[39] Eminem reinforces the image of the child's actual presence by including some vocal sounds of the infant--we hear baby words such as "yeah," "no," and "mama" in the background, and we imagine the position of that child in the car while the father drives, toting the mother's body in the trunk. If we consider Eminem's voice as the Vehicle of this Social Communication, we find him to be using vocal nuance and word diction that suggest an intimate relationship between father and child. We not only hear the child's vocal interjections but also Eminem delivering some of the lyrics in the idiom of a child, for instance when he uses expressions such as "da-da," and "free" as a substitute for "three."

[40] At times Eminem, in the voice of the subject Slim Shady, trivializes and disguises the violence for the child. A few lyric quotations from the first verse will illustrate this nicely: "Oh where's mama? She's takin a little nap in the trunk"; "Don't play with dada's toy knife, honey, let go of it"; and "Don't worry about that little boo-boo on her throat, it's just a scratch." This "simplification" of the crime scene continues throughout the song, and has the opposite effect of actually heightening the emotional impact of the violence. Perhaps the moment of greatest irony occurs in verse 3, when the narrator asks the child for help with the body ("Here you wanna tie a rope around this rock? We'll tie it to her footsie then we'll roll her off the dock"). We hear the child's compliant interjection "yeah," and we hear the splash as the body hits the water.

[41] It is in the introduction, chorus, and coda sections of the song that Slim Shady declares his love for his daughter. His claim that he will always be there for her, however, has an ironic effect in the story, since he admits in verse 2 that he is aware of the criminal punishment awaiting him ("There's a place called heaven and a place called hell, a place called prison and a place called jail. And dada's probably on his way to all of 'em except one").

[42] The lyrics of this song place a horrific act of violence into a narrative in which a child unwittingly participates in the actions that follow a murder. The violence of the described actions is contradicted by the naturalization of the events for the sake of the child. As a Participant in the Musical Codes and Conventions, Eminem invokes normative phrase and formal structures as the setting for this violence, thus creating a musical representation of that lyrical irony: the situation is presented as simple, comfortable, and normative, despite the actual violence that is occurring.

[43] The introduction and coda form the symmetrical outer shell of the song's formal structure. There are three verses, each one paired with a statement of the chorus. The formal symmetry is further amplified by the balanced design of the internal phrasing. Each line of text is set to the same 1-bar rhythmic pattern (beat 1: dotted eighth - sixteenth; beats 2 and 3: eighth � quarter - eighth syncopation; beat 4: dotted eighth - sixteenth). Four lines of text are organized into a 4-bar phrase; each phrase ending is articulated by record scratching. Each verse has 16 lines of text, thus four 4-bar phrases. The continuity of rhythm provided by the repetitive pattern presents a sense of stability in the song. The chorus comprises eight lines of text supported by eight statements of the rhythmic pattern. The regular 4-bar phrasing from the verse is also present in the chorus, which can be parsed into two 4-bar phrases. Each two-bar sub-phrase is concluded with record scratching.

[44] As with most rap music, this song has a very regular rhythmic flow. Because the beat is constant throughout the song, any interruption of the background rhythm is considered to be significant. The rhythmic flow is interrupted at one critical moment, when the 1-bar pattern is absent for an entire line of text in verse 3 ("One�two�free�Wheeeee!"), the moment in the narrative when he throws the body into the water. This music includes the sound effect of a splash at the end of the phrase as the body supposedly hits the water. Such an interruption of regular rhythmic flow heightens the tension at this moment by suspending our sense of time. As a Member of the Instrumental Ensemble, Eminem's voice has remained in constant balance in relation to the instrumental flow until this point. At this moment, however, the focus shifts to the voice because of the sudden change in textual rhythm--the voice draws out the three-count and the instrumental rhythm is discontinued.

[45] Eminem's story of a father, an innocent child, and a murdered mother, asks the listener to witness (perhaps unwillingly) a particular course of actions that are described and carried out by Slim Shady. If we reflect on the question of authenticity, Eminem appears to distance himself as the originator of the expression. That is, his invocation of a different voice and subjective perspective permits him to disown the violent act, and instead to comment upon it as a social critic might. The interpretive concept of intertextuality allows for a multiplicity of voices to speak in this narrative--the persona of Slim Shady as perpetrator of the violent act, the father and the child, the victim, and Eminem as socio-musical commentator who engages the listener as witness to the crime. His Signifyin(g) on that story is presented through the medium of the genre of inner-city Detroit rap music, a genre that connotes the social contexts of race, poverty, violence, and hardship. At that level of musical connotation, a listener's measurement of "authenticity" would likely be affected by the social context that Eminem's work does not conform to the connotations of race and poverty. This is certainly one of the tensions that contributes to the social effects and meanings of Eminem's work.

[46] Tori Amos is well known for expressing social and feminist issues in her music. Responding to the increasing level of violence in our culture, she released an album of cover songs in 2001 entitled Strange Little Girls.(28) Taking songs that were originally written and performed by men, Amos reinterprets the original material, adopting many different voices and perspectives over the course of the album.(29)

[47] Comparable to the Slim Shady character, the different personas that Amos adopts for each song allow her to provide a variety of perspectives on social issues, and permit her a degree of artistic detachment. Amos's claim, "I've always found it fascinating how men say things, and how women hear them"(30) reveals her interest in the potential multiplicity of subjective perspectives. In the album of cover songs, she uses material originally performed by male artists, prepares and presents a new perspective for that material, and through the striking revisions, alerts the listener to different social meanings.

[48] Amos addresses the responsibility of an artist who writes about violence with the following remarks:

I would hear a lot of people say, 'They're only words, what is everybody going on about?' That's where I said I could pick up the gauntlet. I believe in freedom of speech, but you cannot separate yourself from your creation. We go back to the power of words, and words are like guns�Your fingerprints cannot be erased from your words; you only leave the scene of the crime covered in ink�Whether you choose the graciousness of Tom Waits or the brutality of 'Bonnie and Clyde' they're equally powerful, and that's what drove me.(31)

[49] What fingerprint does Amos leave on her version of this violent song? How does she Signify on this story, when she so clearly stands in opposition to its violent content? In the context of this "character" album, one of her most important decisions for the song had to have been the perspective that she would adopt in relation to the Slim Shady narrative. About this decision, she states: "I did not align with the character he represents. There was one person who definitely wasn't dancing to this thing and that's the woman in the trunk."(32) Amos gives the murder victim a voice by offering the song text from her perspective. Without making substantial alterations to the lyrics, Amos achieves the effect of shifting the Subjective Voice in the Lyrical Narrative from murderer to murder victim.

[50] Amos's contrived shift in narrative perspective from murderer to murdered casts new meaning over the lyrical content. She explains, "You're hearing her listen to him tell their daughter lies."(33) In other words, in her version of the song, the listener bears witness to the dead mother as she listens to her murderer's justification of the murder.

[51] In her reinterpretation of "'97 Bonnie and Clyde," Amos remains true to Eminem's lyrics. She makes some minor changes, and these do have an impact on the song's meaning. In the introduction, Eminem's statement, "And I'm always gonna be here for you no matter what happens" suggests that he is aware of his risked punishment for the crime of murder. Amos replaces the word "happens" with "happened." The change in meaning here is subtle, but surely reveals the subjective stance of the mother: whereas Slim Shady is considering his future and the consequences of his actions, the murdered mother must acknowledge what has happened to her life.

[52] Amos makes two interesting cuts to the lyrics--words that would imply a future for the killer but not for the victim. She excludes the phrase "Just you and I" as well as the interjection "And when we ride" in the chorus, which Eminem recites between the repeated statements of "Just the two of us." Whereas Amos cuts these lines, she adds two repetitions of the line "Me and my daughter" at the end of verse 2, delivering these repetitions in a much softer voice. In the context of the multiple voices that are engaged in this song text, we might hear the father's voice in the first statement as an assertion, and the mother's voice in the two repetitions with a sense of longing and loss.

[53] Amos's recorded voice is an important Vehicle for the Communication of the mother's feelings. To portray the victim's voice, she explores a spoken vocal quality, reciting the text of the verses in a cold, quiet, and detached tone. She actually recorded her vocals from inside a box that did not allow her to move, which was created for the purpose of allowing her to relate psychologically to the dead mother.(34) In the final mix, her voice is very forward and highly compressed so that even her whispers suggest a close proximity to the listener. In addition to these production techniques Amos uses a variety of vocal strategies in order to convey emotion. For example, she emphasizes "mama" throughout the song by varying her intonation on the second syllable. By using the gentle nuances of expression that might imitate their intimate style of communication, Amos invokes both roles of mother and child. Sometimes emphasis is achieved by means of a colder tone. For instance the word "screamin'" in verse 3 is recited in a very low tone with no inflection and very hard diction on the "sc." She uses a whisper in verse 2, in order to suggest fear at the line "But for now we'll just say mama was real real bad."

[54] There are moments in the song when Amos invokes the male voice of the father. To achieve this effect, she lowers her voice and delivers the text more aggressively. An example of this can be heard in verse 1: "Don't play with dada's toy knife, honey, let go of it." At the end of verse 1, his anger towards her is evident in Amos's vindictive tone of voice at the line "Mama's messy isn't she?"

[55] The handling of the body is obviously a critical moment in the song for Amos, as she is attempting to give voice to this murder victim. As the victim is thrown into the water, Amos gives a realistic gasp. From this point on, her voice gradually fades away and her breathing becomes more difficult until the last phrase ("Just the two of us") is nothing but a whisper.

[56] In addition to these lyrical and vocal strategies, Amos creates drastic changes to the Eminem original in the domains of texture, form, tempo, rhythm, and phrase structure. In her manipulation of these elements, we are distinctly aware of her Voice as a Participant in the Musical Codes, Conventions and Styles, as well as a Member of the Instrumental Ensemble.

[57] Amos's version is arranged for strings and piano, creating a dark and ominous backdrop for the voice, which is forward in the mix and highly compressed. The texture is unique in its wash of strings in interaction with this spoken, sometimes whispered, voice. The waves of sound in the strings are repetitive, yet irregular, creating a musical analogue for the water that is the ultimate destination for the victim's body.

[58] The form of Amos's version is abbreviated as she cuts the first 36 seconds of sound effects and omits the final statement of the chorus. Despite the abbreviated form, Amos's version of the song is still longer. The total length of her version is 35 seconds longer. The difference in length can be attributed to the speed of the lyric delivery--Amos's tempo is much slower than Eminem's.

[59] Amos's rhythmic presentation differs considerably from that of the original song. Like Eminem, she uses a repeated rhythmic pattern as a backdrop, but only for the introduction and chorus, whereas Eminem carried one throughout. During the verses, Amos's version features a string line consisting of running sixteenth notes. These sixteenth notes are then taken over by the percussion in the chorus. In the third verse, a military drum is added to the texture, contributing to the intensity of the music, as it heads toward the lyrical climax of the song, when the body is dumped.

[60] The phrasing in Amos's version is largely determined by a repeated pattern played by the strings, which is manipulated to create unusual phrase timing. The bass line is divided into three phrases, each of which begins with a descending g-minor arpeggiation pattern, but then ends with a different pitch (A-flat, E-flat, then C-sharp). This 3-phrase pattern then repeats three times in each verse. Amos thus disrupts the regularity and symmetry of Eminem's 4 by 4 phrase patterning. Eminem's text delivery is constructed to fit with these 4-bar phrases but Amos manipulates her delivery of the text to offset the lines with the beginnings and ends of phrases.

[61] The beginning of verse 2 is the first moment of phrase agreement between the strings and the voice. This synchronicity creates a momentary sense of regularity in the structuring of the song, but is not permitted to last. Amos disrupts the flow when she emphasizes the words "real, real, mad" to stretch out her line delivery. The phrases then remain out of sync for the remainder of the verse. Verse 3 begins with the voice and string phrases coinciding, but the phrasing is once again disrupted, this time signaling the textual climax of the song. When the body is thrown into the water, the line "one, two, three" is delivered over a longer span of time, suspending the phrase timing. As in verse 2, the vocal and string phrases then remain asynchronous for the remainder of the verse.

[62] An interesting moment of time expansion occurs at the end of the second verse. The repeated line "Me and my daughter" receives two full statements of the accompanying string phrase, followed by a long pause. This disruption draws attention to the lyrics, which I interpreted earlier as a moment of painful reflection for the murder victim.

[63] Amos's desire to give voice to the victim is most clearly expressed in the chorus, the only part of the song that is given melodic phrasing for Amos to sing. It is also significant that the persistent, repeated string motive of the verse is replaced by a more melodic theme. These melodic elements create a considerable change in affect for the chorus, in which the mother laments the loss of her life with her daughter. Here I would argue that the chorus text "Just the two of us" is suggestive of the mother and daughter pairing as well as father and daughter. All of these elements contribute to a reading of the chorus as the mother's expression of sorrow.

[64] The interpretive concept of intertextuality is useful as we reflect on the song lyrics and music of "'97 Bonnie and Clyde." As with Eminem's original, Amos's version invokes multiple voices within this song text: that of victim, child, perpetrator of violence, as well as social commentator. In addition, since this text was created in response to Eminem's original, his voice as social commentator is also inherently present--as Amos adopts her own voice, as she Signifies on this text, we carry the cultural and musical memories of his voice as it was heard in the original song. As we remember his version, we hear in Amos's version musical idioms and stylistic references that jog other cultural and musical memories. Although a singer-songwriter who usually accompanies herself at the piano, she crosses over, by means of the string ostinato, into a musical style with classical and possibly minimalist stylistic connotations. As she lifts the story out of its original rap context, she does not simply situate it within her own musical style context, but rather transcends the specificity of those stylistic connotations through the reference to a classical or minimalist genre.


[65] The original songs that we have analyzed here explore themes of violence and cultural trauma. These songs are performed by artists whose unique fingerprints are clearly stamped on their artistic statements, who convey powerful and "authentic" subjective positions, and who succeed in transmitting messages that evoke cultural memories. Amos binds these performances together, as the artist who "appropriates" such material, adapting it to her own subjective perspectives. Amos communicates a strong commitment to the musical expression and social messages of the original artists, yet her musical presentations are not merely historical tributes. Rather, she Signifies on the earlier texts, appropriating them to develop new perspectives, raising her own authentic voice to comment on gender, race and violence.

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Lori Burns
The University of Ottawa
Department of Music
50 University Private
Ottawa, Ontario K1N 6N5
Alyssa Woods
The University of Michigan
School of Music
1100 Baits Drive
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-2085   

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Prepared by
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Updated 21 June 2004