As a devoted Tori Amos fan, I frequently profess her genius to friends, relatives, colleagues, and anyone who will listen. But I am the first to admit that her brilliant songwriting, alive to the world of personal symbol, is not well-captured in her music videos.
Since Tori Amos eschews conventional MTV artist status, she usually enjoys success without the hype of the video medium. Whether it’s due to a poor choice of directors or her songs’ resistance to visual cementation, Tori’s music videos have typically been disappointing.
The exception is “1000 Oceans,” a track from the double album To Venus and Back. Erick Ifergan, the director, took one of Tori’s more accessible songs and created a visual statement on human empathy. A purposeful montage of people’s reactions to a glass box installation, the “1000 Oceans” video is artful and nuanced.
The video follows the Tori character encased in a fixed glass case amid a nondescript urban streetscape. Although my inclination is to name Chicago as the backdrop, the specific location is largely irrelevant. The viewer simply needs to understand that it’s a diverse city with enough passerby to stop and interact with the glass box while others pass obliviously by. Clad in a black gown, Tori exists in this museum-like case over the course of a day.
The black gown not only suggests mourning but also a white wedding turned black. Consistent with the song’s simple lyrics of love and loss, the dress evokes sentiments of both union (marriage) and separation (departure, even death). While prone and motionless at points, the Tori figure also moves around the box. She is installed in the urban space like a living sculpture.
A short procession of nuns. A riot-inciting man. A nonplussed senior citizen. A goth-inspired girl spatting briefly with her boyfriend. An overweight hooker in a leopard teddy. These are some of the notable passerby who stop an interact with the glass box. At once, the video is bizarre and realistic, serving as a metaphor for our human responses to other people.
Strangers with whom we have no connection other than shared humanity are capable of many responses (including ignorance of our existence), but anyone who stops for even a second to evaluate our presence – on the street, in a store, on a bus, at a coffeeshop – will have a distinct reaction to us. They see a context for our life: we exist like living art. We are our own moving takes on the human condition, and people tap into that with varying levels of awareness.
In the case of “1000 Oceans,” the Tori figure is emoting, existing in a public space where the city dwellers can choose to see her or to ignore her. The passerby who see her appear confused, amused, curious, contemptuous, surprised, shameful, uninterested, critical, taunting, and sympathetic. This range of human responses to the encapsulated figure is fascinating but not unreasonable.
I believe that the especially reflective glass was a purposeful directorial choice. We can see through glass even though it exists as a barrier – and in certain circumstances, we are wont to see reflections of ourselves in glass. Ultimately, isn’t that what happens when we experience an emotional or intellectual reaction to the stimulus of another person? Our responses to others reflect our responses to ourselves. A city, then, is a museum of human connections, missed and made.
Near the end of the video, a family stops at the glass box. A mother, father, son, and daughter enter the picture. They look like an African American family headed to or from church, neatly dressed with bright, warm colors. It is clear that they have a special response to the Tori figure, and the directorial choices reflect this. Different from all the previous passerby, the family seems to represent a broader human family.
Balanced in age and gender, they are parents and children – caretakers and caregivers. Their skin marks them in our society as “black” in a way different from, but similar to, how the Tori figured is marked by her black gown of grief and loss. Her pink lipstick is matched in the father’s shirt and echoed in the son’s lips. And the use of an African American family calls up associations of journeys across oceans (during slavery) when people were separated tragically.
These visual cues set the tone of connections across humanity. The family’s view of the Tori figure is a slow one. Lit by a nighttime streetlamp, the glow in their eyes and faces is utterly recognizable: human empathy. There exists a respect, a knowing reverence, and a warmth that makes their response richer than everyone else’s.
At this apex of the video, the sentiment of empathy emerges as the ultimate human response to grief, sadness, pain, and loss. The moment is touching and beautiful – yet subtle, natural, and sincere. It deepens the song by adding a new layer of understanding, and that’s what a good video should do. Kudos to Tori Amos for the song and to Erick Ifergan for superb directorial vision.