A highly acclaimed singer-songwriter, composer and pianist bringing her soulful voice to bear over the past two decades, Tori Amos was the perfect artist to compose the closing credits theme—titled “Flicker”—for Netflix doc Audrie & Daisy, a film which raises awareness of the widespread issue of sexual assault, and related crimes of the internet age. Below, Amos—a mother to a teenage daughter, and a long-time activist with the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, discusses the genesis of her work on the film, her musical inspirations, and the use of her art in promoting social change.
When did you first see Audrie & Daisy, and how did you get involved?
Netflix sent it over to see what my response was, and I’d watched it again because I was shocked. I was aware of the Emily Doe case, and the issue in our universities, our campuses, that’s been happening in the states, but realizing that this had permeated now into our high schools and middle schools, with the age group of 14, and 13, with Paige [Parkhurst], and hearing in the film with Audrie’s case, one of the girls was talking about how photographs were being sent to an account from as young as 11 and 12…So I realized that as bad as the university cases are, and as shocking as they are, and prevalent, that now parents—I’m the mom of a teenager—need to be aware of what’s going on.
What does the film mean to you, personally?
I think what we should talk about is, I became involved in an organization called RAINN in 1994, and I was singing a song called “Me and a Gun” every night at that time. It had come out in 1992 on Little Earthquakes, so we were touring in 1994 for another record, which was Under the Pink, but I was still choosing to sing this every night, and hearing about a lot of peoples’ stories. That song, and a song called “Silent All These Years,” would catalyze conversations with people that would talk to me after the show, talk to me before the show, write letters about what they were going through. One night during the song, a young girl fainted—passed out—and it was near the end of the set. I went back there and she was there, coming to with some water, and she talked about [the fact] that she would be raped by her stepfather that night when she went home, and that she had been raped the night before, and this was not stopping, and could she come on tour? Work in the kitchens, work in catering.
And of course, you want to know, where’s your mom? What’s going on? “Well, my mom is in complete”—I don’t want to use the word ‘denial,’ that’s become sort of an L.A. buzzword. The mother was pretending that it wasn’t happening; she was underage, this girl. She could’ve been 14, so she didn’t know what to do, where to go—she was afraid to go to the law because she was afraid her parents would say she was crazy. So she was trapped, completely trapped, and I got called by legal that night, saying “I’m going to take a kid on the road and figure it out,” and they said, “No you’re not. You’re going to be arrested for kidnapping, because you’re crossing state lines tonight, on the bus.” So that was a real wake-up, shocking call in 1994 when I had to watch her walk out that door, and she turned around and looked at me, and I knew what she was going back into, as did she. She didn’t want to call law enforcement because she felt that things would get worse—worse for her—at the time.
Have there been other experiences of that nature over the years?
You have a lot of people coming up to you, but she was in the midst of the horror. It was happening, it was present for her, and there was no way out. She felt threatened, that she would be portrayed as a liar—and she was under 16. This is why at the time, in 1994, when [RAINN founder] Scott Berkowitz and I started partnering, along with some women at Atlantic Records, to create a national hotline, where the phone number was…You couldn’t detect it, because the perpetrators are sometimes in the home. We decided to connect this 1-800-656-HOPE so that you could call from anywhere, and nobody knew you were calling, and you could get help—and it was connecting rape crisis centers that existed, but it was the conduit, if you see what I mean. And it can give legal advice, it can talk to you about what state you’re in—what the laws are—and then over the years, people that do have legal backgrounds do work with RAINN and help.
To you, what is the importance and the role of art—and music specifically—in promoting social change, or awareness of critical social issues?
Well, when “Me and a Gun” was on the Little Earthquakes record, not everybody wanted me to put it on because it was a tough listen in 1991 and 1992—and it’s still a tough listen, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t put it on your record. As I’ve always said, this is the mantra of my life—“if it’s too loud, turn it up.”
Reflecting back on that moment in time when you were performing “Me and a Gun” every night, was it a source of personal pain, empowerment or both?
It depends on the night I was performing it. That particular song is written so that the attack is happening as she’s singing the song, and right in the aftermath of the attack. You are in her mind as the attack is occurring. “Flicker” is a song that wanted to include Audrie’s story, as well as Daisy’s story, and that some lights do not sustain, and go from victimhood to survivor. Some of our beautiful lights of our teenagers tragically go out, and speaking to Sheila the other night—Audrie’s mother—in depth, about being a mother, not knowing what was happening, until after her suicide. Now, she has become an activist in Audrie’s name, to go into high schools, and to really talk to people—because these are our kids, doing this to our kids. That’s something that, in both stories—Daisy’s story as well. This issue is not with strangers; this is in our communities, with people we know, dividing communities and schools. That’s what really shook me to the core. Audrie & Daisy is about kids going to the same school, doing this to each other—people who you would call your friends. The idea that friends will abuse each other…There is the online component that we have to talk about. Not just our boys are involved—our girls are just as involved in the shaming online.
You’ve said in the past that the Internet and social media are neutral tools that can come with positive or very negative consequences, depending on how they’re applied. Are you concerned that either of these tools is making the world worse?
Yeah. That’s why, I think, Bonni [Cohen] and Jon [Shenk], the directors, have been going around the screenings talking about—this is a tough conversation, but it has to happen in our schools, as well. You could see in the film, when they were interviewing the boys in Audrie’s story, that they seemed clueless to the consequences of their actions? Where else are we going to have the education, unless in our schools? Sometimes, I think we inhibit our educators from talking about tough subjects, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be talking about it, because if kids—girls and boys—are sending pictures of themselves, whether they feel bullied, or they’re being groomed to send naked pictures of themselves, which the boys in the Audrie story had been doing—allegedly—and had an account, almost like trading naked baseball cards. The truth is, a lot of our teenagers can out-social media us in ways that will lock us out of our computer systems; there has to be another way to get through, and I think that’s why the film is so important.
At this stage in society, as a light is shined on the slow but sure path to progress with regard to many social issues, why do we still find ourselves grappling on such a level with those issues presented in the film?
Because these kids have technical capabilities, but they don’t have conscious responsibility. They’re not walking a thought through. I had a teacher years ago that would talk about, “play this out.” That is about education, and we’re spending so much time on getting our teenagers technical skills, but not on developing the emotional intelligence that they need in order to protect themselves and not hurt each other, and to realize how they’re hurting each other.
Is there a frustration on your part at witnessing the apparent failures of the legal system in prosecuting these cases, as demonstrated in the film?
This kind of behavior in the justice system has been going on for a long time, where they’re making excuses for the sexual assaults. When you say ‘frustrated,’ the shock and concern is that, so what—we’ve got perpetrators under 17? These are our kids—they’re our kids too. When you think, “Oh, it’s not my kid who’s doing this; it’s not my boy who’s becoming a predator,” now he doesn’t look in the mirror and see that of himself. And you think, “These aren’t our girls that are involved in the shaming.” RAINN takes a strong position: you can’t just blame alcohol. There are millions and millions of people who will take a drink, or a few drinks, and not go and rape or sexually assault somebody, because you know it is wrong. It’s wrong. These are friends, people.
Even if it’s somebody laying in the street, you would think compassion would kick in, or concern. If nothing else, you call the police, or you call an ambulance. But that your friend is unconscious, whether it was too much and they passed out, or whether their drink was fiddled with, that the answer then is that we’re going to sexually assault them, take pictures of this and/or film it, and then pass it around, and put it up, and destroy them…Now, they may not be thinking, “This will destroy them.” I don’t think they’ve walked the thought through. This is the disconcerting thing—you have these very powerful tools that we’re educating them to be proficient with, but they’re not proficient with being a human being who asks, what are the consequences? Why would I hurt my friend?
Having met Audrie’s mother, how was the experience of meeting and speaking with Daisy Coleman?
Daisy is a strong, determined young woman who is now choosing to utilitize the internet, and she’s building Daisy’s army. She and Delaney [Henderson] joined forces, and they made contact with Audrie’s mother, and Audrie’s mother now is the advocate. Daisy’s mother Melinda has been standing there, side by side by Daisy. [Daisy]’s connected to an organization called PAVE, and they have an online forum where teenagers are able to reach out and get the support that they need. Right now, there’s some young teenagers—she’s 19 now—that she’s mentoring.
What was the process of finding the lyrics and composing the music for your track in the film, “Flicker”?
Bonni and Jon and I had some deep conversations about the different issues in the film, and even though the song needs to be uplifting, Audrie’s dead. The song had to hold that story, and then it also had to hold Daisy’s story, which is the phoenix out of the ashes. So the spark did ignite there—although she did try to commit suicide a few times, she is still with us, and so fire and lights, they were very much guiding me at the time, the muses were there, and Bonni and Jon, too, were talking to me about the communities, and how there was silence from friends that would turn their back. This is dividing communities and schools, and friends. And of course, there’s the mantra—“Monsters are made, they are not born.” And the muses said to me, “This is your way in. Let’s go.”