Grief and Renewal in Tori Amos's The Beekeeper


When Tori Amos released her eighth studio album, The Beekeeper, in February of 2005, the United States had been mired in the Iraq War for two years. It was the time of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, a time of violence and death. With The Beekeeper, Amos explicitly sought to combat the destruction with the message that creation is an essential and enriching part of our lives.

The album weaves together multiple narrative strands. First, there is the story of the garden of Eden where Eve eats the forbidden fruit to gain knowledge about life and sexuality (Amos renames it "original sinsuality"). In an interview with Uncut Magazine, Amos explains that "Really it’s about this woman who visits the garden of life and decides to eat from the tree of knowledge. Once she does so, she experiences all kinds of emotions from passion to betrayal, to selfless love, to temptation, to seduction, to disappointment and bereavement." Amos posits an idea of knowledge as a form of freedom, a way of opening the mind to new experiences and perspectives. At a time when people were closing their minds, blindly believing the White House's justifications for war, and actively othering and dehumanizing the people in Iraq, Amos's album asks us to no longer put our heads in the sand, to learn and think for ourselves.

The second narrative strand is the vital, procreative role of bees that toil away to create sweetness and nourishment. At a time of death and destruction, Amos wanted to make an album that celebrated love and procreation. Several songs address motherhood, like "Mother Revolution" and "Ribbons Undone." Once again, Amos centralizes the role of women and elevates the feminine over the masculine. It was Eve who ate from the tree of knowledge and it was Eve who was punished for it, but Amos reclaims women's sexuality as a site of power, revolution, and creation. In an interview, Amos put it this way: "I think the only way to combat war and depression for a nation is not to drown in the grief. We need to build bridges. The only way to combat destruction is to create so with this album I went back to the creation story, which is in Genesis. The core of the record is original 'sinsuality.'"

I'd now like to delve more deeply into the grief that Amos mentions several times in interviews for the album and how grief is addressed in the album itself. In the Tori Amos fan community (we call ourselves Toriphiles), The Beekeeper is almost universally loathed. However, I do not hold this negative view. For me, it's a light, airy, beautiful album with substance and depth. The Beekeeper is one of the first Tori Amos albums I ever owned. So maybe that's why it has a special place in my heart. I discovered Amos around the time of Scarlet's Walk, which was released in 2002. Over the years, as I've experienced grief, The Beekeeper has taken on more meaning; it was released in 2005, just a year before my father died.

As Amos was recording The Beekeeper, her brother was tragically killed in a car accident at the age of 50. It's always haunted me that her brother's name was Michael because that was also my father's name. I've never told anyone this but when I was first discovering Amos's music, it was the early 2000s and I didn't have a computer. At that time, I was still listening to CDs. My family didn't have much money. I went to the library one day to use the computer and wrote down a list of Amos's discography up to that point and then gave it to my father so that he could gradually buy the albums for me. After he died, I found the list among his possessions. In the decade since his death, I have turned to Amos's music at the moments of my deepest despair and grief. My story is not unique. I know she has saved countless lives. I also know that she would deny it and tell us that we saved ourselves.

So The Beekeeper holds significance for my life and it's one I revisit often because it's about the coexistence of creation and death, birth and loss, beauty and decay. She doesn't talk much about the loss of her brother, only here and there in interviews. Tori has always shrouded herself in myth and archetype. She may address her personal loss and heartbreak in certain songs, but she always (in my opinion) seeks to transform that personal pain into something more universal and transcendent. She isn't interested so much in autobiography as she is history. While she's often referred to as confessional, I think that word erases just how forcefully she engages with stories and narratives outside her own life.

Still, there are songs on The Beekeeper that drip with grief and it's impossible not to interpret them through the lens of Amos's own tragedies and her experience with loss. One is the title song from the album. The figure of the beekeeper is transformed into a kind of grim reaper who "taps you on the shoulder when it's your time." The speaker is faced with the possible death of their loved one, as evidenced by the lyric "In your gown with your breathing mask on/ Plugged into a heart machine." This is a reference to Amos's mother who was in critical condition and, according to Amos, "flat-lined and came back." The end of the song describes the beekeeper passing over the person who was going to die, giving them another chance at life, but this joyous reprieve is followed by an ominous foreboding, "I'm just passing you by/ But don't be confused /One day I'll be coming for you." Death has been averted, but it cannot be escaped. The song also makes reference to Amos's brother with the line "take this message to Michael."

In an interview with Rip It Up Magazine, Amos discusses "The Beekeeper" and how it related to Michael's death. This quote is especially interesting as it showcases how an artist like Amos uses her art to engage with loss and also to transform it:
With my brother's death it was very sudden. The song The Beekeeper was in process when he had his tragic accident. I didn't have the background vocals done yet and I was able to weave into The Beekeeper the sorrow and the loss of Michael on the song, as well as the infinity dance of the honey bee. The honey bee represents sacred sexuality and represents transmutation from one plane to the next. The subject matters - including Michael's death - were really transformational.
Another song on the album directly addresses Michael's death. "Toast" is a loving tribute to her brother; it was written as she was flying back home from his funeral. The speaker reminisces about a person they have lost and shares memories. One line states that "You showed me the rope/ ropes to climb/ over mountains/ and to pull myself/ out of a landslide." These words echo things that Amos has said in interviews about the strong influence her brother had on her life. She told ExBerliner that "He was always a great support. He always encouraged me to try and be brave and not be afraid of not being part of a trend." Most moving of all, his death did not destroy the connection she still feels to him. In an interview with The Age newspaper, she said:
I have a great bond with Michael. Michael was always the one that was the master of the music, he was the one that brought the Stevie Wonder records into our house, he was the one that brought Zeppelin, the Beatles, Joni Mitchell. He's still on my guest list for every show, because I feel a closeness to him. I feel his presence and he walks with me. Through the music, I feel like I'm able to communicate across the veil to the other side. I dance on the ends of the notes that take me through the dimensions to wherever he is. Of course I don't know where he is, but I know that the music knows.
"Toast" conveys a similar message, that those we have lost can still remain present in our lives, that we can find them again through the things they loved and the memories we have of them. The closing lines of the song read "I thought I'd see you again. /You say you might do /Maybe in a carving/ in a cathedral/ Somewhere in Barcelona." The lyrics remind me of other songs, of that heartbreaking line in James Taylor's "Fire and Rain" where he sings "I always thought that I'd see you again." I think of Soap&Skin's "Vater" in which the speaker toasts "dozens of bottles of wine" to her dead father. While "Vater" is a darker, melancholy song, Amos's "Toast" is life-affirming and optimistic that death is not the end, that the dead live on in other ways. Perhaps that optimism is meant to extend to the nation as a whole. Amos seems to insist to us that despite the war, the loss, and the devastation, we can go on, we can find peace, and we can create the world anew.