How a Fairy Tale Inspired Tori Amos’ Impactful First Hit “Silent All These Years”

Not many music fans knew about Tori Amos when she released Little Earthquakes and its U.S. lead single “Silent All These Years” in 1992. That anonymity was the very thing that helped to spark Amos to write the song.

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Little Earthquakes was Amos’ first solo album, but she had been writing music and performing since she was 13. By the time she was 25, Amos already had a failed band, and, as she said in an episode of VH1 Storytellers, was “getting fired from too many Marriotts” where she played in piano bars. Amos was at a crossroads, not knowing how to move forward with her music and how to get people outside hotel bars to hear it. With a little help from her young niece, Amos not only wrote a song that would serve as her North Star, but it would be the one that would introduce her to millions of fans.

An Inauspicious Label Debut

Atlantic Records signed Amos to a six-record deal long before she made Little Earthquakes. Her solo debut was actually the second record she released with Atlantic. In 1988, her synth pop band Y Kant Tori Read put out a self-titled album. It featured several accomplished studio musicians, including vocalist Merry Clayton, keyboardist Kim Bullard, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, and percussionist Paulinho Da Costa, as well as Robin Zander and Rick Nielsen from Cheap Trick. Despite the album’s quintessentially late ‘80s sound, bevy of studio talent and big-label backing, Y Kant Tori Read bombed. The band broke up shortly after the album’s release.

In the aftermath of Y Kant Tori Read, Amos focused on backing-vocal work and writing songs for other artists. She wasn’t having much success with the latter of these efforts, but she decided she wanted to write a song for Al Stewart. She had met the “Year of the Cat” singer/songwriter and wanted to pay him back for introducing her to some particularly good wine.

Inspiration from a Fairy Tale

Though Y Kant Tori Read was a commercial failure, Atlantic was looking for a quick follow-up from Amos. Uncertain about what sort of album it would be, Amos found a new direction from an unlikely source. She was reading Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid with her niece Cody and realized she had something in common with the titular character. The mermaid agrees to give up her voice in exchange for legs and the possibility of marrying a prince. It reminded Amos of all of the times she kept silent in order to gain something she thought she wanted. This realization gave Amos the theme for “Silent All These Years,” and now she had a song to give to Stewart.

Her then-partner Eric Rosse told her it would be a mistake to not keep the song for herself, given how personal its message was. Amos agreed to record “Silent All These Years” herself, and the song’s message of reclaiming one’s voice gave her a new purpose for making records.

The Price of Keeping Quiet

Amos establishes in the first verse that she has been in the habit of listening much more than talking.

Been saved again by the garbage truck
I got something to say, you know, but nothing comes
Yes, I know what you think of me, you never shut up
Yeah, I can hear that

In the chorus, Amos realizes she doesn’t have to suppress her voice. She asks herself But what if I’m a mermaid / In these jeans of his with her name still on it? and concludes Sometimes I hear my voice / And it’s been here / Silent all these years.

What was Amos hoping to gain from her silence? The bridge suggests that at least part of her motivation was a fear of being misunderstood. In singing Years go by, will I still be waiting / For somebody else to understand? Amos indicates she was looking for others to understand and validate her. She also recognizes the price of not using her voice and providing her own validation when she sings Years go by, will I choke on my tears / Till finally there is nothing left?

The Impact of “Silent All These Years”

In contrast to the lack of attention accorded to Y Kant Tori Read, “Silent All These Years” became a hit three months after Little Earthquakes was released. It peaked at No. 27 on Billboard’s Alternative Airplay chart, and after being rereleased in 1997 as a fundraiser for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), it spent 20 weeks on the Hot 100, peaking at No. 65. A subsequent single, “Crucify,” also made the Alternative Airplay chart (No. 22), helping Little Earthquakes to eventually become a Double Platinum album.

Amos’ label must have moved past their disappointment over Y Kant Tori Read, as Atlantic included “Silent All These Years” on the compilation Atlantic Records 50 Years: The Gold Anniversary. It is accompanied on the double CD set by classics from Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Phil Collins, and other luminaries.

For all of the success and acclaim that “Silent All These Years” has rightfully received, its biggest impact has nothing to do with the volume of its sales, airplay or streams. Amos told Rolling Stone in a 2012 interview an encounter in an Israeli airport bathroom put the song’s importance in a new perspective.

Recalled Amos, “A Middle Eastern woman came up to me. She said, ‘Don’t think we’re not listening. We pass your music behind closed doors to each other and it’s something secret that we know, so don’t stop.’ ‘Silent All These Years’ was one of the songs that she mentioned.”

Amos hasn’t stopped. “Silent All These Years” was just the first of her many songs that have made a real difference in the world.

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Photo by Jason Merritt/FilmMagic

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