Professional Widow Original
Professional Widow: Original v Remix
Who didn’t love cutting sick to the lyrics “It’s gotta be big” in 1990s nightclubs? Tori Amos released the “Professional Widow” original in 1996. She included the “harpsichord-driven rock dirge” on her third studio album, Boys For Pele. As a single, it came with Armand’s Star Trunk Funkin’ Mix, probably one of the best remixes of all time. Even me, a 90s kid, thought Armand Van Helden’s remix was the “Professional Widow” original. But the real “Professional Widow” original is just as musically interesting as the remix. And yes, we’ll be addressing those rumours that this song is about Courtney Love.
Tori Amos & Edgar Allan Poe
Amos recorded the “Professional Widow” original in the mid-90s in a rural church in Ireland. She performed the song on harpsichord and piano, and showcased her impressive mezzo-soprano vocal range. Lyrically “Professional Widow” borrows from Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Sphinx”. “What is termed a landslide of principle proportion boy,” comes from the line, “What is termed a land-slide, of the principal portion of its trees.” “Prism perfect,” comes from Poe’s line, “In shape a perfect prism.”
A Musical Prodigy
Amos was born Myra Ellen Amos in North Carolina. A classically trained musician, she began composing piano pieces at a precociously young age. At just five years old, Amos won a scholarship to Baltimore’s prestigious Peabody Conservatory. She was the youngest student ever to attend. However, the Conservatory expelled Amos at age 11 for what Rolling Stone described as “musical insubordination”. I’d love to know what that entailed!
Before breaking through as a solo artist in the early 90s, Amos fronted the 1980s pop group, Y Kant Tori Read. “The Big Picture“, released in 1988, has a great alternative 80s sound.
Boys For Pele
Amos recorded Boys For Pele in rural Ireland and Louisiana. The album explored the role of women in both patriarchal religions and relationships. It featured the harpsichord, clavichord, harmonium, gospel choirs, brass bands and full orchestras. Amos wrote all the tracks and was the album’s sole producer.
Despite Boys For Pele not being considered “accessible” for commercial radio, the album debuted on both the US Billboard 200 and the UK Albums Chart. It was Amos’s biggest transatlantic debut.
Professional Widow Releases
“Professional Widow” was released in July 1996, along with remixes by house music producers Van Helden and MK. The single reached number one on the Billboard Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart.
The “Professional Widow” original features an industrial-sounding harpsichord. Some critics labelled the song “exasperating”, “pretentious” and “self-indulgent”. I like it though, although I’m a massive fan of Van Helden’s remix. Amos’s voice is showcased more in the “Professional Widow” original and it has that mid-90s experimental sound reminiscent of Björk and other great artists.
Those Courtney Love Rumours
Rumours abounded that Courtney Love is the professional widow in question. Indeed, Love was known during the 90s for her destruction of friendships and relationships. In this case, the friendship between Amos and Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor is meant to be the subject matter of the “Professional Widow” original. Amos, however, denies this.
I’ve never met Courtney Love. It’s based on that part of myself that’s Lady Macbeth, and if you have any Lady Macbeth in yourself … that song can be about you.”Tori Amos
Confirmed facts are difficult to source, but in a 1996 interview with Spin magazine Reznor said that “some malicious meddling” on Love’s part caused a distancing in his friendship with Amos. In 2003, the host of a television interview let it drop that Love inspired “Professional Widow”. Amos quickly corrected him and said, “Allegedly,” with a mysterious smile. Make of that what you will.
I don’t know. Love sure as hell wasn’t popular with other musicians in the 90s though. Here’s a list of 11 songs said to be inspired by her.
Today Amos continues to devote her attention to broad range of topics, including sexuality, feminism, politics and religion.
Armand Van Helden
Van Helden is a DJ, record producer, remixer and songwriter from Boston, Massachusetts. With a career spanning three decades, he is one of house music’s greatest figures. He worked on “You Don’t Know Me”, “I Want Your Soul” and “My My My” featuring Tara McDonald, “Bonkers” featuring Dizzee Rascal, “Spin Spin Sugar” by Sneaker Pimps, “The Bomb! (These Sounds Fall into My Mind)” by the Bucketheads, “Sugar Is Sweeter” by CJ Bolland and of course Amos’s “Professional Widow”. It was “Professional Widow” that established Van Helden as a house music legend.
Success of the Remix
Armand’s Star Trunk Funkin’ Mix was hugely successful. An edited version was originally released as a double A-side single with “Hey Jupiter” in Europe and Australia. In December 1996, the remix came out as a single under the title “Professional Widow (It’s Got to Be Big)”. It topped the UK singles chart. Then the 1997 UK reissue of Boys For Pele came out with the remix sitting at track 5, pushing the other tracks down in order.
What did Amos think of the great success of the remixed version of “Professional Widow?”
“It did kick my ass a bit … I know what Van Helden took and what he did and I think he did some very clever things. Obviously they’re two different pieces of work, the original ‘Professional Widow’ is such a different read and I loved the fact that he didn’t try and retain that at all, he went completely to the other pole.”Tori Amos, Music & Media interview, 1998
I think Van Helden’s “Professional Widow” remix is one of the best remixes ever. His beats meld perfectly with Amos’s ethereal voice. And for me, the thumping bassline instantly conjures up many beloved 90s clubbing memories.
This is definitely one of the tracks from that era that’s going to live on forever. It’s got a muscular beat that would get any sentient species up and dancing, and it just encapsulates the fun and optimism of the mid-90s. So it turns out ‘Handbag’ House was peak House after all.”YouTube comment from gurugeorge
For those of you who are curious, diva or handbag house originated in gay clubs during the second half of the 90s. The Encyclopedia of Contemporary British Culture defines the genre as featuring “prominent female vocals, breakdowns, and a proliferation of piano ‘stabs’.” Very enjoyable to listen and dance to.
Better Than the Spice Girls
The “Professional Widow” remix paved the way for Amos’s transition to a more electronic sound on subsequent albums. This opened her up to a whole new audience. “Professional Widow” also bumped off one of the Spice Girls’ most annoying songs.
When a remixed version of Tori Amos’s song ‘Professional Widow’ reached number 1 in the UK singles chart in January 1997, it de-throned a saccharine tune by the Spice Girls, ‘2 Become 1’. The contrast between the two songs is stark: while the Girls sweetly tell their boy, ‘I need some love like I never needed love before’, Amos declares, ‘Slag pit / stag shit / honey bring it close to my lips.’”Dan F Stapleton