In 1981, when I was 7, my parents took me to see Rickie Lee Jones on her Pirates tour—and I was shook. When Jones came on stage at the Philadelphia Academy of Music, she looked around and slurred, “This is like playing in a fuckin’ wedding cake,” ran her all-male older jazz band like the Duchess of Coolsville she already was, and introduced Sal Bernardi, her bandmate/boyfriend/muse, as her “con-fi-dant.” After that, in a nod to the cover of Jones’ debut, I wore a maroon beret. Every day. For two years.
I wanted my 7-year-old daughter Clara, an aspiring singer herself, to have some version of that experience—minus the sweaty hat. The idea was: I would take Clara to see Tori Amos, and she would “take” me to see Lorde. Together, this would set a strong tone for her early pop-concert memories.
I started with Tori because my husband Danny and I had agreed before we even had a kid: our future offspring would need to see our hero simultaneously playing her Bösendorfer concert grand and Wurlitzer organ, looking like the love child of Mick Jagger and the Lady of the Lake, but in a jumpsuit. I’ve been to see Amos many times, and she always holds her audience of enraptured girl-women and the boys who love and identify with them in a beautiful and terrifying crystal ball. I wanted Clara to see this level of sirenic vocal power—by someone who could be her mom.
Because yes, Tori is a mom. We (that is, the Gen X base of her fans) may still think of her as a flame-haired maenad, eating fuck-boys for breakfast, but her last 18 years have been a lot about parenting her daughter, Natashya “Tash” Lórien Hawley. They sing together often, and recorded a duet, “Promises,” on Tori’s 2014 release Unrepentant Geraldines. In the song’s video, both women look at the camera with the same soft eyes, making promises to each other about acceptance, rescue, conflict. It’s uncomfortable and beautiful, because rock stars are not supposed to look or sing like mothers, and they’re certainly not supposed to have daughters grown up enough to be more than cute little mini-me’s.
Though Clara had been kinda “not for me” about Tori when we played her songs, I had hoped she would fall in love with the admittedly mature artist once we were at the Beacon Theatre on November 8. Attempting to get her in the mood, we dressed in on-point flowy black garments and lipstick, and I stashed bribe M&M’s in my purse.
The concert started around 9. Late, even for a night-owl kid. Two songs in, during “Little Earthquakes,” Clara looked at me with sorrowful eyes. “Mama, I’m tired. Can we leave?” Tori was singing in her most ethereal soprano about friends and betrayals, issues that in about eight years Clara will no doubt need to understand at the soul-gut level of this and only this song, but… not yet.
“Can we try to enjoy the concert?”
Then, the words I’d been dreading, uttered in a clear voice during a quiet moment in “Pancake,” the very next song. “Well, if we can’t leave, can I at least look at your phone?”
“People are enjoying this. People who paid money. Want some M&M’s?”
“Yes, but also…. Your phoooooone…….”
We lasted about 45 more minutes, Clara sitting on my feet so she wouldn’t bother our fellow concertgoers with the blinding iPhone screen, playing some crap game. Until she finished the M&M’s.
“Mama, can we go home now?” Her voice was taking on danger zone proportions and tears were welling in her eyes. “Mama, I’m tired!”
I edged her out of the row, somewhere between “Reindeer King” and “Girl,” undoubtedly to the gratitude of our fellow concertgoers. In the lobby, we bought the tiniest t-shirt available. There are wolves on it, and the “Mr. Bad Man” lyric, “So the wolves tried to dry her eyes because the bad man made her cry.” More like “bad mom,” I thought to myself, as we took our $50 cab ride back to Brooklyn. At least I got to hear Tori cover Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat.”
Lorde, appearing at the Barclays Center on April 4, seemed like a better bet from the beginning. Clara was five months older now—eons in kid maturity time. Also, she already loves Lorde, who fits squarely in what I call the “cool babysitter” category of older-than-kid-but-younger-than-Mom.
Last year, at a friend’s karaoke birthday party, Clara had been part of a horde of first-grade girls freaking out together to “Royals.” All of us parents looked on with a mix of terror and love. I wondered at the time, Are these girls too precocious or just right? Trump had been president for a few months. These girls were just right.
Learning from my Tori mistakes, I informed Clara there would be no phone time at this show, and NO WHINING. In the last few months, Clara’s begun to read independently, so I stuck a book, Isadora Moon Goes Camping, in my purse. We tried for a disco nap, but she was too excited, wanting to get ready hours early. This time, she chose dark purple lipstick and a skeleton-printed dress with a tulle overlay.
Before the show, I told myself that the trick to taking a small child to a concert is managing expectations. I would be upset if we ended up having to leave early, but it is what it is. I will get one of those sippy cups of wine and hope Clara doesn’t need to poop.
After arriving at the venue, we scoped out the merch (note to Lorde’s people: make a kid-sized T-shirt), and loaded up on candy at the Sugar Factory franchise before the show started. At 9 on the dot, Lorde’s dancers walked onto the stage. To my Gen X eyes, their casual white and khaki outfits looked out of an old Gap ad, or like they were super-attractive dog walkers circa 1996.
“Why is everyone standing?” Clara asked. “I can’t see. Mom, can you tell them to sit down? Will she sing ‘Green Light’ first?”
When Lorde, the Queen Bee herself, came out on stage, Clara figured out a way to stand balanced on the arms of her seat, and started hooting and screaming like a real teenybopper. Then: “It’s too loud, Mom. I can feel it in my body.”
To get Clara psyched, I found myself doing the kind of dance that moms do at Music Together, the world’s most annoying toddler music classes. It’s like a dorky come-on-clap-along Elaine-style frug.
And she was, sort of, watching the Jumbotron screens of Lorde singing close up, trying to figure it all out. “How does she know all her words?” she asked, and I screamed above the music, “She PRACTICES. Now maybe you’ll want to practice piano more?”
“Mom, can I have my book?” Dammit, I thought. We are two songs into a this awesome concert, and there she is, enthralled by a fictional half-vampire, half-fairy who… goes camping.
“Don’t you want to see the concert, honey?”
“I can still hear. Can I use the flashlight on your phone? Will you hold it for me?”
Concerts are tiring, I told myself. She’s tuning out the way she knows how. Sensory overload. She’ll get back into it.
“NOW CLARA DECIDES SHE LIKES READING?? WTF?” I texted everyone I know.
The dancers began cavorting in a glass box the size of a subway car, which rose into the air, and tilted. I felt compelled to tell Clara the people inside was totally safe. She nodded.
“When is ‘Green Light’ going to come on?”
As Lorde sang Pure Heroine’s “Ribs,” a dance track about wanting to leave your parents’ house, I became predictably melancholy at the line, “It drives you crazy getting old.” It was strange not to be identifying with the girl on stage. This show was for Clara. For the first time in her short reading life, I wanted her to stop.
As Lorde introduced “Writer In the Dark” with the explanation, “This song is about a small moment” (at which point my writing teacher self freaked), I tried to go with it all. Small moments are the point of parenting. You grab the ones you get. You let go of the ones that matter less. It’s all a moving instant.
People began holding their phones up as flashlights, and Clara grabbed mine (victory), exclaiming, “It looks like stars!” When I told her that when I was a kid we used lighters, I felt as if I was reporting from some Handmaid’s Tale post-apocalyptic pre-history. Abruptly, with logic only a 7-year-old at 10 p.m. can muster, Clara had decided to stop reading and join the party.
When Jack Antonoff came on stage, Clara turned to me. “He hugged Lorde,” she said in wonder.
“Do you think they’re boyfriend and girlfriend?”
“Yeah, cuz they hugged.”
Lorde began “Liability,” the song that I refer to around the house as “my jam” (sorry). I love it and listen to it on repeat because it’s like a theme song for women who demand more. When I was Clara’s age, or 16, or 24, I needed a song that told me it was okay to be “a little much,” that those boys (and girls) would “watch me disappear into the sun.”
Tori’s “Cornflake Girl” and Lorde’s “Liability” could be mother/daughter anthems. Both are about what happens when girls actually act like themselves. When they decide not being like the rest of the pack is a “good solution.” Even if you know you’re not Tori’s despised Cornflake Girl, you still care, you still suffer consequences. That’s where “Liability” comes in, because you go home to yourself, “so hard to please… but a forest fire.” That night, as I realized this, I almost cried. Instead I simply hoped that Clara might appreciate this connection someday.
Lorde had changed into a Björk-esque pink tulle cloud thing, and was dancing wild, gearing up for her big finish. We were dancing wild, too, pogoing together, Clara’s hands on my shoulders as Lorde went full Kate Bush, throwing her shoes into the crowd. As we heard the opening groove of “Green Light,” Clara went bananas screaming along: “I do my makeup in somebody else’s car…”
It was ecstatic and sweaty and finally, we were having the exact experience I wanted, the one where I watched my daughter feel that pop music zoom, wanting to be the woman on stage. Once “Green Light” finished, my girl drooped onto my lap. “I’m so tired.” It was 10:42.
We left easily, ahead of the crowd, and I remembered that’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re with a kid. My parents always did. When I was an older kid, I used to get mad about missing the encore. But at Clara’s age, getting any amount of Rickie Lee Jones, this young woman who was not my mother and almost my cool babysitter, who could give me a glimpse of who I was going to be… that was the point.
I guess that’s what Tori Amos is to me when I see her sing with her elegant teenage daughter—my future as a woman, moving (I hope fiercely) into middle age. I wanted Clara to see me in Tori. Instead, she did what a kid is supposed to do, dancing towards the green light that’s coming for her. We’ll still go back to Tori the next time she comes around. Sometimes a kid has to indulge her mother.