After Tori Amos first watched Audrie & Daisy, Netflix’s new documentary on the sexual assault and cyberbullying of two high school girls, she “couldn’t speak,” the impact was so great.
The film, directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, tells the story of Audrie Pott, a California teenager who passed out and woke up to find boys had drawn all over her body and assaulted her. Photos of her assault went viral. One week later, devastated by the betrayal of those she trusted, she killed herself. The movie also examines the assault of Daisy Coleman, who was 14 when she was raped at a party after having too much to drink and dumped on her lawn of her house in Maryville, Missouri, in the freezing cold. She survived, but attempted suicide before finding her love for art and meeting other young survivors who have formed a support group.
Amos wrote “Flicker,” the documentary’s end-title song. The piano ballad is a passionate call-to-action to make people aware of these and other assaults taking place in our high schools, as well as a tribute to the survivors and their heroism.
The eight-time Grammy nominee, who lives primarily in England these days, talked to Billboard during a recent stop in Los Angeles to promote the documentary.
How did you become aware of this project?
Netflix sent it to me. After I saw it and couldn’t speak and then watched it again, there was an opportunity for me to talk with Bonni and Jon and to see if there was a collaboration there.
What was your reaction to seeing the documentary?
I had just been reading the Emily Doe letter [from the woman raped by the Stanford swimmer]. We all have been hearing how prevalent this is in our universities and colleges and then to realize that it has now invaded our high schools and middle schools with kids 13 years old, like [Daisy’s friend] Paige… In Audrie’s town, [people] talking about how there were 11- and 12-year-olds being asked for photographs of them to put on the digital site that the boys had. … What pushed me was they’re all under 17 when this happened. They’re all our girls and our boys and the fact that we’re getting perpetrators under 17 that are in our friendship circle. These are friends.These are people who have known each other and trusted each other, but then once the pictures were uploaded, the digital bullies were our girls as much as our boys.
Technology plays a big role in these stories, in both a negative way in how the photos are spread and in a positive way in how Daisy finds community with other assault survivors.
We’re not going to stop certain things within the youth culture from happening, but what we have to do is realize their tech skills are, for the most part, much more advanced than their emotional skills to differentiate and to understand what is sexual assault. What is wrong? How do I treat my friend if she’s unconscious and we’re at a party? How in the world are we creating our kids to think it’s funny to assault our friend and then showing it to the world? If our kids find it funny, we have to educate them to make them understand.
What conversations did you have with Bonnie and John about the tone of the song?
I felt there needed to be a song that acknowledged the power of the film and the issues they’re bringing up. We had to deal with the fact that there’s been a light that’s been extinguished, which is Audrie, and a light that was very challenged to find her strength but got there — phoenix out of the ashes — for Daisy. The song needed to hold Audrie’s tragedy and Daisy’s tough journey, but now Daisy’s building her army through her activism.
Have you met Daisy?
Oh yes. She sent a message after hearing the song and said, “This is my story.”
How do you prepare to write a song like this?
After talking to Bonni and Jon, I felt like I had to go into the emotional trenches. Certain tough songs you have to take yourself out of your family, your routine. It’s not just as if you’re writing songs and seeing which ones make a record and you have months to do that. I went into kind of an emotional cave for a week to write this and then we dove into the studio and started recording.
You’ve said a saying on the gym wall where Daisy’s brother, Charlie, worked out helped you find your way in to your song. That saying was “Monsters are made, not born.”
That was my way in. The muses speak sometimes — you just know when they say that’s your way in. So that was my key to unlock going inside. That was my key to take it and turn it into empowerment for our girls. Heroines, they are not born, they are made.
You addressed your own sexual assault in “Me and a Gun” on 1992’s Little Earthquakes. Unfortunately, you knew first-hand what they had been through.
Incest survivors talk about where they weren’t safe in their own home, but you choose your friends. Sometimes people are in families where they feel “This isn’t my soul tribe,” but you’re formalizing your soul tribe in those years. I think what was so difficult was understanding that when we send our kids off to school that an event can happen when they’re being social together that [can lead to their] trying to kill themselves. We know that teenage suicide is there, but it’s happening with the people that they trusted. Maybe writing “Me and a Gun” and the experience of that is that if you survive this, the damage stays with you. So how you talk to kids? How do you educate them to try to avoid the damage that they don’t have to carry for the rest of their lives? That was the burning drive for me. I wanted to honor both of these young women. Bring the Valkyries. Bring Furiosa.
Have you watched the film with your teenage daughter?
We’re going to watch it when I get back. I wanted to be able to be there and sit down with her. Yeah, the mother side of me was being affected, but I needed the songwriter side of me to deal with the fact that they’d been through such a tragic physical attack and then the digital attack and it was just too raw as a mother to deal with.
A portion of the proceeds of the single’s sales go to RAINN, the anti-sexual assault organization you started 22 years ago. Do you feel that will be your legacy as much as your music?
Yes. To know that there have been, oh my god, I think over a million calls. The good news and the bad news is that it’s been there and it’s gotten more active helping people with legal questions. What are their rights, especially if you’re underage and the perpetrator’s in the home and both parents are in denial that it’s happening and one of them is doing it? RAINN has been working with the different rape crisis centers throughout the states because different states operate differently. The Defense Department reached out to RAINN and they set up a private hotline to deal with [sexual assault] within our armed forces.
Switching gears, the 20th-anniversary deluxe edition of Boys for Pele comes out Nov. 18 with previously unreleased tracks. How involved were you in the reissue?
I was right there with [mixers] Mark [Hawley] and Marcel [van Limbeek] in the studio. Bob Ludwig remastered the A side, the Boys for Pele [original album]. Then we pulled together the B-side and remixed a couple and found a few things from the time we mixed. I would put it in the truck, the FJ Cruiser, down in Florida and change the order and see if I could make my journey through the whole thing and back again in my high heels.
What’s next for you?
Another album next year. We’re in beginning stages and it might be a very different record beginning Nov. 9, but let’s see where we’re going.