Got Enough Guilt to Start My Own Religon Part 3 – Tori Amos’ Secrets

3 09 2008

This is very belated. Work (my real day job) got crazy. But here it is! Yay! I wrote most of it a month and a half ago. If you would like, go back and read part 1 and part 2.

I think a lot of people are going to give me shit for the artists I chose. Why Paula Cole? Isn’t she pop? Why Tori Amos? She plays piano! This blog has been pretty traditional in its definition of rock & roll. But when I was looking for women to talk about to explore the creation of an American female narrative in 90s rock, I needed 4 women who were writing their own songs, getting radio airtime and not overtly political. Sure, I could have chosen L7 or Bikini Kill, but they were coming from an entirely different context than the 4 women I did choose. Sure, Exile in Guyville is political – it’s a response text, how could it not be – and Tori Amos covering an Eminem song about murdering his wife is also a political statement (as is that whole album of covers, Strange Little Girls, in which Amos tries to bring out the female voice within each of the former hits), but what these 4 women have in common, I think, more than anything, is that they are all storytellers. They have things they want to write about, both from their own person perspective and from the perspective of characters they create in their song lyrics, and what is interesting to me more than those overtly political statements is the profoundly disenchanted, cynical voice and narrative that is created when you add all these stories up.

I think of all 4 women, Tori Amos is perhaps the best and most complete storyteller, even if you don’t know what she’s talking about half the time. Breathy inflection reminiscent of Kate Bush, an awesome voice, a confessional attitude, great lyrics and mad piano skillz would all be enough to make excellent albums, but Amos knows how to combine all of her talents, emphasizing what is needed to best tell the story. She seems to inhabit her characters fully, whether her characters are outlaws, gay men, washed up models or herself, reliving her own rape at knifepoint (as in “Me and a Gun”).

I want to talk about three of her best-known songs, and explore how they fit into the “narrative of guilt” I’ve been talking about for the past two entries. “Cornflake Girl,” from 1994’s Under the Pink is maybe the quintessential song about being an outsider. The idea of a Huck/Ahab sort of mentality is problematic in the context of being a female rocker, because you are already an outsider, and if my assertion that women of this time period were more exploring the guilt that came with being an outsider, of wanting that freedom but also having the enormous pressure to conform that comes with being female in general, then “Cornflake Girl” is an anthem for the age.

Amos’ words are chosen so carefully and are so painstakingly assembled (she is truly a craftswoman in this regard) so that you have no idea what she is actually talking about, and yet somehow, emotionally, you fully understand that when she confesses in a downbeat, morose way that she “never was a cornflake girl,” she is talking about sex and her own understanding of her sexuality.

I also interpreted a “cornflake girl” in Amos’ world as being the kind of girl who could deny herself what she wanted (cornflakes having been invented, the urban lore goes, to sublimate sexual feelings so that people wouldn’t want to masturbate). And yet again, we have lyrics that say one thing, but the underlying emotion of the song both in Amos’ delivery and in the forceful piano notes, is of anger.

And the man with the golden gun
thinks he knows so much
thinks he knows so much, yeah

Knowing what we know about Amos’ history, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here to point out that the song seems to be about feeling a kind of guilt for her rape because of her sexuality.

“God,” also from Under the Pink, is Amos essentially scolding God for not being around when she needs Him. I say “Him” because in this version of Amos’ God, God is definitely not a woman.


God, sometimes you just don’t come through
God, sometimes you just don’t come through
Do you need a woman to look after you?
God, sometimes you just don’t come through

You could argue that Amos isn’t addressing God specifically, but rather using the word “God” as emphasis. I think in context, and with the song title being “God” that she is indeed addressing some idea of God, and that again, she is mad. But here what’s interesting is the pronouns. In the middle of the song, amid cascading piano, Amos screeches – well the proper word would be “screeches” but that makes it sound like she is off-key or anti-melodic and she is in fact still singin’ pretty – “would you even tell her if you decide to make the sky fall?” (emphasis mine) implying that God has a certain apathy toward the female gender.

There are funny bits of the song, when she characterizes God as being a dude with a golf club in a “4 wheel” headed off “south,” presumably on vacation. The anger she feels at a deity who has turned his back on her is palpable, but what strikes me about this song is that in her vocals, Amos almost seems to give up a little. Never do you hear her ask God to help her, to come back from vacation. Instead, she simply scolds and moves on. This is a quintessential aspect of the female narrative of 90s rock, the idea that we (as a gender) and they (specifically) have somehow been left behind, left out, exiled.

Finally, I wanted to talk a little bit about one of Amos’ later 90s efforts, “Raspberry Swirl,” a single for which she was nominated “Best Female Rock Vocal Performance” at the Grammys in 1999 (the album it was off of, From the Choirgirl Hotel, was released in 1998).

I chose this song because it’s a little weird. You can barely hear the lyrics. The song sounds like its name, a swirl of tart-and-sweet lyrics and breathy sounds with layer upon layer of complexity. It is a great song to end a discussion of Amos with, because there is an anthemic feeling to it. There is also an undercurrent of sapphic love, and though Amos says the song isn’t about sex specifically, she has admitted it was written for her best friend, who was having a rough time with men.
Things are getting desperate
When all the boys can’t be men
Everybody knows
I’m her friend
Everybody knows
I’m her man

Here Amos is willing to play around with her sexuality in a playful but forceful way. It’s almost as if she’s daring the men in her friend’s life to be as good as she is to her friend. And while there’s no hint of the guilt I’ve been describing in this song, I think it’s interesting on a gender-play, feminism level. I also think there’s a fair amount of anger in this song too. You think “Angry Girl Music” and you think about Liz Phair and Bikini Kill, but all of the women rockers from the 90s I’ve explored have been angry in their own way, and mostly about misogyny/gender identity/feeling like an outcast.

Amos’ contribution to the narrative women wrote on the airwaves of the 90s is an emotional connection to her characters whether they are substitutes for her own viewpoint or not. She has a gorgeous voice and is a talented – if often obtuse – writer, who manages to describe that feeling of being an outcast and of exiling yourself because of perceived differences that so often were wrapped up in the idea of a “feminine” sexuality. It’s the exact same thing Liz Phair is angry about; the Madonna/whore complex that seems to trap women into feeling guilty about what for men would be “normal” or “healthy” sexuality. And how that sexuality gets twisted even more when you’ve been the victim of a sexual crime. This is what we’re left with after the women’s movement of the 60s and 70s. We have the tools and power to be as sexually free as men are, but not the societal acceptance to do so, and I think because rock & roll is so closely tied up with men’s sexuality, the guilt for women that is wrapped around our sexuality became a huge theme for women rockers of the 90s.

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