never was a cornflake girl

January 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

(This post was written awhile back. The uploading of this post, however, seems to be happening… um… now. I have allowed my blog to languish. I am sorry, Blog Gods and the two of you who read this regularly!)

This post came about in the shower this morning, when I remembered that what I wrote in my tumblelog in response to Sady Doyle’s post wasn’t really true. The last Tori Amos album I really loved was not made in 1998, but in 1999. To Venus and Back was the last great obsession.

I remember liking Tori Amos. I say I remember because it seems I have lost that ability to lose myself in music like I used when I was a teenager. Yes, this is a cliché that others have also uttered as a matter of course, but it is still true. Losing oneself to music, as is losing oneself in a book, seems to belong to a very nostalgic past when we were all young. I remember when I was in my late teens in 1999 and the internet was still a brand-new thing in Malaysia. Some of my friends did not have internet connections yet, but my father was one of the first to get us signed on in 1996. I write whiny blog posts now musing about the utter confusion generated by online interactions through Facebook and Twitter and so on, but in 1996 I used the internet like a mad woman. Like a mad woman, that is, without any angst.

I like describing myself as a mad woman, and liked describing myself as a mad girl as an adolescent. Tori Amos makes music for mad girls and women, or at least she used to. You meet Tori Amos en route to Kate Bush, but that doesn’t make the Tori Amos experience any less valuable. In 1999 I knew from online interactions with several email penpals (e-pals?); other people as singularly obsessed with Tori Amos and The X-Files and, yes, Jane Austen as I was, that To Venus and Back was going to be released. This was back in the day of the mailing lists and forums. This was pre-Amazon days, before bit torrents, the heady, exciting days of Napster-about-to-arrive. Music albums released in the UK, US, and Europe could take months to reach Malaysian shores. I was having none of that, so I emailed my sister living in Florida to get me a copy of To Venus and Back THE DAY IT CAME OUT and send it to me. Those were the days when my siblings listened to what I said, because I was still the youngest, and somewhat cute. Being the youngest sibling as an adult, unfortunately, does not render one cute anymore. Nor does anyone listen to you. But I digress.

The character Delirium in Neil Gaiman's Sandman comics came to have Tori-influences

I got the album. It was utterly bizarre. It is still utterly bizarre. I still love the madness of the syncopated, skittish, unhinged beats of To Venus and Back. What the hell is Tori doing in ‘Datura’? No one has a clue. No matter, you sing along – “dividing Canaan, piece by piece.”  The first song, ‘Bliss’, begins with “Father, I killed my monkey / I let it out to taste the sweet of spring”. Hilarious, I thought, but also foreboding, in the way only Tori can be. This was in October 1999 when the album arrived from my sister in Florida. By the end of November of 1999, my father was dead, and the lines “You know it’s true I’m part of you / we’re a Bliss of another kind” could never be listened to in the same way again.

This is probably how songs – whole albums, even – become intrinsic to your life as your own thoughts, feelings, experiences. It’s all about the listening, about when you do it and how you do it, whether riding in the passenger seat of your first boyfriend’s car during a road trip or curled up in the corner of your bed after a death, numb. How was I to know that Tori had ensured To Venus and Back came bundled with a song about death? That plenty of her hardcore fans mocked ‘1,000 Oceans’ on mailing lists and forums for being too maudlin, sappy, or for the crime of having too simple a melody, didn’t diminish the value of that song for a girl who needed to listen to it on repeat, day after day, for months on end in order to even begin to give shape to her own sprawling, chaotic, messy, out-of-grasp pain.

There are moments in To Venus and Back that hits the note of pain – pain as I remembered it in those awful months of 1999 – so much that I’ve avoided listening to some of those songs up until now. But now that I am listening to it again, I can’t help but feel invigorated again by the blatant display of Tori-madness. This is a woman who wears her lunacy on her sleeve in her music. I don’t mean to say this to dismiss her or her music as a form of artifice. Personally, as a listener, I’ve taken the extremity of vocals, lyrics, and piano-playing as a reflection of a temperament trying to make sense of its limitlessness.  Indeed, I think we all have our individual stripes of lunacy, well-hidden from polite view. What I love about Tori’s music is that she was the first example for me, as a teenager, of how lunacy can be invited to come and have a seat at the dinner table with the rest of the guests. “Rabbit, where’d you put the keys, girl?” Tori sings in ‘Cornflake Girl’, and you know, I don’t know who the hell Rabbit is, but I do know that the question makes sense to me. Somehow, in some cloudy part of my mind, I need to know where the keys are, too. We can all go look for it together, you, me, Tori, and Rabbit. There is no need to ask why.

As an adult woman who has to behave, for the most part, Tori’s older music still provides the kind of safe haven to exercise one’s hysterical woman-madness privately, and with abandon. “I can’t believe this violence in mind. But I believe in peace, bitch,” Tori and I sing. Tori bangs on her piano aggressively, I on my computer keyboard as I write, and demons are exorcised or at least put to bed snug for awhile.

To Venus and Back consists of two CDs, one of newly-recorded studio material and the other a CD of live tracks recorded on tour. For someone who had not seen Tori perform live (and who most likely will not, because the desire to see Tori live has now diminished – I will attend the concert expecting the Tori of 1996, she will perform as the Tori of the 21st-century, it will all end badly), the live CD was further illumination of how you can be both crazy – loopy, nutty, unhinged, what have you – and be immensely talented.  Because you’ve still got to perform and pull of a musical feat for the thousands of people who have paid to watch you, and I suppose back in the days of 1998 people still expected musical excellence in a concert by a musician. The charming loopiness only gets you so far, yet for it to have worked and to have enchanted people the way it did, it must always be simultaneously done with a sly wink. This is where Tori always used to get it right. Up until she got married and had babies, that is, which is the part where I agree with Sady and the part where my heart constricts a little because the Tori of past is no more.

But it’s also silly to think about it that way, because I still have Tori of the past in her music.

never was a cornflake girl
thought that was a good solution
hangin’ with the raisin girls
she’s gone to the other side
givin’ us a yo heave ho
things are getting kind of gross
and I go at sleepy time
this is not really happening
you bet your life it is

Indeed. You bet your life it is.


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