The Songs We Almost Picked: Cornflake Girl by Tori Amos
Someone I know told a story on Facebook yesterday about going into Rocking Horse in Brisbane and asking if they should buy a Joanna Newsom record. The guys behind the counter said something to the effect of ‘do you still like Tori Amos?’ Snarkily, I take it.
And well, I do own Have One On Me on vinyl. And here I am saying I almost picked ‘Cornflake Girl’ as being one of my favourite songs in 1994. Oddly, I never really got into Under The Pink, the record ‘Cornflake Girl’ is from; the Tori Amos albums I really liked the most were Little Earthquakes and Boys For Pele (and something always seemed to be missing in her albums after Boys For Pele). But I remember seeing the video for 'Cornflake Girl' a fair bit at the time (I discovered just then that there were UK and US versions; we got the UK version in Australia), with its 'Tori on a spiderweb' thing. And then I had a copy of the song itself, on 100% Hits Volume 11, which I bought on cassette because I wanted to have a copy of Denis Leary’s ‘Asshole’, of course. But from small things big things grow. And ‘Cornflake Girl’ did become one of my favourite songs from 100% Hits Volume 11; I was fascinated by the piano-eyness of it. Being a piano playing dude, I don’t think I’d really heard a female singer-songwriter whose thing was playing piano before Tori Amos - I’m not sure I was that aware of the likes of Carole King then. So that was new and eye-opening in itself - you know, in pop music I thought piano was what Billy Joel and Elton John did, in some ways.
The other thing that fascinated me about ‘Cornflake Girl’ was the psychedelic ‘Alice In Wonderland’-style lyrics. I had no idea what the lyrics were until I bought 100% Hits Volume 11 of course, because Tori’s singing style was high on emotional swoops and low on precise diction. But 100% Hits Volume 11 - like most of the hit compilations at the time - had the lyrics (do the Now! and So Fresh compilations these days still do that, or has the proliferation of lyrics sites on the internet killed that off?).
So looking at the lyrics I recall being confused at lines like “Peel out the watchword" and "she’s putting on her string bean love" and "rabbit, where’d you put the keys girl?" - this wasn’t "I use public toilets and I piss on the seat/ I walk around in the summertime saying how about this heat”. But I think I knew enough about 1960s psychedelia via the Beatles (I probably had the red and blue 1962-1966 and 1967-1970 compilations by that point) to identify what Amos was doing: it was meant to not make sense, and I think that might have been the first time I was aware of such things being meant to make no sense.
But ‘Cornflake Girl’ was one song, and I didn’t have the pocketmoney or inclination to explore further in 1994. I wasn’t curious about music, then, in quite the same way as I am now. The curiosity I had was pointed at the library - I would read anything and everything I could. It didn’t occur to me to listen to all the music I could. I was terrified of buying an album and discovering the rest of it was shit, discovering that I’d wasted hard earned pocketmoney. There was no music library in 1994 near where I lived, and Napster was 5 years away.
My Dad and stepmum got the internet circa 1995 or so, and I remember discovering IRC channels you could chat on at the end of 1996, I think. By that point I was a Smashing Pumpkins fan, and so I went on the #smashingpumpkins IRC group on oz.org as soon as I discovered it existed, after hanging around in #teens for a bit. I only had Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness by that point. I mentioned not having their b-sides compilation Pisces Iscariot on #smashingpumpkins, and someone else was like “dude, what are you doing? are you actually a Pumpkins fan?” Something about the shame of realising that there were bigger Smashing Pumpkins fans than me who knew way more about things than I did made me realise that “oh, music is like books. Explore!” I haven’t looked back since. I mean, obviously I’m looking back now, but you know.
After ‘Cornflake Girl’ faded from memory, I remembered that Tori Amos existed circa 1996, when I saw her play ‘Caught A Lite Sneeze’ and ‘Hey Jupiter’ on Saturday Night Live (my Dad had Foxtel). I remember being transfixed by the pretty melody of ‘Hey Jupiter’ especially, and being amazed by the way she spun around in the middle of ‘Caught A Lite Sneeze’ in order to play the piano rather than the harpsichord (she was sitting at a stool in the middle of a piano keyboard and a harpsichord keyboard - coincidentally there’s live footage of Ben Folds doing this on the Reinhold Messner tour - I bet he had the exact same reaction I did).
Not too long after that (and the odd success of that snarky dance remix of ‘Professional Widow’), I found Little Earthquakes on cassette at a Sanity store in Fairfield, which I’d browse on the way home from school sometimes (even though it was nowhere near as good as Galleon, which was the best music store in Fairfield). Cassettes must have been very much on their way out by 1996; they were selling full albums for $5 at Sanity, obviously just to get rid of them. I bought Little Earthquakes by Tori Amos and Together Alone by Crowded House around then, and eventually upgraded to digital formats. I’ll probably get them both on vinyl eventually.
To get back to those snarky guys behind the counter, it probably is the case that the things that made me like Tori are the things that make me like Joanna Newsom, to some extent at least. There’s a certain obliqueness to both of their lyrics, and a certain sense of living in the imagination. And a certain complexity of the music and sentiments. Both have a certain love, I suspect, for both Joni Mitchell-style confessionals and Kate Bush style-weirdness (yes, I realise comparing a female singer-songwriter to Kate Bush is as cliched as calling a guitar band ‘angular’ or referring to anything with harmonies as being ‘Beach Boys-esque’, but, you know, saying that the Beatles were influenced by Chuck Berry isn’t quite the same as saying that the Beatles were just Chuck Berry ripoffs, and Newsom and especially Amos have Kate Bush influences in a way that, say, Laura Marling or Aimee Mann do not).
Of course, in the end, ‘Cornflake Girl’ is not that complicated a song; in a packet of Sultana Bran there’s always more cornflakes than raisins, but it’s the raisins that make life interesting, that provide the fun taste. And though if you were conforming you’d want to be a cornflake, some people just gravitate towards the raisins, gravitate towards the weird and inexplicable. The rest of the song feels like ‘I Am The Walrus’-style or ‘Ballad of A Thin Man’-style taunting the straights - “what, you don’t understand what “rabbit, where’d you put the keys girl means? Something is happening and you don’t know what it is!" That I was gravitating to ‘Cornflake Girl’ in 1994, well before music became quite as big a part of me as it is now, meant that I was always going to gravitate towards the raisins once I started paying attention.