Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our show 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 42, which breaks down Tori Amos’s career and her biggest hit, “Cornflake Girl.”
Myra Ellen Amos was born in Newtown, North Carolina, in 1963, four years after the Day the Music Died the First Time. Her mother was part Cherokee; her father was a Methodist preacher. And that’s all you need, really, to fuel a lifetime of spiritual and artistic pathos. Let’s just say Young Tori felt a wee bit repressed. Grown-up Tori, talking to SPIN, would later describe her father this way: “When I was a kid, it was will of iron. No sense of humor. No Richard Pryor videos.” Let’s just say young Tori preferred her mother’s side of the family. The Native American side. The storytelling side. The less theistically rigid side. The “good” side. She also called it the “juicy” side. As for her father’s family, her Appalachian and Pentecostal roots, she once said, “I’m related to the people in Deliverance. Not Burt Reynolds—the other side.” She said this to a newspaper in North Carolina. In Greensboro. As you might be aware, Tori Amos has never had any problem telling anybody anything she was thinking or feeling at any point in her life.
For example: Let’s talk early musical inspirations. The Doors! OK. The Doors. Quote: “I imagined Jim Morrison as Gandalf in Lord of the Rings riding in on his horse and putting me on his saddle. I was totally into that at 7.” That is a remarkable image, by the way. Jim Morrison as Gandalf absconding with 7-year-old Tori Amos. YOU CAN-NOT PA-AASS. Jesus, that’s a terrible impression. All right. Led Zeppelin! Of course. She raved about Zeppelin to Rolling Stone. Quote: “Well, Zeppelin are my biggest influence. I wanted to give my virginity to Robert Plant when I was 10 years old. I was bleeding, babe, I was bleeding. When I would listen to their music, I would feel passionate. I would get wet, and then it all dried up as I got older. It made me feel like a hot girl. ‘Black Dog.’ Yummy. Put it on, throw that head back. Rrrrowwww. But my commitment is to being wet.” Just saying things Tori Amos has said is going to be the death of me; listening to me say things Tori Amos has said may very well be the death of you.
Young Tori was also a whole-ass child prodigy piano player. Her dad moved the family to Baltimore early on; at 5 years old, she was the youngest-ever student admitted to the prestigious and historically Led Zeppelin–averse Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. At 11 years old, she got kicked out of the prestigious and apparently Tori Amos–averse Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, for what Rolling Stone later described as “musical insubordination.” One of the first pictures of the artist soon to be known as Tori Amos, in the paper, it’s 1977, she’s in the Montgomery Journal in Rockville, Maryland. She’s 13 years old. She’s going by Ellen Amos. She is the winner of the 13th Annual Teen Talent Contest sponsored by the Montgomery County Recreation Department and the Kensington-Wheaton Jaycees. In the picture she is rocking an upright piano but facing the crowd and singing a song she wrote called “More Than Just a Friend.”
Soon she’d adopted the stage name Tori Amos—a friend’s boyfriend told her she looked like a Torrey pine, as in the tree—is that a neg? I’m glad I wasn’t around for that—and she found herself playing Washington D.C.–area nightclubs and gay bars, often accompanied, often chaperoned by her father on account of her being severely underaged. Tori enjoys talking about this phase, or she used to, when she first got famous. The dissonance of this image. The juiciness. She liked talking about her humorless old preacher dad, skulking in the back of the gay bar in his priest’s collar. Sometimes she’d call it a clerical collar; if she was being a little more playful, she’d call it a dog collar. But soon this wasn’t enough for her. She wanted to go to L.A. She wanted to be a rock star. She wanted to be the Goddess. She wanted to be famous. Whatever it took. Whoever she had to be to be famous. She once said, “After playing ‘Feelings’ six times a night, I was wondering, ‘What’s the difference between that and giving a blow job to the head of Merrill Lynch?’ Everybody kept saying, ‘This girl-and-her-piano thing is not gonna happen.’ And I started listening.”
So she moved to L.A. and started a band called Y Kant Tori Read.
That’s from a song called “Fayth.” F-A-Y-T-H. Why’s it spelled like that? Because it’s sssssexier. If you spent a lot of time in record stores, in CD stores in the ’90s, perhaps you recall the mythical Bootleg Section. Usually one little box on the front counter or behind the counter to deter shoplifters. Typically, these were live bootleg CDs of Counting Crows or Rage Against the Machine or Nirvana or whatever. Half-assed covers. Dubious origins. Sound quality probably sucked. I wouldn’t know. They cost like $25, $30 a pop. Forget it. I didn’t need another version of “Rain King” that bad. But I will likewise never forget the day I was farting around in one of those boxes and I stumbled across a $30 copy of the self-titled 1988 debut from ill-fated Los Angeles synth-pop-slash-hair-metal band Y Kant Tori Read. She could explain that name to you but I imagine at this point she’d rather not.
That is definitely Tori Amos on the cover of this record. She’s got an extra-shocking shock of red hair, you can smell the hair spray; she is holding a sword incorrectly; she is giving you Whitesnake video. I was baffled by this cover, in this moment, in my attempt to reconcile this lady with the “Crucify” lady. Was this a prank? Was this a Halloween costume? I did not buy this album. I cannot in good conscience recommend this album. Neither will Tori Amos. It sounds like Roxette, but secretly mad at Jesus. Y Kant Tori Read took on mythic proportions in the early ’90s when Tori broke out for real, but let’s not belabor this. Is it a good album? No. Is it a world-historically humiliating disaster? Also no. What the hell were you doing in 1988 that was so great? Not being born yet, I suspect. Look, it was a false start, it was an ill-fitting alter ego for a child prodigy turned pop star who did not yet realize that her actual personality was more heroic, and more villainous, than any superhero alter ego any dumbass record company could cook up. As Tori later put it to the Los Angeles Times, “I didn’t believe in myself enough. I forgot that if it isn’t in my heart or if I’m not getting off on it, maybe people could tell. I didn’t think about that one. When Y Kant Tori Read bombed, I didn’t have any respect for myself.”
Also, Billboard called her a bimbo. This is the complete text of Billboard’s “RECOMMENDED” review of the Y Kant Tori Read record: “Classically trained pianist pounds the ivories on her pop-rock debut, belting out self-written material with a forceful, appealing voice. Unfortunately, provocative packaging sends the (inaccurate) message that this is just so much more bimbo music.” Yeah. Remember that. Tori Amos sure did. She dropped out of sight. She fled to London. She transformed back into herself. She wrote a fantastic song called “Silent All These Years”—about everyone and everything that conspired to keep her silent—and she also wrote a bunch of other songs just as good, and in 1992 her solo debut, Little Earthquakes, made her super famous.
To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.