The song that made me a Tori Amos fan was “Talula,” featured on the soundtrack to Twister.
I was vaguely aware of Amos’s music before then, enough so that when I first heard Joan Osborne’s “One of Us,” I thought, Hmm, is this that Tori Amos person? I’d looked at her CDs in stores, even though I didn’t have a CD player, so that people might notice I was looking at something cool. Music was my life: I’d gone through a Paula Abdul phase at seven and by eleven was hooked on Mariah Carey. The onset of adolescence, though, made me think that I should branch out. I started wearing a lot of black and listening to college radio.
When I heard those few seconds of “Talula” while Helen Hunt worked on her complicated tornado-reading machine, I was sold. I had found the last piece of my weirdo puzzle. I fast-forwarded to the credits right then and figured out that I had finally, for real, heard Tori Amos. I misread the title as “Talua (BY’s Tornado Hymn)” on my thirteen-inch TV screen. Coincidentally, I’d also recently stopped wearing my glasses.
A few evenings later, having obsessed quite vocally to my family about 30 seconds of a remixed Tori Amos song, I was in my room doing homework. My dad yelled for me to come to the living room. “Isn’t this that girl you like now?” he said just before David Letterman introduced her. She came out in a white dress, curls barely tamed, and played what I would later learn was “Father Lucifer.”
Next trip to Walmart, I scanned the Tori Amos CDs for the one with “Talula” on it. It was a peculiar song to be sure, but it had sounded sort of poppy so I figured I could dance to it in front of the mirror. I hadn’t properly heard Letterman say the title of the album, but I remembered the cover was sort of blue.
When I found Boys for Pele, I immediately assumed that Tori was Hawaiian while also associating the reference to Pele with The Unicorns Go Hawaiian, the Sweet Valley Twins Super Edition book that introduced me to the volcano goddess. All of this canceled out the rifle, the dead chicken, and the dirt on Amos’s face. The rags she wore, the decrepit front porch she guarded: those meant nothing to me. I grabbed the tape when no one cute was looking and put it in the shopping cart. Still quite churchy, I tried not to flinch at “Father Lucifer.”
Before dinner, I locked myself in my room and listened to the whole album while perusing the liner notes. I was terrified. I loved it.
That’s what I’m talking about when I’m talking about Tori Amos.
The lyrics spoke to me, even as I listened with my stereo’s volume super low, ear to speaker, since I hadn’t yet bothered to acquire a pair of headphones. I was afraid my parents would think something was wrong with me if they heard “Blood Roses” or “Professional Widow” blaring out of my room.
Those songs in particular became my soundtrack when my freshman-year boyfriend betrayed me: “Oh, you ate lunch with her today instead of me? Well, I shaved every place where you’ve been! ” (He had been precisely nowhere, which is probably why he finally decided to eat lunch elsewhere and, eventually, send his friend Tucker to break up with me on his behalf.)
The experiences Amos sings about on Boys for Pele are so very adult, and I was still a kid. I longed for the kind of pain she sang of because it made so much sense, but I still related things to Sweet Valley Twins Super Editions. I’d been through some stuff by that point, but it was all so confusing and seemed so unnameable that I found places inside to box it up. Boys for Pele made me want to write; writing made me remember and helped me understand. Writing forced me to come to terms with what I never wanted to admit to being: a girl, inexperienced, with a messy heart.
That, too, is what I’m talking about when I’m talking about Tori Amos.
My writing found a home with my English teacher. He expected one collection of poetry from me each quarter, usually ten or twelve poems in each bunch, which seems like so many now. I still have all of them, and while some make me cringe, they also make me proud that I found it somewhere within myself to be so fearless.
Behold, an example, from “Untitled” (naturally):
I wanted to be an Amazon
when I was five, but instead
I told stories about butterflies.
Are wings so necessary for flight?
Can’t they just be pretty?
This is all so me:
from glitter and stars to
the foil wrapped around the bottom of the candle to
forgetting my wings were a metaphor.
This is all so me:
sparkly regardless of all circumstance.
Amos’s first five albums became my holy texts. I was devoted, and from what I could tell, she was equally devoted to her fans. I started to understand patriarchy; I started thinking about things like systematic oppression and representations of the feminine. I was obviously great fun at slumber parties and later, around bonfires with boys there, a couple of wine coolers and the lyrics to “Muhammad My Friend” circulating in my blood. I brought my burgeoning feminism everywhere.
In college, one of my literature professors, an aging white man of course, was the first person I’d ever heard speak cruelly of Sylvia Plath, openly denouncing confessional writing as undignified. The moment I heard those words, coming from one of the men it was my job at that point to impress, I stopped even thinking about writing poetry or fiction and threw myself at the task of constructing dry, academic sentences. Obviously, there’s no crying in lit papers.
I should have laughed him off; instead, I took his words into my messy heart. I felt ashamed of everything non-academic I’d ever written and all of the music (Amos and everyone else) I’d ever loved, and of the fact that sometimes I had more of Plath’s words in my head than my own. I felt silenced by academic writing, whereas undignified confessional writing had opened me up to the world.
I’m also talking about that when I’m talking about Tori Amos.
This year, Amos released her fourteenth album. I felt the same way I did at fourteen, at sixteen, anticipating the release of From the Choirgirl Hotel and To Venus and Back. This year also marks eighteen years since I heard “Talula” and found my first fandom.
Time flies, and sometimes I feel a little lost in it. When I write, I sometimes hear the voice of my teen self, not saying the same things but instead trying to be fearless. Boys for Pele was released when Amos was only a year older than I am now, so I know that fearlessness is still possible.
My life is nothing like the future I pictured at 13. I’m married, for one thing, and although “have enough money to travel” was one of my life goals then, I’ve come to realize I hate traveling. I had no way of knowing that Paula Abdul would have another moment in the spotlight or that, somehow, we’d circle back around and Sweet Valley references would be relevant again.
And, honestly, I would never have believed you if you’d told me I’d still be talking about Tori Amos. I didn’t believe enough in my capacity for commitment.