When I saw Tori Amos’s name on the marquee of upcoming performers at the Beacon Theater on the Upper West Side a few weeks ago for her summer tour, I had two thoughts: Can I relive that part of my life? Which was soon followed by: What will it be like to hear "Cornflake Girl" live again after all these years?
Tori's 50, and with the release of Unrepentant Geraldines this week, her 14th studio album, things have definitely changed from the days of “Crucify or God.” My recent descent down the deep and cavernous hole of my Tori obsession, however, made me realize one thing remains the same: Tori was my gay icon.
Now, I know that sounds like a big title to hang on anyone. I'm certain that, no matter the decade or location, gay men will always pay homage to woman like Cher, Barbra, and Liza. But for those born or coming of age in the mid-'80s, such as myself, there wasn’t that strong personal connection; it’s simply something you are born into—like your parents’ religion. Plus, Tori did have her first big break (and garnered her first queer fans) as a teenager playing the gay bars of Washington, D.C. So, having her Bette Midler-esque bona fides, along with her unequivocal embrace by so many of my generation, I think she qualifies.
As I continued to walk up Broadway, my thoughts expanded to confused kids everywhere who believe they’re alone. What artists help them survive the bullying, feeling lost, or journey to self-acceptance?
Coming out in the late ’90s, there was no Lady Gaga reminding me that I was "Born This Way" when I was 15. For me, there was only Tori. Gay culture today is, and perhaps has always been, fast-paced, over-sexualized, and highly judgmental. Self-hate and inner demons are visibly present in most gay men, granting us permission to be elusive and silent about the important issues in gay culture that young people need to hear.
I came out in San Francisco, knee deep in musical theater (I know, but in many ways, they were hard times). My biggest hurdle was embracing what people assumed me to be: a gay kid. I needed a voice to claim my own to pull me out of that dark lonely closet and help me face my fears. That voice wasn’t necessarily on the radio, like it might be today. The voice I discovered confessed things such as: “Every day, I crucify myself/ Nothing I do is good enough for you/ Crucify myself/ Every day/ And my heart is sick of being in chains,” as she did on "Crucify," from her game changing 1992 debut album, Little Earthquakes.
I have a vivid memory of discovering that Tori would be performing on The Rosie O’Donnell Show promoting her new album, From the Choirgirl Hotel in 1998. Rosie came on at 3 p.m., which was about the same time I got out of class. Every precaution had to be taken, I couldn’t risk missing it. My only option was to “tape it.”
The only VCR we had at home had included an untrustworthy timer. It didn’t have a good track record for getting any job done—but I was determined. I found an old tape of my sister dancing to the Dirty Dancing soundtrack with her friend. Perfect. I stuck the tape in the machine before leaving, changed the channel, and pressed record on the 8-hour VHS. When I came home from school, I was frantic to see if it had worked. Success! After fast-forwarding hours of soaps, I watched Tori perform “Northern Lad,” and began weeping to her heartfelt singer-songwriter confessional.
I’ve attended several concerts of hers after the Little Earthquake days; I can still picture my friends and I sitting on the lawn of the Concord Pavilion during Tori’s tour with Alanis Morissette in 1999. I also vividly recall her 2003 Scarlet’s Walk tour. Looking around that captivated audience, I realized that there's no Tori fan "type." You’ve got your 15-year-old goth girls, your twinky gay boys, and the aging fans that have been there all along. I don’t find it strange that Tori’s demographic has not changed after all of this time. The one thing we have in common is that even if that meant we had to share an auditorium packed with people we’d never, under any other circumstances, hang out with, we would do it for a Tori experience.
Growing up, I was very involved in the West Coast gay culture, as much as a kid my age could be—which is quite a bit. But I counterbalanced the thumping trance music at the abandoned warehouses in Oakland, Calif., with Tori tunes—who was also raving with us. Since Tori had an albeit, “controversial” electronic phase, I could convince my older DJ boyfriend to play some of those tracks. Many music producers also made house versions of classic Tori songs like "Professional Widow" and even the ballad "Hey Jupiter." Anytime I could, I would convince a DJ to spin a Tori song then my friends and I would bask in the conquest and belt out the repeated lyrics—"Honey, bring it close to my lips, yes"—over and over. Tori always preferred a yes to a yeah—one of her many qualities that I still appreciate.
Inevitably, Tori took us raver candy kids—coming down from our Ecstasy and leaving with more people in our friend’s station wagon than when we started—back safely to the comfort of our beds at 7 a.m.
Today, I am not sure a uniquely gifted artist like Tori Amos could make a huge splash in the LGBT community. I wonder if she would even have been noticed. You know, she never stopped performing and recording. She had a life with a kid and husband, outside of the limelight and home recording studio to do whatever she wanted. In 2008, she was released from her contract with Epic Records and took control of her own career. She’s always marched to the beat of her own drum (or piano, as it were), and over the last 10 years that drum was quiet, yet steady.
That being said, her song “Flavor,” originally appearing on her 2009 album Abnormally Attracted to Sin as a down-tempo track, was later released as the main single from her album Gold Dust in 2012 and featured remastered versions of selected songs from her out of control catalogue of music. Amos commented that she felt that “Flavor” was overlooked on Abnormally Attracted to Sin. Well, she must have been on to something because that song's second chance landed it in the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s “Hot Dance Club Songs” in 2013. To be perfectly honest, I had no clue that even happened. My younger roommate pointed this out to me last night. At my mention of “Professional Widow,” he cut me off and, I believe his exact words were: “Girl, what about “Flavor?” That shit was fierce!”
Photo by Amarpaul Kalirai
These days, Tori may still have those shocking red tresses, but she prefers to talk about America and being an aging woman—which has created its own backlash. Some fans have criticized her shift in musical style and the new emphasis on vocal remixing. Hey, she’s never been one for blending in. The new Unrepentant Geraldines album is no different then the 13 prior in that she is simply doing her thing, without fear. In honor of the new album, my thirty-something friends and I, each dedicated to Tori and what she represented to our individual coming-of-age stories, went down a major Tori rabbit hole. We shared carefully crafted Spotify playlists and compared answers to the recent BuzzFeed quiz claiming to determine the Tori song most personifies “us.” It asked hard-hitting questions such as: "What’s your greatest fear in life?" I know. This shit was no joke.
Don't get me wrong: I love our pop princesses of today. I mean, I saw Katy Perry’s Part of Me documentary and cried. Twice. Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” video in 2002 was a touchstone for our community. I have nothing against mainstream pop and the culture that comes with it. These artists represent the freedom, expression, and accessibility that young souls feel they need in order to break free from society’s chains. The same things I craved, and so did Tori.
At 32 and single, I wonder what young gay boy is waiting in line to sob with Gaga in the way that I did watching Tori on Rosie. Maybe I’m just realizing that things have shifted. Gay culture’s musical influence has become mainstream as opposed to a safe place we have to discover on our own. I’m not saying Tori is a better gay icon than Katy, Gaga, or Beyoncé. One is not superior to the other. There's room for many around the table.
So this is where my mind's focused as I search for the best seats and consider which friends will truly appreciate a special and nostalgic night with our gal in August. According to BuzzFeed, I’m a Cornflake Girl. “Peel out the watchword. Just peel out the watchword,” Tori sang in 1994 on Under the Pink. All right, I can get behind that. And after peeling away my layered, teenage, coming-out memories, as Tori cathartically played in the background, I’m finally ready to reconnect. I want to remember that 15-year-old boy and remember the role Tori played in helping him find his way out.
I didn’t think I understood who I was or where I fit in the world then. But maybe I always did. Maybe I was always a Cornflake Girl.
Nick has been acting and singing on stage his whole life. He began writing his own pop music in 2008 and writing personal essays just this past year. Nick resides in NYC where he records his popular podcast Dirty 30 Something (available on iTunes).