Song Analysis

Cornflake Girl

lundi 8 août 2011, par Cécile Desbrun

“‘Cornflake Girl,’ that’s the initial betrayal, the whole seed of the division. Cornflakes and raisins : cereal.” (B-Side, April/May 1994)

“It’s based on the Alice Walker book. The women that I wrote it about were people who I thought I knew. Then, all of a sudden, my jaw is on the floor going, ‘No, she didn’t do this ; she didn’t say this ; she doesn’t mean this.’” (Interview, August 1994)

" I don’t know why women aren’t supportive of women. That’s the most shocking thing to me. Of anything you could bring up to me of grossness, of people doing things to each other - and its pretty horrific out there - the way women treat other women has been the biggest disappointment for me," (Schwann Spectrum, Spring 1994)

The third of a triade of songs about women betraying each other on Tori Amos second album Under the Pink, “Cornflake Girl” presents itself as a loony and cryptic playground tale with a very rythmic and upbeat music. Like most of the other songs, there’s definitely more below the surface and the sarcastic and incisive lyrics make up for an insider’s look at what really goes on in the “ladie’s room,” as Tori put it.

The very parabol-oriented lyrics take the cornflakes and raisins (muesli in other words) for metaphor of “narrow-minded ,” [1] “white bread ,” [2] “red-neck ” [3] girls as opposed to “open-minded,” “wholewheat bread,” “loyal” and “multicultural” girls. If we take it to the high school’s playground, it would be the shallow, haughty and popular girls against the loyal nerds - something that is clearly illustrated in the American music video for the song. Tori is of course a raisin girl in the song, although not many people seemed to get it as the title is “Cornflake Girl.” But, in the end, “it’s not about this team or that team,” like she stated in Creem in March 1994 and she also commented that the song was about “someone who turned from a Cornflake girl to a Raisin girl and think it a disillusion. ” [4]

So she’s definitely been “on the other side” and knows what it is. So we could argue that fall out with another Cornflake Girl she considered as a friend made her open her eyes about what she’s really after. And of course, we can find echoes of that in Tori’s own personal life : she’s been a Beauty Queen in high school (although she stated that all the nerds voted for her) and often told how she used to play a role back then by fear of getting hurt and, most funnily, she played in a Kellogg’s add for cornflakes in 1985, while she was struggling to make it as an artist in L.A. “If we sit down, to have a cereal is no coincidence, because cereal is a very interesting word to me. To go to breakfast and to go to grains, all those things, and to segregate me as a cereal, especially since I did do a cornflake commercial, and since I do call the song ‘Cornflake Girl,’ and I say ‘Never was a cornflake girl,’ there’s a real rub there .”  [5]

About that now infamous add, she also told Nieuwe Revu that at the time she flattered herself “with the thought I was the Trojan Horse there : a raisin girl amid cornflake girls.” She took that role at a time where she had to make a living in the big city. Her work at the piano was constantly rejected, she battled to record her first album with her short-lived band Y Kant Tori Read and she was paid 12,000$ to play in that commercial, so she had no shame in doing it... while knowing that this job didn’t define by any means who she was as an artist. So, in a way, the same can be said about the narrator in “Cornflake Girl :” maybe she hung out with cornflake girls, for whatever reason, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t a raisin girl. She’s not like them and can’t make them change, she has to accept it, though it’s clearly a desillusion. “Just imagine if you met Alice in Wonderland and she smacked you in the face !” Tori thus told Creem. “It hurt me very deeply, because I had this idea of what The Sisterhood was.”

Interestingly enough, an interview she gave to the Simon Mayo radio show in March 1994 uncovered the seemingly pretty odd - though quite understandable when you got the song’s subject - “she’s gone to the other side/with my encyclopedia/they musta paid her a nice price :” it turns out to be that Tori knew a ‘cornflake girl’ when she was 13 and that an incident occured between the two of them in a bus. The story being so funny the way Tori explains it, I’ll give you the full transcript :

“I think you will understand what it’s like to be a girl if you could just imagine being thirteen years old. Just having gotten off your braces. Kind of being a nerd, but not totally a nerd, just kind of a nerd. So, in other words, I sat in the middle of the bus, not the back of the bus where all the cool people sat. And not the front of the bus where the real, real serious nerds sat.

Anyway, I was in the middle of the bus, and the most popular girl in school happened to be on the bus that day because she was going home with a boy that day, that rode my bus, who was really cute and popular, too. So anyway, um, they took my books and uh, ’cause this one boy in the back wanted me to hang out with him. So I had to go to the back to get my books. Now this girl would do this to a lot of other girls. Just stuff, make them feel stupid and humiliate them in front of class, you know, ’cause she was attractive and all the boys liked her. They couldn’t see the slime she was.

So anyway, I went back — she was a cornflake girl — anyway, I went back to the back of the bus with this guy, and he was kinda burly and sweaty and gross, but tough, like a young Sylvester Stallone. So anyway, he’s sitting there pawing me and stuff, and I get really sick of this news, so I clock him one, and I shove him in the ribs with my elbow. And I know it’s near my stop, so I’ve gotta get off. Well, this girl has hidden my books. So, I take my books. I take her head in my hand and I take my hand, instead of marring her beautiful skin, I hit her on the top of the head. And um, I get my books and she says, ‘I’m gonna come after you, you little scum.’

So she, for the next three months of school, she made my life a living hell. Every day, it was awful, screaming outside my house to come fight her. Well, I didn’t want to fight her, ’cause, you know, I had done my bit. So, one day, um, she got up from her desk and she was walking, and everybody started to laugh at her. And they laughed and laughed, and she couldn’t understand why. And me and my friend Connie had had a packet of ketchup that we had taken from cafeteria. And we just happened to put it beneath her white jeans before she sat down. And it’s the only thing that got me through three months of hell.”

So, though the song is symbolic, it’s quite funny to note that Tori experienced these lines litterally by having this girl take her ‘encyclopedia’ and take it to the other side of the bus.

In a broader way, “Cornflake Girl” not only deals with the artist’s disillusion about ‘Sisterhood,’ but also with some women’s behavior in a deeper way : how they became part of the patriarchal system that subjugates women by lashing out against one another. Taking an extreme example, she often told in interviews the influence that Alice Walker’s novel Possessing the Secret of Joy had on her. “It went in depth of just women betraying women, and how the mothers really sold the daughters to the butchers, and had their genitalia removed, et cetera,” she told Hot Press in February 1994. “A lot of memory came to me. Just social memory, not necessarily personal memory—collective memory of how women have turned on each other. And the concept of a sisterhood is not real. I think that hurts me more than most concepts, because the idea that— we’ve been, women have had obviously very little say in their lives, and it’s been a difficult road. See, I believe in past lives, so I’ve been a man making it hard on women also. Just if we look at it from objective viewpoints, just the history of woman has been very lonely, and when you think that we should support each other, understand each other, that makes sense to me. You would think.. (...) It’s been—again, it’s the victims become the abusers.”

Realizing that women could make awful things just like the men forced Tori to come to terms “with the naive notion that all women are the good guys and men are always the bad guys. ” [6] Hence the repeated line “and the man with the golden gun thinks he knows so much/thinks he knows so much” in the backing vocals in the last section of the song. Men are always seen as warry and dominant but “women don’t use knives or guns : they don’t need to. It all happens at the dinner table : with their hands in full view - no weapons. I’ve seen it, the damage that one woman can do to another. ” [7] So, even though what’s going on in “Cornflake Girl” is far less dramatic than in Alice Walker’s novel, it’s about that invisible but palpable violence that remains between women after thousands of years of patriarchy. “...we’re not looking at how we betray each other and what our responsibility is,” she told B-Side Magazine in April 1994. “We have to look at the hurt from that experience. But now it is in insidious ways. We’re still doing it emotionally, and yet we’re not looking at ‘wait a minute, why are we hurting each other ?’ Competitiveness, and most of the time it’s withholding, not being able to say ‘you did a good job,’ thus making another woman doubt herself by what you don’t say.”

She also told how she was disappointed to find out that, of all people, women are the ones who most often criticize her sensual way to play at the piano and how such women - some of them pretending to be feminists - are really not supportive of women in any way. "‘She’s putting on her string bean love.’ Anorexic. They just put it on. If you go to their side and take up their cause, then you’re a strong, independent woman. Well, you know, I’m so tired of strong, independent woman equals. And there’s a list. Instead of—well, hang on a minute, the most interesting word here is vulnerability, that’s getting left out, because it’s associated with weakness. You don’t dress a certain way to be a strong independent woman. It’s fascist, and it’s the same—they’re no different. They’re just the other extreme. (...) They’re no different than the men that enslave the women in the first place. They’re enslaving women. That’s this triangle of women enslaving women. ” [8]

She also said that Walker’s novel struck a deep chord with her because at the time she read it, she was having some serious problems with some of her women friends who were not being supportive. “I was betrayed by someone, a girlfriend, who gave me a pretty shitty deal,” she explained to The New Review of Records in 1994. “Her opinion was - I’m a shit - it depends on whose table it is that you’re having arsenic at. I think the disappointment of being betrayed by a woman is way heavier than being betrayed by a man. We expect it from you guys. It hurts, but I’m not shocked.” In her 2005 autobiography Piece by Piece, she confessed that “Cornflake Girl” was inspired by her best friend Beenie. Tori also revealed that Beenie was the inspiration behind “Bells for Her” on the same album : a song about two friends who can’t find a way to communicate anymore because one of them has made the choice to be with a man that didn’t treat her right. Tori explained in November 1994 that her friend [she didn’t mention any name at the time] finally left that man and that they could be friends again. But, when she wrote the song, she didn’t know if they’d “ever speak again.”

When the song could have been very dark with such a theme - plus, the fact that it was inspired by a book about women having their genitalia’s daughter removed - it’s really funny and tongue-in-cheek, the very rythmic and uplifting music creating a perfect counterpoint. ”It’s a very safe place to be able to talk about this stuff and also have a laugh, “ she told her interviewer in the Tea With the Waitress interview CD. “And we have a laugh during the record. There are moments of...maybe it’s a sick little laugh, but, you know, it’s a laugh nonetheless. And it’s very freeing.”

Trivia

Why does Tori sing “Rabbit, where’d you pu the keys, girl” in the chorus ? Tori explained in Hot Press that “Rabbit, in certain Indian traditions, it represents fear.” The narrator is shocked to discover who her female friends really are and she’s having a hard time coming to terms with that, so she’s afraid and can’t find ‘the keys back’ to the world she used to live in, a world where women are sisters and supportive of each other. And, to me, it’s also an Alice in Wonderland reference, thougb Tori never really said it was : indeed, in this tale, Alice is running after the white rabbit and finds herself locked up in the giant burrow. She has to find the key to get out. The Alice in Wonderland thing also fits the loony and often surrealistic lyrics the same way it fits the European music video, inspired by The Wizard of Oz, a tale which can be seen to some extent as a variation of Lewis Carroll’s story.

information sources

The New Review of Records, 1994.
The Baltimore Sun, January 30, 1994.
Nieuwe Revu, February 1994.
Hot Press, February 23, 1994.
Schwann Spectrum, Spring 1994.
Tea With the Waitress CD interview, March 1994.
Creem, March 1994.
Hitkrant, March 12-19, 1994.
The Simon Mayo Show, March 30, 1994.
B-Side, April/May 1994.
Interview, August 1994.
Independent on Sunday, November 16, 2003.
Piece by Piece, 2005.


[1Hot Press, February 23, 1994.

[2The Baltimore Sun, January 30, 1994.

[3Nieuwe Revu, February 1994.

[4Hitkrant, March 12-19, 1994.

[5The Baltimore Sun, January 30, 1994.

[6Hot Press, February 23, 1994.

[7Independent on Sunday, November 16, 2003.

[8Hot Press, February 23, 1994.