Nine days out of ten, engaging me in conversation regarding my favorite album of all time will lead to a discussion of Tori Amos’s from the choirgirl hotel, though sometimes i’m not sure why. While it’s an excellent album, it is no more excellent than the other discs that round out my top five. What makes it different was the moment that i first advanced it to play track eight, because at that moment my favorite song came blasting out of my speakers for the first time, and nearly knocked my clear off my feet.
There are things i had come to expect from a Tori Amos album by 1998, even though i didn’t actually own any of her work. Intricate piano playing. Obscure lyrics. Breathy vocals. All of these details were present on the untouched disc i held in my hands as i walked out of HMV on the fifth of May, unwrapping a just-released copy of choirgirl. I got through the album once on my commute home via SEPTA, but typically nodded off a half hour into my ride. All of the last songs of the disc had gone by in a blur until i lurched back into consciousness on the last one as i neared my stop. Checking the track listing, i had missing tracks eight through eleven, and so i started on track number eight when i dropped the disc into the cd-drawer of my computer.
Track eight is “She’s Your Cocaine.” It has been my favourite song ever since i heard for the first time, nearly for year ago.
“Cocaine” is hardly a Tori Amos song… so much so that many of her fans detest it primarily among all of her more adventurous composures. It shows off her roots; it’s hard to imagine her sitting behind a piano singing it, even after seeing it happen at a concert. On disc it sounds like Tori fronting classic Led Zeppelin, or a pre-Eno Bowie with his nineties Reeves Gabriel arrangements. You have to sonically squint to even find the piano behind the bass-stomp and the slack tuned guitar that accompany it, and just as you endeavor to locate it the song breaks down into a delicate piano and meletron bridge before heading back into the swirling rock that it started with.
Despite all of these sonic elements, it is the lyrics of the song that caught my attention as much as anything else. “She’s your cocaine,” Tori accuses the man she’s addressing, “she’s got you shaving your legs.” In one line Tori has put her quarry’s emasculation out in the open for all to see; he has become humiliated by his obsession. The irony is, even Tori’s blunt accusations to him don’t seem to mean a thing. She commands “shimmy once, and do it again” so matter-of-factly that it’s clear that he doesn’t have any illusions of resisting — he’s become so controlled, so “whipped,” that now anyone can twist him into knots just by mentioning the woman that is like a drug to him.
It is this brutal honesty, combined with a punchy rhythm section and a huge stadium-rock guitar crunch, that makes “Cocaine” so gripping. The second verse opens “She’s says control it, then she says don’t control it, then she says you’re controlling — the way she makes you crawl.” In a verbally acrobatic way, these lyrics lay out every overly possessed and controlled relationship i’ve ever witnessed: first he’s not in charge of his own feelings, then he’s too focused on being in control, and then he’s pushing her around. But, all of it is just her way of keeping him safely leashed — it is the way she makes him crawl.
Tori lays the final layer of the narrative on in her bridge and refrain, first telling him “Boy, i could lie to you,” before practically spitting out “you don’t need one of these to let me inside of you.” Despite her vagueness, the tone her delivery connects the line to the sexist and nearly vulgar implication that is meant; he’s letting her in as easily as he’d claim a woman would. Her next accusation is even more degrading, a sighing “you sign Prince of Darkness, … try squire of dimness.” Even through all of this, apparently the man in question has thought that he was the seductive devil in charge of things, but Tori has put him in his place — he’s nothing frightening, but his girl is wearing a proverbial blue dress.
The first time i heard it, i could feel “She’s Your Cocaine” reverberating in my heart, in my stomach, and in my hips. In my heart, because i know i have the potential to be the man Tori is describing, in my gut because her voice leaves me with a visceral reaction to its intonations, and in my hips because the song speaks in tones of seduction. Tori has literally been quoted as as calling choirgirl something so innocent as a record she can keep a beat to the less vague “an album [to] f–k to.” “Cocaine” is practically the center-piece when it comes to this element of the disc… it is rock and roll sold from the pelvis, both in its body-moving rhythm and its unapologetic lyrics.
When Tori matter-of-factly commands “cut it again” to guitarist Steve Caton at the end of the song, she might as well be commanding me to push the repeat button. It’s what i do every single time.