What About What I Want? (The Big Picture)

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The Big Picture (1988)

The Big Picture (video, 1988)

Pictures of You/The Big Picture (live, 2014)

Selected as the lead single and sequenced as the first track, “The Big Picture” serves as the first and, for many, last impression of Y Kant Tori Read. It’s tempting to offer some snark about how unwise this is, but frankly, survey the other options again. There are certainly better songs, but the bulk of them are the downtempo numbers—”Fire on the Side,” “Floating City,” or “Cool on Your Island,” which ended up being the second single. The overblown production and 80s chintz of Y Kant Tori Read is consistently at its worst on the uptempo numbers, which meant that good choices of high energy lead singles were thin on the ground.

Nevertheless, it means that the album opens on a note that borders on self-parody—two bars of rapid, slightly clappy-sounding drums counting off the sixteenth notes in the song’s 128 bpm, followed by a melodramatic synth stab before Amos attempts a swaggering vocal delivery of “someone smashed my window / broke into my brand new car / last night” in a vaguely New Jersey-inflected accent such that it comes out roughly ”someone broke my winduh / broke into my brand new carrh.” Coming at it with any knowledge of Tori Amos, it instantly sells the album’s reputation as an early career embarrassment. On its own terms, it’s a try-hard effort at 80s synth rock that lands squarely in kitsch. Either way, by the fifteen second mark the entire band’s reputation is already set in stone.

And yet “The Big Picture” is not quite bad either. Musically, there are several interesting components. The highlight is a rattling, neurotic guitar line ripped off from John Parr’s “Naughty Naughty.” But the source material also reveals why Y Kant Tori Read’s take on the riff is doomed and gives a preview of most of the poor decisions to come on the album. Parr’s song is in no way good—it’s a swaggering song about pressuring a woman into sex, with an utterly sickening chorus hook of  “Don't tell me ‘I don't want to be a girl like that’ / do you want to see a grown man cry” delivered over a bunch of bland power cords that finally resolves into the riff from the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.” But the opening riff that’s used over the verses—the one that Y Kant Tori Read nicks—is in fact fantastic, and the song has the good sense to let it be, giving it four repetitions completely clean as an intro, followed by four more with a simple drum backing before the vocals kick in, and returning to it regularly. 

Given that they were stealing it from a minor hit from only four years earlier, it is perhaps understandable that Y Kant Tori Read did not lean quite so hard on the riff. But there’s a vast amount of space between the clean groove of Parr’s original and the cluttered mess of “The Big Picture,” where the line is mixed well behind the vocal, drowned behind a deluge of synths, and moved from the harsh, processed twang of Parr’s tone to an anodyne jangle utterly devoid of personality. (Tellingly, when it gets a few bars to itself after the bar it remains completely flat.) As with everything else on Y Kant Tori Read, there are simply so many choices and decisions being made that the good ones get lost underneath the sheer weight of mediocre ones while the bad ones manage to rise to the top. 

Lyrically, “The Big Picture” at least has the good grace to not be a frustrated love song. Instead its subject matter is as agonizingly 80s as its production: the capitalist rat race. Amos spits lines like “Gotta make more money / gotta get, gotta get there / faster than the rest, yeah. / Knock 'em off the ladder / if they even seem to / stand a chance” and “Why do I feel so threatened / that somebody else will take what's mine? / Babe, it's only rented / no one really owns the merchandise” that embody the standard approach in this sort of song, whereby the singer is critiquing the cutthroat realities of the modern world from a position of complicity with them.

In the face of this the chorus’s statement that “the big picture / got a big white cloud / the big picture / is staring at me” is gnomic to the point of distraction. (Honestly it’s mostly the cloud, as “the big picture / is staring at me” is more or less straightforward as a summation of the verses’ accounts of the cut-throat nature of the world.) Eventually the bridge offers some clarity with a simple three lines: “when I can see / I’ll try again / I’ve got my paints,” a line that moves out from the dog eat dog cynicism of the verse towards a sense of hope that some alternative might exist. 

As the lead single, “The Big Picture” got a video. The director, Marty Callner, was a credible choice—he’d go on to direct a bevy of major Aerosmith videos, and had done several for Pat Benetar, which one assumes are why he got the job. Alas, the result is calamitous even by the standards of visual branding for Y Kant Tori Read. It features Amos in no fewer than four outfits, none of them good: a ludicrously reflective white dress, a white variation on the cover outfit, a green top with puffy and piratical sleeves, and a black leather jacket and crop top. These are intercut at dizzying rapidity that prevents any real sense of scene or event, but all of the action happens in the same street set, meaning there’s no real sense of variety either. The sense of sameness is increased by Callner’s fondness for close-ups, which mean that the outfits never really hold attention. On top of that, a number of shots are painfully literal, most obviously the giant inflatable cloud, the close-up of a window getting smashed, and a ladder off of which Amos randomly knocks a guy. The video’s best idea comes in its opening seconds, in which Amos pleads with a cop to help her with the fact that someone broke into her car and stole her underwear instead of just writing her a ticket for being illegally parked. The cop blankly refuses, then walks off with a pair of red underwear sticking out of his back pocket. That this constitutes a highlight speaks volumes.

Given all of this, it is unsurprising that both single and album flopped. A print run of around 11,000 copies divided among CD, LP, and cassette failed to sell through—most places claim sales of around 7000 copies, though this doesn’t seem to be well-attributed, nor does the figure that the video saw fewer than ten plays on MTV.  But while the numbers may be slightly off, the big picture is clear: the album was a complete bust, Atlantic made a token effort to draw attention to it with a second single, “Cool on Your Island,” that also got shipped as the b-side on a promotional single for Phil Collins’s “Groovy Kind of Love,” but by the time this happened in August 1988 the album, released only a month earlier, was basically already moribund.

Reviews, for what it was worth, were generally kind; the problem was that there basically weren’t any. The only contemporary one that seems to have surfaced was a thirty-seven word take in Billboard: “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.” Past that, the only review was a year later in the British magazine Kerrang!, which got out ahead of the pack with the comparison that would haunt the next phase of Amos’s career, describing her as “the American Kate Bush” while fretting that her music was probably too bizarre for her to ever escape “the realms of eternal obscurity,” a take that is at once savvy and hilariously misjudged. (It was, however, enough to bring her to the attention of a handful of Kate Bush fans, one of whom offered the first online mention of Amos in the Kate Bush fan group on Usenet rec.music.gaffa. [The text of the post is preserved here in amidst a bunch of other stuff—search for “Y Kant Tori Read” within the page.]) 

Understandably, given how adamantly she threw herself into the 80s rock girl persona, Amos took the failure hard. The Billboard review, in particular, stung: to this day when she talks about the album it’s often to complain that Billboard called her a bimbo. As the quote shows, they didn’t really, but it’s easy to see why the quote got under her skin. (Chicharelli, for his part, grouses that Billboard was simply not fond of positive reviews at the time.) The breaking point for her, however—another story she tells frequently—came when she walked into an L.A. restaurant she frequented while in her Y Kant Tori Read getup and found herself completely ignored by a table of people she knew, one of whom actually began laughing at her. As Amos tells the story, she walked out with her head held high, went home, took off her thigh-high boots and washed the hairspray out of her hair, and walked away from trying to be the hard-edged rocker chick of the album’s marketing. What happened next is, of course, the whole point of telling this story. But there’s a few more things to talk about before we get to it.

Recorded somewhere in 1987 or 1988 at any of half a dozen studios in the Los Angeles area. Video directed by Marty Callner. Played live exactly once, where she mashed the chorus up with a cover of The Cure’s “Pictures of You.”

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