Regina Spektor is hardly a small town girl; she was born in Moscow and grew up in the Bronx. Anyhow, you won’t hear her trying to pander to the kind of people who think that having one stop light is somehow a virtue. For her, the image of that moon is just a jumping-off point to flex her weirdness. The small town, for one thing, is all in your head, it’s a state of mind. A neurosis, if you will. It’s never about the moon, baby, it’s about your existential crisis. Leave it to a Russian to explain to you that the flourishes of Romanticism are just a fluttering lace curtain masking a landscape of nihilistic despair. Or something. Regina Spektor has a sunnier disposition than that, I suppose, and her message is more about getting some living done while you’re still as young as you’re ever going to be.
I discovered Hurray for the Riff Raff by stumbling into a SXSW performance, back when SXSW still meant something. I was a little blown away. Alynda Segarra is both very tiny and cute and an incredibly powerful performer, someone seemingly grew out of centuries of troubadour tradition like a pithy fruit. We don’t really talk about protest music anymore, because it’s been decades since anyone has used music as a political tool in any organized way. We forget the impact of effective political songwriting, and it’s too bad. Good music is just what the revolution needs.
Nobody writes songs about mowing the yard like Courtney Barnett does. But don’t mistake writing about boring subjects with actually being boring. Boring subjects are not the same as boring ideas. It may seem like it’s all about the little things but it’s never just the little things. Barnett knows that things like the grass in the yard or the tiles on the ceiling that we fixate on are just placeholders for the bigger things that are going on inside our minds. We talk about the stupid and mundane because we can’t gather the words to talk about the deeply meaningful and we project our unarticulated emotions onto harmless objects because we don’t know how to express ourselves. We’re just as afraid of being understood as we are of being misunderstood. So we fidget and talk about the weather. Some people spend their entire lives fidgeting and talking about the weather, and some people spend their entire lives in a constant state of anxiety because they want to say what they mean but can’t quite find the way to do it. And that’s a mind state even the most confident and articulate of us have been in, usually when confronted with romantic feelings. But, you know, keep on making mistakes until you get it right, right?
Someday I’ll get my hands on a hard copy of Outside and immerse myself in whatever information is hidden there. In the meantime I’ll just immerse myself in David Bowie at his most disturbing. Outside was one of those records that smacked me right in my impressionable adolescent brain with its deep ideas and macabre aesthetic. It was the Bowie iteration most suitable for a kid who read and reread Helter Skelter. It hasn’t become any less relevant in the intervening years. I still ask myself just how much does human creativity balance out human depravity, and to what degree those things feed into each other. We’re also in a brave new media world that allows ritualistic displays of public suffering to become entertainment. I mean, the psychotic breakdown of Britney Spears wasn’t intentionally a piece of performance art or guerrilla theatre, but it was one of the definitive pop culture moments of the 2000’s, and that’s actually a fairly mild example of human sacrifice-as-pop-culture. We really need to ask ourselves a lot of questions about what we’re entertained by and at what expense. The way we’re going, ritualistic art murder is not just around the corner, it’s about to be the latest commodity.
Regina Spektor named her first major label album Soviet Kitsch, way back in 2004, but she’s never leaned into it as heavily as she does here. Not that she needs a gimmick to differentiate herself from all of those other girls with pianos, but she’s got a cultural arsenal nobody else does. Why not imagine a metropolis of bears? It is accurate, and it gives a little edge to an otherwise very gentle satire. There’s nothing to imply that there’s anything wrong with spending all your money on chips and Coca-Cola except the tone of her voice, but it’s not what bears should be doing and all of this post-industrial materialistic excess is wrecking their otherwise vibrant lifestyle. Or something. Anyway, it obviously warms my heart a lot.
Nina Hagen was the soundtrack of my entire 9th grade year. Her weirdness did a lot to transport me out of the petty misery of high school. It’s probably for the best that I didn’t have access to the visuals – it might have ruined me for real life even more than it did. Nina looks damn good as a man though, and her face shows the same flexible range as her voice. This kind of aesthetic excess belies Nina’s D.A.R.E.- approved message. “Smack ist Dreck” indeed, but clearly people don’t become like this by prudishly saying no to things. Apparently the song was written by Nina Hagen’s babydaddy, who was himself a heroin addict and eventually died of AIDS, so there’s an element of tragic irony at play. The real message impressionable little minds are likely to absorb is that being a wildly weird and interesting person requires the rejection of conventional mores of behavior aka doing dumb shit that might put you in the ground but at least you died interesting.
I wasn’t there when Neneh Cherry’s debut album Raw Like Sushi was a critics’ darling in 1989. I wasn’t around to question why, instead of becoming an R’n’B sensation, Cherry only made four more albums. As far as I’m concerned, Neneh Cherry is a brand new artist fresh off the boat from Sweden. I only found out about her new record Broken Politics because some critic thought it was one of the year’s best. And much to my surprise, it was. It takes a special kind of giftedness to write a sexy slow-jam about deep vein thrombosis, but Cherry does it. (Go ahead look up Deep Vein Thrombosis by Neneh Cherry, I’ll wait.) Imagine my surprise to learn that this gifted rising star is a woman of 55 who had her shot at pop stardom in 1989, decided it wasn’t for her, and has been quietly honing her chops on her own terms ever since. Obviously, I regret not paying attention sooner.