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.
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.
With songs like this one, Regina Spektor sometimes seems like an artist who belongs to a different time. I imagine she would have been quite at home generations ago, the singing sweetheart of 1924, say, and your great-grandmother would have been happy to tune in to her weekly radio show. Think back to a time before popular music became the domain of the young, before it became the popular musician’s job to appeal to the desires of teenagers. When music was performed by dignified, nicely dressed people for audiences that sat before them in reverence. A quieter time with more string arrangements. Of course things were worse then, but maybe people valued things of beauty a little bit more because of it. Poor Regina may just be too refined and full of poetry about roses for this world of gleaming bodies and thousand dollar logos.
It was only a matter of time before Regina Spektor crossed paths with Gogol Bordello. Their aesthetics may seem wildly different, at first glance: Spektor is the classically trained pianist who draws on chanson and Romantic poetry; Gogol Bordello is Gogol Bordello. But there aren’t that many Russian voices in rock music, so it only makes sense that they would find each other. After all, they’re both celebrating a complex and ambiguous heritage, and frankly, the Eastern bloc doesn’t get much positive representation in pop culture. So we have this summit of the minds. Unfortunately, it’s not as much of a drinking song as I would have liked. It’s like, all uplifting and shit. Eugene Hutz and Regina Spektor have both spent most of their lives in the United States, and they’ve both developed the all-American capacity for un-ironic positivity. Hence, rousing songs like this one, delivered with complete earnestness. I would like to hear more songs about drinking vodka, but I can see where you’re coming from. The world does need more uplift.
This is going out to all of my Russian readership. Here is Regina Spektor with a faithful and passionate reading of a classic by the Georgian bard Bulat Okudzhava. Right now, Regina Spektor’s best known piece of work is the theme song for Orange is the New Black. She may never be able to shake that particular brand of fame-by-association. Fans who got on board pre-Netflix know her as an incredibly smart, literate and poetic singer-songwriter with an eccentric streak. Her work has been refreshingly free of both the overly saccharine and the overly confessional tendencies that often plague female singer-songwriter-pianists. Spektor is, of course, a Russian emigre, and though it’s often very subtle, her writing and musical style is distinctly Russian. Russians are naturally wary of cheap sentiment and unnecessary intimacy, which helps account for the lack of the usual love song cliches and shrill emotionalism in Spektor’s work. Instead Spektor leans towards the literary, finding new ways to illuminate everyday emotions and experiences, using subtle metaphors and long-form narrative, all of which shows the unique influence of her background.
With feeling indeed. I was thunderstruck the first time I heard Regina Spektor; I remember thinking I hand’t heard piano pop so perfect since the 70’s. And mind you, piano pop usually doesn’t impress me very much. (You know there’s hardly anything worse than a bad piano ballad.) Spektor’s chosen niche is kind of a crowded one; singer-songwriters with pianos are as common as city pigeons and generally about as exciting. I do, of course, have a soft spot for Spektor because of her background, but it’s not entirely empty solidarity. I think her soulfulness is very Russian, and her romanticism. But then so is her lack of cheap self-aggrandizing. Russians never whine about their feelings; it’s trashy and a sign of weakness. Excessive over-sharing, relentless emotionalism, and corny sentimentality are the worst things singer-songwriter types tend to lean towards, and Spektor doesn’t do any of those things. Confessional songwriting has its place, but very few people do it well, and a smart songwriter knows you don’t need to parade out all of your own intimate details in order to convey feelings that others can understand.
Ok, about the video. I really love the image of Regina Spektor as a kindly music teacher. It is so very, very something a nice New York Russian Jewish girl would be doing if she wasn’t a pop star. In fact, Spektor’s mother is a music teacher, and Spektor attended musical and creative arts schools throughout her life. So it’s clearly a very near and dear profession. Obviously, it would be a loss to the wider world, but it’s a realistic alternate reality in which Regina Spektor never makes it out of the coffee shop scene but spends her life impacting the lives of students, one at a time. She seems like she would the kind of teacher who brings homemade pastries to class every morning. Also, on a slightly unrelated note, I think Regina Spektor is really huggable, and that’s not something I would say about very many pop stars. It’s nice when nice people become successful!