I listened to Regina Spektor in high school the way that other angsty, teenage misfits listened to Blink-182 or My Chemical Romance. For me, she was the voice that reassured me I wasn’t the only weird kid with a warped imagination. And growing up in a culture whose mainstream music consistently glorified shallow values that didn’t appeal to me, I needed that voice.
What We Saw From the Cheap Seats, Regina’s last studio album, came out about four years ago. Although she was never the kind of artist who constantly had her name in the tabloids, the silence worried me. I’d heard she settled down and had a kid. I wondered if this might the last work we’d see from her. The thought was terrifying. Regina was not only my favorite solo artist, but also one of my biggest role models. I couldn’t stand the idea that she’d given up on the creative life and gone home.
Remember Us to Life took me completely by surprise. In Regina’s absence, the alternative scene had shifted toward more synthetic, less definable sounds. But then again, she’d never been one to follow the trends.
Now, I’m not going to say that this was her best album ever. “Bleeding Heart,” the first track, threw me off because it was so jarringly different from the sound of the rest of the album. While Remember Us To Life maintained a more grandiose, cinematic tone than much of her previous work, I didn’t find it to be a revolutionary development in her career. In a lot of her post- Songs work, Regina maintained a general piano-voice style throughout a given album, branching out and experimenting with different sounds here and there. Remember Us To Life is pretty similar in that way.
What really surprised me was that people were talking about this album as being darker or sadder than Regina’s previous work. I’ve always thought of her work as being very dark– maybe not gruesome or aggressive, but casually aware of a universal sadness and dissatisfaction. Regina tells stories about post-apocalyptic cyborgs, people dying of carbon monoxide poisoning, the existential crisis of a man looking at the full spectrum of human life and finding it meaningless… I couldn’t imagine Remember Us To Life being the “somber” album.
Of course, this might have something to do with some unfortunate associations that the general public has made with Regina Spektor’s career. Pitchfork writer Katherine St. Asaph brought up a pretty good point in her review when she mentioned that Regina’s creative work is often undermined by the persona people have come to imagine for her. In her review of Remember Us To Life, St. Asaph says “The public perception takes that earnestness and recasts it as one-dimensional quirk—it’s probably not coincidental that this style of music peaked around the same time the “manic pixie dream girl” archetype did—in order to dismiss it.”
I remember getting into a dispute with a co-worker about this. He claimed that he couldn’t get into her music because of his perception of her personality. Granted, it was difficult to argue. I mean, her song “Us” was featured in 500 Days of Summer. While I love Zooey Deschanel, I’m pretty sure she’s a big reason the “manic pixie” exists.
It also doesn’t help that a whole school of female singer/songwriters emerged in the 2000s with quirky lyrics and soft, whispy voices and a characteristic lisp, similar to some aspects of Regina’s signature style. Never mind that Regina’s earliest work was jazz-based and featured elements of spoken-word. Never mind that she could also belt out a lyric like nobody’s business. Once the association was made, it stuck.
It probably seems like I’m making a big deal out of nothing. After all, celebrities get misrepresented in the media all the time. But Regina is special to me, not just because I love her music, but because of the message she sends with it.
When I think about the pop artists young girls are expected to listen to, I cringe at the idea of the messages they’re receiving. Most modern pop songs sung by women revolve around men and romantic relationships. This creates the concept in young girls that the men in their lives will define them. It reinforces the idea that boys can be any kind of man they wanted when they grow up, and girls can be with any kind of man when they grow up.
Regina was important to me as a young female, because she taught me that a woman can tell any kind of story she wants. She doesn’t have to sound pretty, or try to appeal to males. It actually really irritates me that anyone could dismiss this unapologetic authenticity as a “one-dimensional quirk.” If I ever have daughters, I want them to grow up listening to Regina Spektor, because I want them to have that kind of limitless imagination. I hope that Remember Us To Life is one of many more albums to come.
Image courtesy of http://www.last.fm/music/Regina+Spektor/+images/f86c55247c0c46f488a7ed19a0d13f66