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Lauren Beckstrand

Mrs. Yee
English 11H
April 20
th

Regina Spektor
Born a Russian Jew in 1980, Regina Spektor had a difficult childhood. She spent the first
nine years of her life trapped in a communist, anti-Semitic, war-torn nation. In 1989, her family
was able to immigrate to the United States during Perestroika, (a brief period of time when
Soviet citizens were allowed to leave the USSR) and she became an independent recording artist.
Spektor saw and experienced a lot of sadness and difficulty in her early years, due to both the
impact of World War 2 and the anti-Semitic environment. In her work today, Spektor writes of
her long-standing fascination with mortality, suffering, and religion, stemming from her
childhood in Russia.
Spektor explores the concepts of time and mortality in many of her songs. Growing up in
the aftermath of the war, Spektor was surrounded by death. In her words, Every single person in
the country was touched by the war in some way. Everybody had a lot of people in their family
that fought, that died. (Lainez) In her own family, three of her great uncles passed away
fighting in the war. Spektors grandmother hid the death notices from her parents, worried they
wouldnt be able to live if they had heard of the death of their three sons. (Lainez) Later in life,
Spektor lost one of her best friends to a plane crash, and had her bands cellist drown in a lake
the night before a show. (Brown) Through all this she learned at a young age that death can
happen suddenly and unexpectedly, and that time is precious and limited.
As a result, both the frailty of human life and the idea of enjoying every moment of it
appear often in Spektors poetry. She has a strong belief in making the most of each day, no
matter how bleak it may seem. In her poem Firewood, she writes:
They try to remember but still they forget
That the heart beats in threes
Just like a waltz
And nothing can stop you from dancing
Rise from your cold hospital bed
Youre not dying.
This poem is about a person battling a terminal disease, such as cancer. Having lost their hope
and zeal for life, they are spending their last moments of life wishing they could undo the past.
Spektor is counseling them to rise up and keep their hope and their love. This person still has
some time left to live, so why not spend it doing something they love? She further explores this
concept in Blue Lips, saying
He took a step but then felt tired
He said, Ill rest a little while
But when he tried to walk again
He wasnt a child
And all the people hurried fast, real fast
and no one ever smiled.
A theme of this poem is that time can go by so fast, and we may not have as long as we think.
Many people are so busy doing things that seem important that they dont allow themselves time
to enjoy their life. Spektors message is clear. No matter how bad things are, there is always
something that can bring happiness--life is short, enjoy it.
Suffering and tragedy are also major themes of Spektors work. While she has
experienced a fair share herself, she seems particularly fascinated with the suffering of others. In
Russia, she heard of much of the hardship and difficulty her nation went through. She explains
that because the war was fought on her home territory, It was just real visible wounds and
stories of survival stories of destruction that all the kids grew up with all the time. (Lainez)
As a child, she grew up listening to her grandmother tell stories about her life during WWII.
Hearing that she had spent the entire war wandering Asia on foot, unable to reunite with her
parents had a big impact on Spektor. (Lainez) Since then, she has become fascinated with the
hidden tragedies people face.
Many of Spektors songs are studies of fictional characters facing situations they find
almost too difficult to bear. The lyrics to her song Braille are an excellent example:
She was lying on the floor and counting stretch marks
She hadnt been a virgin and he hadnt been a god
So she names the baby Elvis
To make up for the royalty he lacked
And from then on it was turpentine and patches
From then on it was cold Campbells from the can.
This poem captures the difficulty faced by a woman who had gotten pregnant before she was
ready. She has to live with the consequences for the rest of her life. She is left to fend for herself
and a child, without the help of a husband. Overwhelmed with feelings of loneliness and
inadequacy, she is left sobbing on the floor wondering where she went wrong. Similarly, The
Genius Next Door is about a young genius who is trapped in a small town working a menial
job. Thinking that his life is wasted and meaningless, he drowns himself in the town lake. His
neighbors wake up, find his body, and continue on with their lives.
The genius next door was busing tables
Wiping clean the ketchup bottle labels
Getting high and mumbling German fables
In the morning the film crews start arriving
With donuts, coffee, and reporters
The kids are waking up hung over
The neighbors were starting up their cars
The garbage men were emptying the dumpsters
And the genius next door was sleeping.
This boy mustve felt so alone. No one mourned his death and he seemed to have nothing to live
for. His job was boring, his intelligence wasted, and he saw no hope of advancement. Spektor,
through these songs and many more like them, explores the concept that it is difficult to have a
true understanding of the struggle that those around us experience. If we were to meet either of
these fictional people, we would likely be unaware of the deep emotional issues they are
confronted with. These songs appear to be an ode to her grandmother, and those like her; people
who have gone through terrible things in their life, without the support of friends and family--
people who have been absolutely, completely alone.
Spektor often includes the concept of God in her music. As a Russian Jew, she was raised
with a strong emphasis on religion. She and her family were persecuted for their beliefs. Spektor
explains, Besides all the obvious things like, you know, lack of certain human rights and
freedoms no freedom of religion, all kinds of things like that it was also, just on top of all
that, it was a very anti-Semitic place to be. (Lainez) She spent her childhood being ridiculed and
discriminated against for her religion. When asked the impact this treatment had on her, she
states, Because I grew up kind of surrounded with the negative stuff, more so, I had a strong
feeling of pride and identity as a Jew, even from being very little. (Lainez) Spektor saw
firsthand both the positive and the negative effects religion can have on a persons life, and is
still conflicted about her beliefs. In her words, Im always thinking about faith and spirituality
and tradition and religion and how those things fit together or dont fit together Does religion
do good or does it harm? obviously it does both. I dont exactly know how I feel about it.
(The Music 411) To Spektor, God is a controversial topic. She doesnt quite understand what
she believes concerning him. Despite her current views, however, her religious background and
resulting persecution has had a huge impact on her views of the world, and has brought her
creative attention to the impacts of believing in God.
In her music, Spektor debates the merits and flaws of religion. While she believes that
faith in God can lend a clearer perspective, she also disagrees with most organized religions on
his characteristics. She wrote Blue Lips as a reflection on how religion can enrich our lives:
He stumbled into faith and thought
God, this is all there is
The pictures in his mind arose
And began to breathe
And all the gods and all the worlds
Began colliding on a backdrop of blue.
In this poem, a man is introduced to religion and God. He realizes how small and meaningless
societal values really are. He gains a greater hope for the future, while recognizing the sad, busy
lives people lead all around him. Spektor is pointing out that religion opens eyes not only to
hope, but to despair at the futility of happiness in this world. Continuing this study, Spektor
wrote Laughing With, a song which explores the reason people feel a need for connection with
a Supreme Being:
No one laughs at God in a hospital
No one laughs at God in a war,
No ones laughing at God
When theyre starving or freezing or so very poor
But God could be funny
When told hell give you money if you just pray the right way.
Spektor, in this song, reveals that people turn to God when they feel alone and desperate, and
they want to think theres someone who can help them. She feels that God himself is not flawed,
only peoples interpretations of him (For example, the belief that he will give you anything you
ask from him.) In this sense, Spektors work reflects her own inner debate about religion.
Regina Spektors childhood background is clearly evident in her poetry. She includes
themes of mortality, suffering, and religion, each of which has been a major aspect of her life
since her youth. Its refreshing to hear music that has a meaning and a purpose, and to listen to
an artist who hasnt forgotten her heritage.