06 July, 2008

Living in a Den of Thieves

I heard "Us" by Regina Spektor at 4:53 a.m. (I know because I checked the WERS playlist). The song is from Spektor's second album Soviet Kitsch, and it could probably be called her first underground hit. On the cover of Soviet Kitsch, Spektor is shown in black and white over a background of matryoshka dolls. She looks into the camera with emotion somewhere between humor and sadness, as she swallows a bottle of alcohol (presumably vodka, but you can never really presume with Spektor). It is on Soviet Kitsch that Spektor comes to terms with herself, and really flourishes as a creative individual.
Her debut - 11:11 - showed the talented vocals and the musicality of the young musician. On a few songs Spektor even showed her lyrical playfulness. The majority of the songs on 11:11 however, strike me as very good Fiona Apple impersonations.

Soviet Kitsch broke free from any singer-songwriter cliches that had Spektor hung up, and as a result it strikes me as a much more personal effort. The cover photograph gives you a sense of what's to be found on the album. Spektor mixes humor and sadness in liberal quantities, dropping quirky anecdotes and unique observations into her lyrics to mix things up a little. Vocally Spektor shows amazing control. She can vibrate a note or phrase in a way that makes the entire song more beautiful. This vocal maturity gives Soviet Kitsch a musical patina, and classical credence. Spektor's humorous insights, and obvious musical playfulness keep the songs from growing stale. It seems as if there's always a new play on words or play on sound that captures me as I'm listening. The layers are ubiquitous, like the matryoshka dolls on the cover.

At 4:53 this morning, I had a bit of an epiphany. I didn't find religion, per se, but on the brink of sleep I did begin to realize my own interpretation of the lyrics in "Us". I try not to force meanings onto lyrics; so it is that after four years of listening to this song, I've finally realized what it means to me.

It all begins with a repetitive piano line that waltzes from major to minor notes.

They made a statue of us
and put it on a mountaintop
Now tourists come and stare at us
Blow bubbles with their gum, take photographs of fun
have fun

They'll name a city after us
and later say it's all our fault
then they'll give us a talking to
then they'll give us a talking to
cause they've got years of experience

The statue, in my mind, is the statue of Liberty. That undeniable symbol of the American immigrant. The city is New York, where Spektor came with her family, and where Spektor lives and works today. The last two lines make more sense when coupled with the chorus.

We're living in a den of thieves
rummaging for answers in the pages
we're living in a den of thieves
and it's contagious

America is a den of thieves. Our entire history began with stolen land, and it is too soon that we forget our own past (our own present, for some) and chastise others for trying to "steal our land". The experienced thieves have seemingly earned the right to ignore their own past and instead place blame on others. This is an interesting thought and one that is pushed even further by the contagiousness of the American dream: freedom. How did we gain our freedom in the first place? By subjugating other people, and by inhibiting and abusing their freedoms. So we move to the next section.

We wear our scarves just like a noose
but not cause we want eternal sleep
and though our parts are slightly used
new ones are slave labor you can keep

I'm still a bit uncertain about the first two lines, although I can guess that Spektor is writing and singing about hiding the clues of immigration behind scarves that are like nooses. They're hanging themselves so they will not be hung by the previous generations of immigrants. The last two lines tie into the subjugation and utilization of people whose backs this country was built upon. Immigrants in this country often become the "slave labor you can keep", and those who refuse to be quietly subjugated are "hung" publicly and openly chastised for being "thieves". The song goes on for awhile longer, although most of the lines are repeated. Spektor has tapped into the great American paradox and one of the most significant examples of our own hypocrisy. How can we preach freedom when we are still building our country on a foundation of slavery? How can we berate others for wanting a piece of the land we stole for ourselves?

"Us" is an excellent song that makes some truly insightful points. It happens to reside on an album that is full of these awesome insights. Keep your eyes on Regina Spektor, and allow her songs to percolate in your mind until you gain some of her insight. She's making modern classics.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I stumbled upon this entry while trying to find a meaning on Spektor's "US". I've been listening to it since 500 Days of Summer and I can't seem to make my own interpretation of the song. You have one of the most accurate interpretation so far. Reading this, I just realized that different people have different interpretation of a song. I will wait for the time when I find my own. Until then, I'll stick to yours. Thank you for such beautiful mind.