The first time I saw Regina Spektor was right before she got super famous. At least as far as I know; I like to stay behind the times, but I was at a Dresden Dolls show with my considerably younger girlfriend who was (is) much hipper than I, and it was before THEY were super famous and nobody in the audience knew who this little opening girl without a band was, so if a crowd full of hip Dresden Dolls fans didn’t know who Regina Spektor was, I feel safe saying she wasn’t super famous. Anyway, it was before she got on MTV, and made the video that forever ruined the moment I’m about to describe.
The show was over, and most everyone was trickling out, with me leaning my head against a wall while my girlfriend joined the last of the lip-biting and neck-straining Dolls fans hoping to get a gesture of approval from Amanda Palmer, and maybe absorb some of her sense of entitlement so they could more quickly finish their battle with angst. Since I don’t like people who like being famous1 and I was out of cigarettes, I sucked on my beer and did tight, slow circuits around the empty dance floor, trying to keep a look of mild interest on my face so people wouldn’t know I was uncomfortable and bored.
Regina, being not-famous, turned out to be doing exactly the same thing, except for the wandering part. She was sitting on the edge of the stage with the same expression I had, saying thanks with the tired smiles shy people slap on when they know they’re supposed to be interested and grateful when they just want to go home. Her fans at the moment consisted of Dolls fans wandering between the signing table and the bathroom, and they said thanks as they thought they should to this strange girl, probably because a part of each Doll-struck passerby realized that she played better music than the much louder headlining band. They treated her the way everybody treats someone they think is shy, which is about the same way a stranger treats a crying child, and as a former shy person, I can say this never gets less irritating.
Of course I would like to say I swept in, said something that would have made Oscar Wilde give up the pen, and spent the night on a magical date charming her out of various pieces of clothing. Instead, I smiled vaguely in her direction, she smiled vaguely in mine, and we both went back to avoiding human interaction until we could leave.
Besides being a blue-baller of an almost-star-fucking story, this is the picture I’ve had of her in all the years since, as she rose to fame and I to Brooklyn. And the thing is, the picture always made sense next to her music: mixed confidence and shy sensitivity, not at odds, but complimentary.
The song of hers that most easily drowns out my inner monologue for weeks after I hear it is On The Radio. For the purposes of describing why this is probably my favorite love song, I’ll just skim the usual extolling: impossible vocals, complex yet catchy melodies, sweeping harmonies, surprising syncopation, adjective-synonymous-with-pretty musical-element, etc.
The brilliance of this song is how it walks all the way from tautological aphorism to metaphor to concrete description. It has the vagueness needed to be relatable, the specificity to force your mind to create an image, and enough in between link your love story of the moment to hers, whatever it was, and that’s the link that makes it wistful and comforting, because you feel like you’re listening to someone like you.2
The first verse is vague but pretty poetry, with metaphors you can take as you like. Then the refrain:
On the radio
We heard November Rain
That solo’s really long
But it’s a pretty song
We listened to it twice
‘Cause the DJ was asleep
An intimate moment in concrete description. Cute and restrained where an inferior songwriter would have at least two sappy adverbs, instead of the single and vague “really,” the original kid’s adverb.
This is how it works
You’re young until you’re not
You love until you don’t
You try until you can’t
You laugh until you cry
You cry until you laugh
And everyone must breathe
Until their dying breath
Aphorisms. With a good lead in and a pretty voice, you think “Yes! I never thought of it that way.” Even though you’re not learning anything, you’re thinking about how everybody’s pretty much going through the same thing.
No, this is how it works
You peer inside yourself
You take the things you like
And try to love the things you took
And then you take that love you made
And stick it into some
Someone else’s heart
Pumping someone else’s blood
And walking arm in arm
You hope it don’t get harmed
But even if it does
You’ll just do it all again
A long metaphor that even lets the horse walk away. And still true for everyone who ain’t just pimpin’.
And on the radio
You hear November Rain
That solo’s awful long
But it’s a good refrain
You listen to it twice
‘Cause the DJ is asleep
Finally, she gives up her story as another metaphor for the listener.
In summation: totally awesome love song.
Then someone made a video.
As Spektor stands in front of a classroom that must double as the waiting room for Benetton model casting sessions and opens with “this is how it works,” my middle-class guilt reflex almost caused my left eyeball to explode as it screamed “this white girl better say something damn important if she’s telling these kids how shit works.” The video’s not really racist, but certain American twitches are hard to suppress, so my suspension of disbelief was already out the window.
In video world, all the kids are smiling and jumping after her like she’s a less creepy Mary Poppins. As the numbness sinks in, I realize all my adoration of the song is being depicted as dumb and giggling child adoration, and the video’s not about sentimental love at all, it’s about a lesson plan to keep kids optimistic for as long as possible, just like all the other lies my teachers told me.
The torture finally ends with her, alone, at a piano, just looking pretty and lip-syncing the lines like every other woman who ever learned to play piano and got a record contract. She’s not speaking to us at all. She’s just another Sony speaker.
I’m not against music videos. Thriller was, and always shall be, badass. How better could you dramatize a pop-singer doing a dance number to honor horror flicks? The video for Smells Like Teen Spirit did a better job of portraying gen-X alienation than the song. We all knew what Brittany Spears was about, and God bless her for insisting on the schoolgirl outfit in her first video. Lady Gaga’s spectacles are eye-candy excess in finest tradition. A music video can be an artistic addition to the song, but this video almost intentionally trivializes its sound track.
I still love On The Radio. It still makes me sentimental, which is a feat for anything I heard after 2002, but it has been forever tainted by this atrocious mis-visualization. I’m not sure if I feel the more betrayed by the filmmaker because I already felt like I related to the singer personally due to one of those ephemeral half-meetings by which people like me define their inner excuses for not taking the chances they might have.3 Then again, that image of her waiting to leave and not feeling much like talking is part of what lets me keep listening to this song with the same sentimentality, even if it has been locked in a screen with stock-photo tripe slapped together by an uncreative editor on the contractual grounds that he wasn’t required to stay sober or care.
Maybe it was a missed chance, but at least I got to keep a song.
1 Something else I hope to be a hypocrite about in the near future.
2 At least, I expect this is true for people who like Regina Spektor.
3 And maybe I’m completely wrong and she’s a huge bitch, or was thinking “doesn’t that freak have something better to do?” But I doubt she is as much as I doubt she thought of me at all, and it doesn’t matter. My sentiment is about what I think, and has little to do with what might actually be true.