I discovered Regina Spektor’s music completely by accident.
Kitsch became an obsessive interest of mine a few years back to distract myself from the confusion I felt within. A random search of the word on Spotify led to the album “Soviet Kitsch” by Russian-Jewish musician Regina Spektor. Not knowing who Regina Spektor was, I added the album to my library to listen to later.
By chance, “later” ended up being one of the most important weeks of my life. Something had been feeling wrong for a while. I remember the exact moment I figured out what it was: After a disgruntling music theory class about serialism (maybe the most scientific, rational genre of classical music), I went to my room and writhed around on my bed; the rationality of serialism conflicted with inner feelings that felt completely irrational. It was then, in a moment of misery, where a surreal clarity hit me.
I was a woman.
That week, when I sat outside in the static, half-melted Midwestern winter and accepted one of the most important revelations of my life, I also fell in love with Regina’s music. How could this realization make sense? No rhyme or reason made it make sense, but I just had to take the plunge. That week, I listened to her songs, and they constantly subverted my expectations as I subverted my own.
How could I be certain I was a woman when I’d never had a stable sense of self-perception my whole life? How could I be a woman when I’d never even had a kitschy backstory of wanting to wear mommy’s dresses? In spite of those doubts, Regina’s music showed me I didn’t need a clear narrative.
I heard Regina’s voice go from dulcet to howling, from vocal percussion to intimately hanging out on strange words, all accompanied by her evocative piano playing. Her stories hold a quality of instability, which made me feel calm — her lack of sense made a lot of sense to me. Music like Regina’s is often praised as “eclectic” and “genreless,” and maybe I am, too.
Sometimes, I want to run around smiling and screaming nonsense; other times, I’m cynical and anxious about the world, self-critical of myself and stressed about life. And sometimes, I feel warm and just want to have the most sincere conversation with the closest person to me.
In the intervening years since I found Regina and started to find myself, too, my Jewish identity had become increasingly important to me as well. As I continued to ask myself what it meant to me being a woman, I was asking the same questions of my Jewishness. My inquisitive nature and desire for the safety of clear answers tends towards anxious overthinking. And no identity is monolithic, so searching for those clear answers about being Jewish or being a woman is a fool’s errand.
In short, I’m still figuring out what it means to me to be a Jewish woman. Here, again, I can turn to Regina for guidance. While her music often has a surreal lack of clarity, she always wears her Jewish identity on her sleeve. Whether she’s spitting facts about antisemitism with dazzling wit or just being a silly ray of Jewish joy, she’s my favorite wielder of Jewish pride.
This past summer, “Home, Before and After,” her first studio album in six years, came out. I listened excitedly and saw her upcoming tour was starting during October in Chicago, just a few hours from my college in Wisconsin. My friend Rebecca, another Regina fan, committed to go with me and reserved us some tickets.
When the weekend of the concert arrived, in typical mindless college-kid fashion, we’d partied a little too hard beforehand. We woke up grossly underslept, and ended up sleeping most of the afternoon after arriving in Chicago.
Internally, I was feeling quite awful: panicking and holding back tears for the hours preceding the concert. I don’t think I’d fully appreciated until we arrived in Chicago exactly how important this concert would be for me. As we tried to get our bearings, everything seemed uncertain — unexpected social situations, futzing around the Chicago metro, a fumbled dinner reservation — and I clammed up, barely able to say a complete sentence. But we made it to the Chicago Theatre with ample time; it was nearly an hour before she finally walked out on stage.
I finally broke down in sobs during a song I’d never heard called “Baby Jesus.” It’s an ironic and vague ballad about Christian society whose chorus proclaims, “All the non-believers, they get to eat dirt, and the believers get to spit on their graves.” Amid my laughs and pent-up stress, in sharp distinction to Regina’s poise and grace in her many modes of expression, I couldn’t contain my tears any longer, and the cocktail of emotions poured out of my eyes.
The concert was a perfect microcosm of everything I love about Regina. She spent a minute messing around with a little table with water next to the piano, before whispering an f-bomb with a smile on her face, exclaiming that we didn’t pay to watch her mess around with the table. Later, in a serious tone, she dedicated the performance of her song “Après moi” to the victims of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In an anxious moment when she was bombarded by a cacophony of audience song requests, she joked that she’d had a similar nightmare. A few times during the concert, she even forgot the lyrics to her own songs and coyly looked to the audience to help her out.
The concert stirred a lot in me; it wasn’t until the next evening, in the crisp fall breeze under my university’s sukkah, that I felt calm. I sat with my friend Leila, yet another Regina fan, who asked me about the concert. I could finally put into words how important of a role model Regina is to me. The courage with which she expresses so many human emotions — silliness, seriousness, satire, sentimentality, and even cynicism and frustration — with such conviction, is endlessly inspiring and moving. Despite what could seem to some like an inconsistent attitude in her music or actions, in the end, she’s still just Regina: a Jewish pride-filled musician that I and many love.
As a woman, as a Jew and as a musician, I feel able to move forward more peacefully and courageously after seeing Regina in concert, in spite — and in awe — of my own complexities and strangeness.