It’s a choice: Regina Spektor, God, and like, songwriting

“The principle: ‘love thy neighbor’ is an hypocrisy.” — Tristan Tzara, Dada Manifesto
“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life…we would die of that roar that lies on the other side of silence.” — George Eliot, Middlemarch

One of my current projects–I say things like this now–is to record songs by women songwriters who have chosen to write in a man’s voice and songs by men who articulate a woman’s words.

John Prine’s song “Angel in Montgomery” has the line “When I was a young girl I had me a cowboy.”

Regina Spektor brings to the light what I take to be a masculine experience when she sings the jarring words “Summer in the city means cleavage, cleavage, cleavage,” and, later on, her voice radiates with a masculine tenderness with “When it’s summer in the city and you are so long gone from the city, I start to miss you, Baby, sometimes.”

As I began to learn to play these songs and to share them, explaining what I was looking for–I’m trying to avoid songs from the theatre (“But what about Sara Bareilles?”), I don’t want to include songs written by men for women (Many have pointed out the men who collaborated with Beyoncé on “Single Ladies” #IfIWereABey”), and I don’t want covers of songs traditionally sung by another gender (which are usually amazing)–I grew attached to the music.

What I find to be so attractive about these songs is the commitment of their songwriters. There is a heightened sensitivity. Even when they seem to fail, or precisely, don’t get my own masculine experience spot-on, they tell the truth. They embody a deep love for the truth–almost without exception a specific truth–of another’s life of feelings and ideas.

Is it too much to call this kind of song a new form, a transformation of the genre of sung confessions, of sung narratives? When is it valuable for someone to appropriate and, even more so, to recreate the experience of one considered in some way as outsider or neighbor? Is it significant that most of the songs I’ve been learning come from folk and blues traditions, both birthed in oppression and–at their best–arising from the impulse to give voice to the cries of real people–their loves, hurts, and longings?

The sincerity and beauty of these songs suggest to me that we need these songs. We need Hedy West to find the words of the weathered traveler: “If my honey said so I would railroad no more.” And for Mary Travers to soothe his pain by, for a moment, taking his voice: “Not a shirt on my back, not a penny to my name. Lord, I can’t go a-home this a-way.” We need Ian Tyson to evoke for us that decided exuberance of a young woman who in the same breath admits that a young man “loves his damn old rodeo about as much as he loves me” and declares, “I’m going with him someday soon.” Here is a demo.

These songwriters have chosen, have committed to, have loved, have embodied, have done justice to another’s experience, and in so doing, I believe, have done the work of justice. There is a power in these songs.

Keep sending them to me.

And this brings me to God and God’s voice. And whether this kind of songwriting is the illustration of my recent spiritual searchings or the other way around, there is a theological connection to be made.

Two weeks ago, I prayed the Lord’s prayer (“Our Father who art in heaven…”) and felt some heaviness, a feeling of guilt, not tied to any reality, I think–in a word, a feeling of darkness.

I then remembered a passage I had just read, from the prophet Isaiah.

I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness. I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the nations, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison, and to release from the dungeons those who sit in darkness.

I was comforted by these words. They helped me understand something about God’s personhood a little more clearly. And even more so, I was comforted by what was behind the words, because I see the same commitment of songwriters like John Prine and Hedy West in this conception of God–the choice of God to express meaning in a recognizable human voice, speaking through or discoverable in the cracked voices of a specific culture, to address a specific culture, for specific purposes.

Some could take this as a step in understanding words like “incarnation,” where the symbolic proclamation that “the Word became flesh” takes on new resonance (me last Sunday), or as, I think, a beautiful view of God as of having a voice in human language (the Psalms). This focus on an ability of God’s to self-reveal or to act in the world might even awaken in our imagination a slew of ethical problems (which may be unwelcome to the asker).

Whatever the response, I think we need this strange power of stepping outside ourselves (or, with God, of stepping into God’s self in human voice and form and experience–Russian Orthodox believers talk about “Godmanship”) and choosing to understand the breath and length and depth and height of another person’s or another people’s journey.

And for the good and true artists among us, choosing to express themselves in their neighbors’ words.

It’s an old story: Paris and gentrification

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I didn’t want to put the word “gentrification” in the title, because I think it is a term that is often misused and that maybe we run the risk of overusing it. When we call any new development a sign of “gentrification,” we should also do the hard work of saying how the urban “growth” is disadvantaging current residents (including the homeless), businesses, and the life and spirit of business or residential districts. If I do not do that, then I think I will lose people who either don’t understand the processes of gentrification or don’t care, and I will be making an unreflectively harsh condemnation of business trends in a downtown I work in but don’t currently live in nor plan to live in. Maybe this is a cry for help (I want to understand!), but as much as I like buzzwords, I want to find a more specific language to address any injustice and bring about every liberation in our cities.

That said, here are some words, expressed in singeing satire, from the French author Honoré de Balzac in his 1846 novel La Cousine Bette, of whom and of which I have written elsewhere. Eighteen forty-six. Not even a translator could make this up!

“To paint a picture of this neighborhood, whose houses were filled by industrials without industries, by dangerous iron-workers, by indigents freed from perilous jobs, it should be noted that the landlords would not dare venture in to reclaim their rent and could not find lawyers willing to expel their insolvent tenants. 

“In this moment, Speculation…will without doubt modify the population because in Paris, the trowel is more civilizing than we think! In building elegant and beautiful high-class homes, surrounding them with pavement and boutiques, Speculation eliminates, by the price of rent, the squatters, the renters of unfurnished homes, and the worst tenants. In this way the neighborhoods get rid of their decaying populations and its hovels where the police never set foot unless required by justice….The elegant pedestrian…would be surprised to find, in these blighted streets, the aristocracy rubbing shoulders with lowly Bohemians.”

Earlier in the novel, describing another neighborhood, the author comments on “the intimate alliance between misery and splendor.” I think he saw the agony of the problem, but sadly I do not think he had a vision for renewing his Paris and saving its people.

Let’s do better! Let’s support what works. Let’s cultivate hope. Let’s restore our cities and our people.