Regina Spektor first gained some notice when she made a guest appearance on a forgettable Ben Folds song. She had a striking voice, but she made no great impact. What has propelled her to much greater attention has been her song “Laughing With.” It is a powerful song about God, and it led me to buy her new album, Far. What becomes clear from even a quick listen that she is blessed with a great voice and a sensibility that is as comfortable poking fun at 80’s music (the obvious “Dance Anthem of the 80’s”) as she is talking about the deep questions. Her fun stuff is everything you might want: catchy, engaging, and bubbly. But I want to pick apart two of her deepest songs to expose some of what I think is going on.
The first lines of “Laughing With” reflect the old saying, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” She twists the thought around laughter:
No one laughs at God in a hospital, / no one laughs at God in a war, / no one’s laughing at God when they’re starving or freezing or so very poor.
She gives a vivid litany of places, situations, circumstances in which no one laughs at God. And she does not seem to be ironic. There is a power and a truth in her words that gets straight to the point, that cuts right to the desperation of our human condition. We cry out for God, and even if we can’t find the strength to believe in the omnipotent, we can’t mock.
But then she turns to times when people make a mockery of God:
God can be funny / when told he’ll give you money if you just pray the right way / and when presented like a genie / who does magic like Houdini / or grants wishes like Jiminy Cricket and Santa Claus.
This is the God (or should we say, “god”) that is not real, not true to the scriptures, not true to what we human beings really need.
The next song on the album opens up a beautiful possibility of what we might need. Entitled “Human of the Year,” it captures both the banality of how many churches try to engage people, and also the way in which the church can draw greatness out of people when they least expect it.
The banal: the song starts with “Hello. Hello.” I imagine some lector or priest tapping the microphone to see if it is on. “Calling a Carl Projectorinski to the front of the cathedral.” And the honor? “You have won, dear sir… Human, human of the year and you won!” It seems preposterous – artificial grandeur that makes no sense.
The voice goes on: “Why are you so scared? The icons are whispering to you; they’re just old men, like on the benches in the park, except their balding spots are glistening with gold.” Whoever is presenting the award is trying to reassure Carl that the Saints are not so much different from himself, not so imposing. Except their frailty is shining with the glory of God. She breaks into a hymn of Hallelujahs…
Suddenly, after the presenter declares “All mankind are now your brothers,” the song is breaks from the perspective of the speaker. It turns out that the speaker the whole time has been the cathedral itself.
And thus the cathedral had spoken, wishing well to all us sinners, / And with a sigh grew silent, / Until next year’s big human winner.
The song draws the listener in with what seems to be a description of some trivial and banal moment in church. What the song turns out to be is a moment of realization that every human who walks into a church could realize: that he’s part of human brotherhood; that sinners are not condemned, but welcomed, embraced; that the icons and statues are not of super-humans but of ordinary humans loved by God. It’s this moment that we acclaim with Hallelujahs. What we might hope for is that more than one person a year comes to such a moment of breakthrough!
But to return to the song “Laughing With”: the meaning of the title does not become clear until the very end, as Spektor repeats her opening phrase, “no one laughs at God”. Suddenly, just as it seems she might end there, she says “We’re all laughing with God.” There, at the final moment of acceptance, God is neither mocked nor desperately needed. He’s simply present, as a friend you laugh with.
Regina Spektor has, in the end, a rare combination. She is a solid pianist and possesses a striking voice. She is a lyricist and songwriter who can cover a massive range, from the cathedrals to the dance-clubs. Yet I think these two songs, “Laughing With” and “Human of the Year” show her at her best, as the thoughtful, gifted, and perhaps even prayerful, artist that she is.