Recently, a high school friend and I got into a conversation about the behavioral and taste-related tendencies that we’re most embarrassed about from the period during which we first met. Nearly immediately, she and I decided that the biggest embarrassment with which our former selves have burdened our present-selves is Regina Spektor fandom. (CocoRosie fandom, perhaps more embarrassing but less fervent, also came up).
But such embarrassment can only be the result of something having meant a lot, then having remained a static entity, as you shifted on a personal and cultural level, in another direction. Begin to Hope, which turned 10 this week, is only embarrassing because of how deeply I — and I’m guessing a lot of other self-congratulatory pre-collegiate quirksters — connected to it, in a vein that was expressly meant to be temporary. A decade later, there’s something wholly valid, but also wholly alien, about those feelings of connection. They’re dear, they’re silly, and they bear a precocious naiveté that now seems wildly passé (apparently, the result of all that precocious, passé naiveté is the overusage of French words).
Hearing these songs today brings me both closer and more distant from that past self — it’s very easy to get back into the feelings they evoked, but those feelings are also ones that my current self has learned to police through the instantaneous reaction of annoyance.
Begin to Hope was many people’s introduction to Spektor, and it was her first big studio release, but it was actually her fourth album — compared to her previous work, it found her leaning more thoroughly on the adult side of her voice, while on the other hand upping the whimsy of her instrumentation. Still, it nevertheless rode the wave of Kate-Bush-and-Björk-emulating child-voice (though arguably, especially for the latter artist, that was never an affectation but rather merely a critical interpretation), one also ridden at the time by contemporaries like CocoRosie, Emiliana Torrini, and Joanna Newsom.
On Soviet Kitsch, Begin to Hope‘s predecessor, Spektor accompanied her voice mostly with piano (on which she’d occasionally bang a drumstick for percussion), but her vocals were… idiosyncratic: she’d assume childlike pronunciations on songs like “Chemo Limo,” “Ghost of Corporate Future,” and “Poor Little Rich Boy,” which would then be paired with belchingly abrupt pangs of an old-world Brooklyn accent. Wisdom, it seemed, always had to be tempered by whimsy.
By Begin to Hope, she’d trained her voice to be a bit more studio-ready and neutral, toning down the accents both infantile and tough-guy-Brooklyn, able to match her songwriting depth with a voice that didn’t feel quite the same need to destabilize that depth. But the air of pre-adolescent youth still cracked through even her more evolved sound. On “That Time,” in which Spektor reminisces over raw guitar and drums that impressed those of us who shied away from punk but still found it attractive as a signifier, Spektor listed memories as though they were so old and cute as to have made her voice regress back to childhood.
In high school, I would eagerly await the lines, “Hey remember that month when I only ate boxes of tangerines/ So cheap and juicy/ Tangerines,” where she punctuates “juicy” and relishes “tangerines” like a kid who’s smeared them across their face. This, I thought, was just the most endearing. More than any other moment on the album, this is now probably one of the most wince-inducing (while a lot of the rest of the album is not, in truth, at all bad). So why the former favoritism towards those moments of childlike quirk-saturation, and why the aversion to it now? Why did this appeal so much, and for so brief a period before it shifted into the territory of embarrassment?
In my experience, at least, it was mostly teenage girls and other teenage queer boys who were most enamored of Spektor’s music — and generally with this era where especially “alternative” women singers began emulating, well, children. When I went to a Regina Spektor concert for Begin to Hope, I don’t remember seeing many people over 25 in attendance, and I certainly don’t remember seeing a single bro. I liked the style so much that I actually sought it out, scouring the CD store listening stations for another singer whose diction screamed “diaper” but whose vocabulary necessitated a thesaurus with which to understand these songs sung by these superior-intellected infants.
I can only speak to my own experience, of course, but in mining the reasons why I loved, then neglected, then shamed Begin to Hope — while continuing a deeper and deeper relationship with the likes of Joanna Newsom’s work — I suspect they have something to do with having been a young, queer child on the verge of adulthood, where concretized notions of responsibility, gender, sexuality, and the general performance of adulthood within society were supposed to be rapidly setting in. As a cis gay male who identified with the binary stereotypes I’d been taught about feminine performances of emotionalism, I was particularly drawn to these singers, who seemed to create a bridge between girlhood and womanhood with their voices. It was a path of gendered emotional evolution I felt I cared about more than that the typical narratives of boyhood to manhood. Presumably, the same could be said for my friends and acquaintances who were teenage girls at the time — or to the fact that at both of the Spektor concerts I attended, I ran into the most people (note: only teenage girls and their queer friends) from my high school I’d ever run into at a concert.
These singers, who’d take on particularly childlike pronunciations in their approaches to their own adult experiences, allowed us the indulgence of a transitional ideal: singing along, we could strike freeingly (and now, retrospectively, annoyingly) regressive notes that gave us distance from all that was to come, while simultaneously lyricizing experiences we knew we’d soon encounter. Perhaps we would have had greater difficulty approaching these experiences through voices that didn’t belong to this very temporary trend of childhood-tinged adulthood.
Regina Spektor let me sing about chemotherapy as a dreaming toddler. Regina Spektor let me sing about suicide, drugs, and the constants of adult loneliness in the same vein. This is not facetious: I believe her somewhat transitory alt-mainstream relevance had to do with the transitory age her fanbase happened to be in. Culture, in the meantime, in 2006, would itself soon transition into its obsession with irony and emotional distance: likely the reaction of the same generation, a few years later, as they indeed fell into adulthood and turned to total disenchantment instead of the coping mechanism of emotional openness, mediated by the odd layers of quirky age-bridging vocals set atop it.
While CocoRosie (who provided the somewhat less listenable experience of a child with extreme laryngitis, singing cacophonously over Fisher Price instrumentation) and Spektor have both seemed to sink from their former relevance, Joanna Newsom — who really only on her first album, The Milk Eyed Mender, performed this type of vocal time-travel — has totally evaded pigeonholing within that trend: her music has always acknowledged the way her voice deals with time as part of its conceptual fullness, and she’s become one of the most impressive contemporary working musicians/songwriters in part because of it. While The Milk Eyed Mender (which included songs like “Sadie,” about a childhood dog, and the “Sprout and the Bean,” also both on a sonic and thematic level evocative of of inchoateness) sounded like a series of lullabies hushing us — somehow, with abrupt, bombastic, vowel-extending high-pitchedness — back into the womb, her follow-up, Ys, and everything that’s come after, never evaded the darkest, most mysterious reaches of adulthood — neither in lyrics nor in timbre. Comparisons between these artists are superficial — and Newsom’s among the only who ever managed to overcome the confines with which adolescent fans may have superficially connected these singers, and then soon after, fearing them reflective of a transparently adolescent phase, discarded them.
Listening to Regina Spektor, say, announce Begin to Hope with the spoken lyric, “Shake it up,” as cloying strings sprinkle their way across the legitimately lovely melody of “Fidelity,” is tinged with an element of embarrassment not because Regina Spektor’s music is, itself, bad, per se, but because — at least for many people I know — it’s the sonic embodiment of a time that existed for the sole purpose of quickly transitioning out of it. Like all that’s uncomfortable — and goes unspoken — about adolescence, it was music that was beloved by a group of people who used it to move beyond it, into more jaded territory. Confronting the embarrassment seems key to locating that jadedness, and recalling a time where pronouncing random words like a child, or waving one’s quirk flag with compensatory glee, also had to do with the willingness to seem a little openly silly and awkward while undergoing a transition. There’s a reason why I half-ironically, half-not-at-all-ironically start singing “Sampson” while I’m drunk — at 27, I’m still not done with the transition into adulthood; it just takes a little more booze to acknowledge that childhood has followed me here, that transitions are far less definitive or brief than we’d like to think.