Thursday, December 13, 2018

Antikitsch: The Legacy of Soviet Power

Laurence Perrine says that poems "exist to bring us a sense and perception of life." Through a skillful use of language a poem can broaden the understanding of a human experience and can capture what is to feel that experience. Regina Spektor's debut album Soviet Kitsch featuring the song "Us" is a complex and, at times, opaque piece of work. Spektor's work is often defined as 'antifolk' (hardly a definition really as says "The fact that no one knows what it means...makes it kind of mysterious and more interesting"). Antifolk, and Spektor's work, seems to largely be characterized by experimentalism, a willingness to explore storytelling and human experience rather than technique. 

"Us" is perfectly demonstrates this antifolk mentality and, in doing so, fulfills Perrine's definition of poetry. Spektor fled to the United States with her parents as a young child from the Soviet Union, and this song is a critique balanced on crafted wit, irony, and symbolism, of the mindless uniformity imposed by the Soviet government onto its people. The very conformity that constrained artistic creativity created a kind of superficial aesthetic to the Stalin era Russian art, which writer Milan Kundera coined 'Soviet Kitsch'. 

"Us" begins,

They made a statue of us
And put it on a mountaintop
Now tourists come and stare at us
Blow bubbles with their gum
Take photographs of fun, have fun
They'll name a city after us
And later say it's all our fault
Then they'll give us a talking to
Then they'll give us a talking to

The beginning lyrics capture the almost cyclical nature of attempts at absolute power. The erection of statues at the beginning references the statues and cities named after Stalinist and Leninist leaders in the Soviet Union, and the idolized worship they demanded. However, after their deaths these leaders have been denounced and rather than being idolized are demonized. Spektor cleverly accesses the comparison through the use of subtle wit with the image of bubble blowing tourists giving Stalin "a talking too". The fleeting nature of power is captured by the first lines of "Us". 

The chorus of the song follows,

Living in a den of thieves
Rummaging for answers in the pages
And it's contagious
And it's contagious
And it's contagious

The lines about a "den of thieves" references a biblical verse, "And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves" (Matthew 21:13). This comparison highlights the lofty principles of equality and liberty that socialist rule in the USSR was founded on, the "house of prayer," but also the perversion of these values that ensued, creating a "den of thieves." The repetition of the line, "And it's contagious," also emphasizes the dangers of the cult-ish mentality that swept the USSR allowing it's transformation to its state that is so widely condemned today. 

The last verse of the song,

We wear our scarves just like a noose
But not 'cuz we want eternal sleep
And though our parts are slightly used
New ones are slave labor you can keep

Here Spektor uses a metaphor of scarves as the constraints of societal norms. Although people may conform to norms, it's not because of desire to truly become mindless but rather because we are comforted by conformity. It provides us with a scarf-like protection from harshness of the consequences of individualism. 

"Us" is a reflection of the journey of absolute power through time and the way it affects the lives of those who are affected by it, influenced by the perspective of Spektor a refugee of the Soviet Union. It humanizes an abstract concept in order to craftily and creatively explore the ways in which power shapes our lives. 

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