Monday, January 2, 2012

The Myth of Americana in Regina Spektor's "Sailor Song"

The poem/lyrics below contain language not always deemed for use in polite company.
Sailor Song
by Regina Spektor on her album, Soviet Kitsch (2004)

She will kiss ya 'til your lip bleeds
But she will not take her dress off
Americana, Tropicana
All the sailor boys have demons
They sing "Oh Kentucky why did you forsake me
If I was meant to sail the sea
Why did you make me
Should've been another(*1) state
Oh state.."
Cause Mary Anne's a bitch
Mary Anne's a bitch x5

Does it matter that our anchors
Couldn't even reach the bottom
Of a bath tub
And the sails reflect the moon
It's such a strange job
Playing blackjack on the deck
Still, atop this giant puddle, dressed in white
We quietly huddle with our missiles
And we miss the girls back home
Oh home sweet home
Cause Mary Anne's a bitch
Mary Anne's a bitch x5

She will kiss you 'til your lip bleeds
But she will not take her dress off
Americana, Tropicana
Americana, Tropicana
Americana, Americana (*2)

(*1) Many "lyrics" websites have "should've been with the state"
(*2) Especially during these last two words, Regina may be saying "Americano" or "America-no"

At first glance, this song sounds like it has something to do with sailors and some women named Mary Ann(e)/Marianne. I think that idea is meant to be portrayed, but more as an establishing metaphor than a "meaning" of the song.

The song plays with the negative, almost cliché idea of a boat of sailors--hypersexual, US Navy men--on the ocean for long periods of time, longing for heterosexual coitus. The first stanza play on this image, since the main reason Mary Ann is considered a bitch is because "she will not take her dress off." In the second stanza, the sailors are on the boat "huddl[ing] with our missiles and we miss the girls back home," a double entendre implying not only the weapons on the boat, but also masturbation.

Although the hypersexual sailor is an image with which we are familiar today, it wasn't always that way. At least, not in all circles. In many stories of the US, sexuality was downplayed. The Navy and all of the US Armed Forces was a place for brave, virtuous men to go protect their country. While away, they thought of a special girl back home. Both boy and girl were chaste while awaiting the other.

An American folk song captures this thread of tradition. Bob Dylan did a version of the song on his 1973 album Dylan: "Mary Ann." In this piece of Americana, the speaker sings to his beloved Mary Ann before going to sea. He says the crow will "surely turn to white" if chastity be broken by the sailor.

Although a large fan of Dylan, Regina Spektor is not a folk musician. Rather, she is part of what folks are calling "anti-folk." In her "Sailor Song," she is doing just what you would think an anti-folk song would do: it takes Americana and stands it on its head, poking through the holes in the story so that reality can peak through.

In the folk song, Mary Ann is a static image, since the man does all the talking. The sailor claims he will be chaste, but Mary Ann makes no such claims. In this song, Mary Ann is still a silent character, but now she is sexualized by Spektor. She doesn't have sex with any of the other guys, but she's kissing men so much that their lips are bleeding--a skewed idea of chastity. Mary Ann has changed from the folk song's static idea to the image of the tease.

Spektor changes the sailor, too, from the chaste man who fights for his girl back home. Instead, he's jacking off and gambling while "miss[ing] the girls back home"--not just one girl, but multiple girls, girls in general.

These two changes are anti-folk because they change a myth of Americana. We no longer have a gender split between those serving in the military and those "waiting" at home. People aren't always waiting at home, either. Life goes on while the soldiers are away. The soldiers aren't perfect, either. Most Americana pieces don't pay attention to the negatives of US history and culture, like the photos we all saw in the news from the Abu Ghraib prison in 2004. It is not only the fictional Mary Ann who is a bitch, it is the whole concept of Americana, the myths about America, the stories we construct and hold on to in order to hide reality.

This anti-folk message is apropos of the album's title: Soviet Kitsch. Indeed, much Americana can be understood as kitsch--a derogatory term used for art aimed at mimicking something popular in order to be popular. The overuse of the American flag and the ribbons to support our troops images I would consider kitsch--attempts at being tasteful, but more for the purpose of making a buck than an artistic expressing themselves.

And then there is the definition of kitsch by Milan Kundera in The Unberable Lightness of Being. For Kundera, kitsch is a totalitarian myth--it is a denial of reality by those in power. Spektor uses this idea of kitsch to stand against the myth of Americana. Although her album is Soviet Kitsch, a reference not only to her Russian heritage, but also because "Soviet" conjures negative images and communism to the US mind. And yet, her album is not about anything particularly Russian, but rather, US American: "Ode to Divorce," "Ghost of Corporate Future," "Carbon Monoxide," "Sailor Song," "Chemo Limo," "Poor Little Rich Boy." She is emphasizing that which is behind the Americana, dismantling the kitsch and showing reality.

The sailor isn't yearning for Mary Ann and, besides, Mary Ann's a bitch. So much for home, sweet home. So much Americana. The myth of Americana is as cheap as juice (the word "tropicana" also takes some of the sensual imagery often associated with the exotic, the Other--this song sets up the binary of Americana with its exotic, tropical, fictional other and dismantles it).

It seems that which connected us to the myth of Americana was an anchor that "couldn't even reach the bottom of a bath tub." And the myth is barely alive today, although still held onto in some form by many, especially in politics. It is like a boat that was never fully built, like the USS Kentucky.

And thus the song has de-romanticized the USA, war, and the USA at war.