A Personal History of Music, Day 23: “On the Radio,” by Regina Spektor

John Scalzi

For this series I’m picking one song per artist to represent them and why they’ve mattered to me. Usually, this isn’t too difficult — sometimes it’s that one particular song that’s resonated for me, and other times there’s usually one song above several other equally worthy songs that I thing be represents what I like and admire about the artist. In the case of Regina Spektor, however, I had an excruciating time picking between two songs: “Fidelity” and “On the Radio.” Both songs resonate almost equally for me; both songs are on my Forever Playlist.

That’s because both songs, each from Spektor’s Begin to Hope album, really quite excellently nail what it feels like to surrender one’s self to love. “Fidelity” covers the effort it takes to make that surrender in the first place, to really let someone in, and by doing so, open one’s self to the terrifying everything that comes with love; “On the Radio,” goes into what opening one’s self actually entails. Of the two songs, “Fidelity” is the more complete and lyrically coherent song on the matter; it’s also arguably Ms. Spektor’s signature song.

“On the Radio” is more scattershot — its first verse feel more like stream-of-consciousness lyrical warming up than anything else — but when it gets into gear in the second set of verses, it’s so devastatingly correct and beautiful about what it means to be in love with another person that is literally breathtaking to me:

No, this is how it works
You peer inside yourself
You take the things you like
And try to love the things you took
And then you take that love you made
And stick it into some
Someone else’s heart
Pumping someone else’s blood
And walking arm in arm
You hope it don’t get harmed
But even if it does
You’ll just do it all again

This song is sixteen years old as of this writing, and I’ve heard it dozens if not hundreds of times, and rare is the time that I get out of this verse without tears. This is it; this is indeed how it works, and how wise of Ms. Spektor to recognize that fact.

And it’s a lot! You can understand why, in “Fidelity,” she’s reluctant to surrender into it at all, or why anyone who actually does understand that terrifying everything of love, can hesitate to give themselves over to it. You have to really want it and you have to accept responsibility for yourself in it. It’s certainly easier not to take it on. I don’t fault anyone who chooses not to.

But if you do, there are rewards. Are they worth it? That’s up to each person to decide. In my particular case, I can say: Absolutely, so far, and I’m working hard to make sure it stays so. I play “On the Radio” every now and again to remind myself of the feeling that saying yes to it all has gained me.

(Quick note: Regina Spektor’s newest album, Home, before and after, comes out tomorrow (6/24/22). What I’ve heard from it so far is very good. I’ll be getting it.)

— JS

7 Comments on “A Personal History of Music, Day 23: “On the Radio,” by Regina Spektor”

  1. As you noted out tomorrow her new album is absolutely wonderful. Spent my day off Tuesday listening to a slightly early copy. One wonderful song after another.

  2. John – we’ve overlapped about 90% so far this month…. it’s great to hear why you love them, and fascinating that for you it’s the lyrics. That’s not how I have approached falling in love with these songs and artists. After listening a bunch of times, I am often surprised to hear lines jump out at me. (the one about the DJ being asleep always makes me smile the first time… and then the call-back at the end, saying that you will have your own version of that very specific experience. Yeah – it’s being in love. :)

  3. Oh my I so like Regina Spektor. First heard her on a Pandora radio station based on music by Lily Allen. Her music is so light hearted and humorous to me but the lyrics bite. It’s a lovely combination. I’m really bummed that she’s playing in San Diego next week with Norah Jones and they’re sold out.

  4. This is really touching. As someone who loves someone who’s somewhat reluctant to let anyone in any more (sigh, yes, I know it’s pointless), it does hit.

  5. I met Regina Spektor when we were teenagers, on an Israel experience camp. She’s cited that summer in interviews as the time she first got her courage up to sing her own songs in front of people. She was definitely different and special even then. I have a tape she sent out to friends the next year, which she recorded alone at home at her piano, and it is a prized possession I will never part with. (Also back when I got it, I absolutely played it all the time.)

  6. I can’t make it through those lines without tearing up either. In fact I’m tearing up right now.

%d bloggers like this: