When she first landed in the Bronx, nine-year-old Regina Spektor probably stood out a little. It was the early '90s, and Biggie Smalls and Pearl Jam were flooding the airwaves, but Spektor, whose family had just immigrated from Soviet Moscow, turned up her nose at hip-hop, punk, and even rock and roll. She preferred the classics, the Mozart and Tchaikovsky she played on the family's Petrof upright back in Russia. Estranged from her beloved instrument, the young Spektor would habitually tap out her pieces on windowsills and tabletops—until she came across a shabby piano in the basement of a local synagogue.
Now 32, Spektor has long since changed her tune on pop music, but her offbeat imaginings and daredevil sound still distinguish her from the crowd. Her songs are packed with unlikely metaphors—black holes, blue pianos, trapped paintings—and all manner of vocal experimentation."If something feels right to you, you make a choice," she says of her unorthodoxy. "If everybody is saying, 'Oh this is a really amazing work of art,' pointing at the fire extinguisher in the gallery, and then you walk in and you’re like 'That fire extinguisher? I just saw like 30 of them down the hall.' There's a silent agreement. If you're not agreeing with it, then, you know—everybody's either with you or they're not."
Everybody's with her these days, it seems. On the eve of her sixth album, What We Saw From the Cheap Seats (out May 29), Spektor has collaborated with violin maestro Joshua Bell, been sampled by Jay-Z, toured with artists from Kings of Leon to Tom Petty, and played stages from Carnegie Hall to the White House. I caught up with Spektor to chat about her polyglot tendencies, gay rights, and how it feels to be labeled a weirdo.
Ever since the fleet-footed runners and chariot races of ancient Greece, ethics have been at the root of the Olympic games. There's an Olympic oath, creed, and hymn. And then there's the torch, which has come to represent purity or goodwill, depending on who you ask.
So, in the spirit of Olympic integrity, London—which will host the summer Olympics this July—has promised to prepare for its games with an eye towards environmentalism, making London 2012 "the greenest Games ever." Just one problem: Three of the Olympics' official sponsors—BP, Dow Chemical, and Rio Tinto—are all currently embroiled in lawsuits over alleged commission of large-scale environmental harms. (A set of criminal charges against BP were just filed yesterday.)
The irony here has not been lost on some of the UK's environmental watchdogs, who last week launched "Greenwash Gold 2012," a campaign to bring attention to the environmental records of these three sponsors. The groups behind the project—the London Mining Network, Bhopal Medical Appeal, and the UK Tar Sands Network—argue that it's greenwashing to let these eco-harming companies sponsor the games.
The campaign's website offers up details on each company's environmental records alongside biting, animated videos. Visitors are asked to vote on which company "gets the dishonour" of winning the Greenwash Gold for "covering up the most environmental destruction"—to be awarded by the campaign in July, when the Olympics start. (Silver and bronze will also be awarded, so don't worry: all three companies are guaranteed to medal.)
As Republican lawmakers have pushed ever more intrusive and expansive uterus-related legislation, some of their colleagues across the aisle have fired back with intentionally and equally ridiculous counterproposals. From mandatory rectal exams for guys seeking Viagra to prohibitions on sperm-stifling vasectomies, most of these male-only provisions have, unsurprisingly, flopped. But they've scored big as symbolic gestures, spotlighting the inherent sexism of laws that regulate only lady parts.
Some of the tongue-in-cheek ideas introduced across the country:
Delaware: By an 8 to 4 vote, the Wilmington, Delaware, city council recognized the personhood of semen because "each 'egg person' and each 'sperm person' should be deemed equal in the eyes of the government."
Virginia: As the state Senate debated requiring transvaginal ultrasounds for women seeking abortions, Sen. Janet Howell proposed mandating rectal exams and cardiac stress tests for men seeking erectile dysfunction meds. Her amendment failed by just two votes.
Georgia: Responding to a Georgiahouse bill banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, Rep. Yasmin Neal wrote a bill outlawing most vasectomies because they leave "thousands of children…deprived of birth."
Ohio: A bill introduced by state Sen. Nina Turner would compel men to get psychological screenings before getting prescriptions for impotence meds. "We must advocate for the traditional family," Turner said, "and ensure that all men using PDE-5 inhibitors are healthy, stable, and educated about their options—including celibacy as a viable life choice."
Illinois: State Rep. Kelly Cassidy proposed requiring men seeking Viagra to watch a video showing the treatment for persistent erections, an occasional side effect of the little blue pill. As she explained, "It's not a pretty procedure to watch."
Missouri: Protesting the legislature's vote to reject Obama's contraception coverage mandate, nine female lawmakers cosponsored a bill restricting access to vasectomies except for men risking death or serious bodily harm. "In determining whether a vasectomy is necessary," the bill reads, "no regard shall be made to the desire of a man to father children, his economic situation, his age, the number of children he is currently responsible for, or any danger to his wife or partner in the event a child is conceived."
Oklahoma: When a zygote-personhood bill came before the state Senate, Sen. Constance Johnson penned an amendmentdeclaring that ejaculating anywhere outside a woman's vagina constitutes "an action against an unborn child." Bonus: Johnson also suggested that any man who impregnates a woman without her permission should pay a $25,000 fine, support the child until age 21, and get a vasectomy, "in the spirit of shared responsibility." In response to the same bill, state Sen. Jim Wilson proposed an amendment requiring the father of an unborn child to be financially responsible for its mother's health care, housing, transportation, and nourishment during pregnancy.
Texas: Contesting a bill mandating sonograms before abortions, Rep. Harold Dutton unsuccessfully offeredthree amendments in a row. The first would have required the state to pay the college tuition of children born to women who decide against an abortion after seeing a required ultrasound image. The second would have subsidized the children's health care costs until age 18. When that failed, he lowered the age to 6. That didn't fly, either.
Valentine's Day skeptics are as prevalent as the holiday's loyalists: For every rose-toting lover, there's a cupid defector who most definitely does not want anything red, pink, or pastel-colored. After digging into the background behind the Valentine's Day industry, I'm pretty convinced that my own wry holiday spirit is merited—if not for thisday's sky-high levels of consumption (expected to reach $17.6 billion this year) then, at the very least, for its environmental damage and poor labor practices. Below, a breakdown of the Valentine's Day trifecta: flowers, chocolate, and greeting cards. The results aren't pretty. So you can curse us for tainting your holiday—or thank us for enabling your cynicism.
Cut flowers: That bouquet you may be planning to gift today was most likely not grown in the United States. The floriculture industry taps out at $32.8 billion, and about $14 billion of that comes from the sale of fresh flowers. Around 63 percent of those blooms are imports from Colombia, and another 23 percent from Ecuador. *
The labor rights facts of this industry are truly depressing. In 2005, the International Labor Rights Forum found that 55 percent of women working in the Ecuadorian flower production trade (they constitute half the flower workforce) had been victim to sexual harassment in the workplace. Nineteen percent were forced to have sex with a supervisor or coworker. Compulsory pregnancy testing is also a serious industry issue. In Colombia, where women make up about 65 percent of flower workers, a survey conducted by the nation's flower industry union, Untraflores, found that about 80 percent of companies required women to take a pregnancy test as part of their job application process—presumably because they'd like to avoid providing paid maternity leave (required in Colombia). Another problem: In 2000, upwards of 48,000 children were found working in Ecuador's flower industry. Colombia wasn't much better. There have since been a number of hefty efforts at reform, and while Colombia's been improving, the US Department of Labor still confirms extensive child labor use in Ecuador.
What compels people to resist, even when confronted with the risks of bucking authority? Eyal Press examines the cases of four dissenters—an Israeli soldier who refused to serve in occupied territories, a Swiss deputy who aided World War II Jews, a bigotry-defying Serb who saved Croats, and a corporate whistleblower who outed the second-largest Ponzi scheme in US history—and invokes the work of psychologists and neuroscientists to help us ponder the ways we respond to ethical challenges.Proving time and again that the boldest renegades are just regular people with independent minds—rather than dyed-in-the-wool radicals—Beautiful Souls underscores dissent's populist potential. Acts of conscience, as Press puts it, "have a way of reverberating."