Focus on the Lyrics Friday: All the Rowboats

Every day I pass by the Marshall M. Fredericks art museum on my way to class. It’s strangely comforting to know the lion will eternally stare at the mouse and Jesus will always be hanging from the wall.
Regina Spektor (whose most popular youtube video is of her song “Samson“) has a different spin on art museums in her song “All the Rowboats.”

Lyrics
All the rowboats in the paintings
They keep trying to row away
And the captains’ worried faces
Stay contorted and staring at the waves
They’ll keep hanging in their gold frames
For forever, forever and a day
All the rowboats in the oil paintings
They keep trying to row away, row away

Hear them whispering French and German
Dutch, Italian, and Latin
When no one’s looking I touch a sculpture
Marble, cold and soft as satin
But the most special are the most lonely
God, I pity the violins
In glass coffins they keep coughing
They’ve forgotten, forgotten how to sing, how to sing

First there’s lights out, then there’s lock up
Masterpieces serving maximum sentences
It’s their own fault for being timeless
There’s a price to pay and a consequence
All the galleries, the museums
Here’s your ticket, welcome to the tombs
They’re just public mausoleums
The living dead fill every room
But the most special are the most lonely
God, I pity the violins
In glass coffins they keep coughing
They’ve forgotten, forgotten how to sing

They will stay there in their gold frames
For forever, forever and a day
All the rowboats in the oil paintings
They keep trying to row away, row away

First there’s lights out, then there’s lock up
Masterpieces serving maximum sentences
It’s their own fault for being timeless
There’s a price to pay and a consequence
All the galleries, the museums
They will stay there forever and a day
All the rowboats in the oil paintings
They keep trying to row away, row away
All the rowboats in the oil paintings
They keep trying to row away, row away…

Analysis
On the surface the song is a dark perspective on the art in museums, but beneath it lies a metaphor. I think the rowboats and violins on display at the museum represent artists in general, their lives on display for all to see while they’re trapped and unable to move.
1) “All the rowboats in the paintings / They keep trying to row away / And the captains’ worried faces / Stay contorted and staring at the waves / They’ll keep hanging in their gold frames / For forever, forever and a day”
I looked up rowboat paintings to see if perhaps Spektor referred to a particular painting or artist, and I found this beautiful little article, which claims the song is based on the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met houses a collection of rowboat oil paintings by Winslow Homer, as well as an Italian Baroque violin in a glass display case. While I think the article is right in this, I disagree that it’s a “metaphor for life.” I think Spektor’s a little more pointed than that. Not everyone is stuck on display; there have to be people to come over and watch and people to put them on display. The artists “keep trying to row away,” doing what the do best to try to escape the media attention, but their attempts are just as fruitless as the rowers in paintings who are “forever” stuck in their frames.
Evidently it’s not true of all artists…
2) “Hear them whispering French and German / Dutch, Italian, and Latin / When no one’s looking I touch a sculpture / Marble, cold and soft as satin / But the most special are the most lonely / God, I pity the violins / In glass coffins they keep coughing / They’ve forgotten, forgotten how to sing, how to sing”
Many famous works on display at museums are French (Degas, Monet), German (Durer, Friedrich), Dutch (Van Gogh), Italian (Raphael, Michelangelo), and Roman/Latin. More importantly for the metaphor, Spektor sings that they’re “whispering” in different languages, not speaking their mind or speaking comprehensibly. When she “touch[es] a sculpture,” she finds it “cold and soft as satin.” The coldness indicates a numbness or lack of life while the softness indicates the allure of the sculpture, even though it’s cold and stone. Spektor also seems to say the most talented art/artists are “the most lonely,” since the art is put on display away from other art (as is the case with the display of Mona Lisa at the Louvre). Like I mentioned before, the Met has a violin on display in a “glass coffin,” as Spektor puts it. The violins “keep coughing,” from dust or age or lack of use, and have “forgotten how to sing” after being on display for so long. Perhaps Spektor means after a long time on display, unable to practice their art for all the pressing media contact, artists lose their touch. That doesn’t seem like the best analysis to me, though, so if you have any ideas about the meaning of the violins, please comment below!
3) “First there’s lights out, then there’s lock up / Masterpieces serving maximum sentences / It’s their own fault for being timeless / There’s a price to pay and a consequence / All the galleries, the museums / Here’s your ticket, welcome to the tombs / They’re just public mausoleums / The living dead fill every room”
When the day’s over and the visitors are no longer welcome, the museum turns lights out and locks up, like the pieces are prisoners “serving maximum sentences.” The next lines seem more bitter and resentful, bordering on satyric. Spektor declares, “It’s their own fault for being timeless/ There’s a price to pay and a consequence.” I read that sarcastically, like when people say artists asked for media attention by being talented and doing what they love. My favorite lines of this song are the last ones here: “All the galleries, the museums, / Here’s your ticket, welcome to the tombs / They’re just public mausoleums / The living dead fill every room.” Museums like the Met often showcase works of dead artists, so I’ve made the connection to tombs before, but Spektor makes the connection even stronger. She claims the museums are “public mausoleums,” or collections of tombs open to the public, filled with the oxymoronic “living dead.” The “living dead” displayed in the tombs could refer to the art, as art thrives but the people who worked so hard to create it are dead. It could also refer to the media-trampled artists who are now numb and without the aspirations they once had–in other words, they’re now less lively, though they’re still technically living.
I’m not going to analyze the music video. You’re on your own for deciphering that one.
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