You are my sweetest downfall, I loved you first…
From the moment the first notes accompanied by the first line of "Samson" hit your ears, you know something magical and transformative has happened. Many songs begin with a few opening chords to ease the listener into the song, but "Samson" plucks you right out of your chair and hurls you backwards through the centuries until you land—BAM—right in the middle of one of the top ten most famous and memorable Bible stories of all time, not to mention—perhaps—one of the greatest untold romances of human history. Phew! So what is Regina Spektor's purpose in writing "Samson"? Regina likes to call her inspiration "randomness," but even randomness comes from somewhere. We think her reasons for writing this song have to do with the storyteller's need to make old stories fresh for our ears, and also to give a voice to those whom history made silent. For starters, we have to go back to the story's source, the Bible/Torah, for some clues.
If you're an aspiring writer of poetry/fiction/music/whatever, and you're looking for some good, solid material upon which to base your characters and examine human nature, the Bible is a great place to start. It's the only book in the world that has been given the title "The Book," so you know it must have some sway. Maybe because it's so shrouded in mystery and divinity, maybe because it tells basic human stories that speak directly to our souls and have resonated through the ages, or maybe because it's simply so well-known, writers everywhere have harnessed the power of Bible stories as the foundation for some of the most famous works of literature since. There is no way to list all the thousands of authors, poets, and songwriters who have used the Scriptures as inspiration for their writing… but for starters, check out Milton, Shakespeare, Joyce, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Blake, Hopkins, Dickinson, Austen, etc., etc., etc., etc. (Seriously, everyone who wants to write, even a die-hard atheist, most likely knows at least a little bit of The Book.
Thinking of the Bible as literature has always been a thorny prospect; although The Book is the biggest bestseller in history, it doesn't always take literary criticism very well. Millions upon millions of people around the world believe it is the literal and exact word of God; others of a more secular bent prefer to treat it solely as the work of man (or, more accurately, many men). The literalists and the secularists often manage to offend each other gravely; meanwhile, plenty of other folks find themselves somewhere in between. Like we said, treating the Bible as literature can be a thorny prospect.
One thing that we can all agree on, though—whether we view the Bible as divine truth or merely as fascinating historical document—is that many of the stories in it leave certain gaps. It's those gaps—silences in the biblical narrative that require us to make our own judgments of interpretation—that make the Bible such fertile ground for artistic reinterpretation.
The Bible gives us the plot of certain timeless stories, but leaves enough unsaid to provide our writers with plenty of room to imagine their own explanations. You'll never read the story of Cain and Abel quite the same way again after you get through Steinbeck's East of Eden (or watch the movie starring James Dean). In a more lighthearted vein, if you've ever wondered what Jesus was up to during the 30-year gap in his biography as it's told in the Gospels, you'll find a hilarious (if irreverent) answer in Christopher Moore's Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. This one imagines that Jesus spent those "missing" years traveling the world with his friend Biff, learning from spiritual leaders in the East and reading the Karma Sutra before heading back to the Holy Land.
More to the point, with regard to Regina Spektor's take on "Samson," is the fact that the Bible's silences tend to fall along gendered lines. That is to say, the Bible was written by men, which means that often women's voices, and women's stories, can only be read through the lines. Think about it: the Old Testament is, at its core, a timeline of Judeo-Christian history through families, but usually the only people mentioned are the men. OK, it does mention Eve, but it also says that she (and women in general) are responsible for Original Sin; not the most flattering inheritance. Sometimes The Book seems like a whole long lineage of fathers and sons, their sons, their son's sons, kings, prophets, judges, etc., with a minimal female presence.
There's no such thing as the "Gospel According to Mary," for example, even though Jesus' mother probably knew a few things about him that were beyond Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But at the time the Bible was being written, most women didn't have access to the kind of social ranking and power that might have given them a stronger voice of their own. Anita Diamant riffs on this theme in her novel The Red Tent, where she takes the story of Jacob, his wives, and his twelve sons (and one daughter) and retells the whole story from that daughter's perspective.
With "Samson," Regina Spektor does much the same thing, but instead of giving a voice to Jacob's only daughter, she gives a voice to Delilah, the infamous villain who's usually blamed for the downfall of the great Israelite hero Samson. In the Bible, the first part of Samson's story involves him doing lots of manly deeds, such as killing Philistines, setting fire to their crops (by lighting some foxes' tails on fire and sending them running through a vineyard), killing a lion and then eating the honey from the bees who decided to make a hive in the lion's corpse, etc. Not to mention killing scores of enemies with a donkey jawbone. But then he meets Delilah and everything changes. He's had women before, wives and whores and everything in between… but Delilah's the only one who captures his heart.
But why is Samson so smitten with Delilah? What's the story of their love? Why was she worth sacrificing everything—his pride, his power, his life itself? The Bible is mostly silent on this question. But Regina Spektor gives us an answer.
In the Scriptures, Delilah is a conniving schemer who'd sell Samson out for a pile of silver. She nags and nags at him, accusing him of being a liar, until finally she says: "'How canst thou say: I love thee, when thy heart is not with me? thou hast mocked me these three times, and hast not told me wherein thy great strength lieth.'" And then Samson, because "his soul was vexed unto death," gives in and tells her. We don't think it makes much sense that Samson would just spill his secret because Delilah asks him three separate times and he gets exasperated. (Reminds us of Will Ferrell's hilariously idiotic character, Mustafa, in Austin Powers: "I can't be asked the same question three times, it just irritates me.")
Here's another thing: in the beginning of their story, the Scriptures simply say, "And it came to pass afterward, that he loved a woman in the valley of Sorek, whose name was Delilah." And that's it. Does this strike you as odd? No courtship, no dating, no dinner-and-a-camel-ride, and he's already in love? And we also don't know how the Scriptures go from this sentence to the two of them apparently living together.
Basically, we're expected to believe that Samson just fell in love with a woman instantaneously with no explanation of beauty, brains, or attraction, moved his stuff into her house, and then proceeded to tell her his most valued and dangerous secret because she asked him too often? Not entirely buying it.
So Regina Spektor takes the story and fills in some details for us. We find out through her lyrics that they are indeed living together and sharing a bed, that they met at some point quite a while before the infamous haircut, that they're attracted to each other and have a physical relationship, and that Samson likes to eat bread as a midnight snack. Perhaps as fuel in between love-making sessions. Finally we have a love story here. He smiles when she asks to cut his hair and kisses her afterwards. He willingly accepts weakness because his love for her is so strong. Now we can understand better why Samson would make such an impulsive decision, because we get why and how he loves her and that's the kind of stuff you do when you're in love.
Another theme from the story that Regina addresses is the guilt associated with these irresponsible choices of the heart. In the Bible, Delilah threatens Samson into telling her by accusing him of not loving her enough. OK, we've seen this kind of couples' drama before. "How far are you willing to go to prove your love to me?" is a tactic used by lovers that goes all the way back to Antony and Cleopatra, so we get it. Maybe what Regina's Delilah is feeling here is some serious guilt when she says, "I have to go." Looking back, she's probably also thinking, "Wow, I went a little too far with this one and now look what's happened." Samson was a hero, and a man, and therefore had a lot of reputation to keep up for the woman he loved, and she just took advantage of his pride.
However, in the song, it doesn't appear that Samson actually died; he didn't even pull the columns down. So the guilt doesn't really have to do with what happened later. Instead, Delilah's angry at herself for forcing Samson into proving his love for her through some inane act instead of just being content with how he wants to show her. It's that selfish insecurity we all get when we fall in love with someone and desperately need them to confirm our feelings with their own. Otherwise, our love would be unrequited and we'd be stuck writing depressing sonnets for the rest of our lives.
So what Regina Spektor does is simple: she takes a story we've all at least heard of and fills in the bare-bones version with the meat of a living, pulsing romance. Her take on it is sensual and passionate, distant and melancholy, and altogether different from what we find in the Book of Judges. From the very first notes, she breathes warm, new life into a centuries-old text, reinvigorating it and challenging it, all at the same time.