When music critics are asked who the great songwriters are, the list tends to be the same. First, Bob Dylan, always. Then Lennon & McCartney, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen… and then the more personal favourites: Neil Young, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Kurt Cobain, Thom Yorke, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin for the purists. Usually about now the list features Kate Bush, as if to say ‘shit, should probably include a woman at some point’. And then there might be a smattering of the many hugely successful female songwriters: Bjork, PJ Harvey, Fiona Apple, Florence Welch, Joni Mitchell, Regina Spektor. And I think it’s usually a pretty safe bet that Suzanne Vega probably won’t feature on that list.
She’s well regarded, sure. But not generally considered one of the greats, in a very male-dominated field (which I’ll be ranting about in a moment – apologies in advance). There’s a Guardian article out at the moment which refers to her very much in the past tense: an ‘80s folk pop star’. And it’s that curious phrase: ‘folk pop’. Folk because she originally came from the folk scene, and pop because no critic can deny she has been phenomenally successful. If you were to ask a random person in the street to name a Leonard Cohen song, they would almost certainly know Hallelujah but many might not know he wrote it. But ‘Tom’s Diner’ and ‘Luka’ are still part of popular culture. You might even see them on the list in a karaoke bar. And neither song sounds remotely like it’s been crafted for Billboard chart success. They’re incredibly poetic, emotionally sophisticated songs.
Suzanne Vega is still here, as proved by the Guardian article. Clearly she still has fans that still want to read about her. Why do people still care? Why did they care in the first place? Wasn’t she always… a bit unremarkable?
Because I want to put forward the case that Suzanne Vega is one of the greats, and a better songwriter than pretty much everyone on those ‘Hall of Fame’ lists. Or rather, yes, to rank songwriters in that way is kind of missing the point, but Suzanne Vega is to Bob Dylan what Johannes Vermeer is to Jackson Pollock. They’re all very good – let me just clear that up. But one of each is a rock star, a hero, the voice of their generation, who made grand gestures 10 feet high. The other is a pure artist. Who whispered instead of shouted, and crafted gems about the size of an outstretched hand. Gems that just won’t go away, that don’t seem to have dated, that not only retain the power they had at the time but become more mysterious and intriguing as time goes by.
I grew up with the Suzanne Vega’s hits in the background of my life, rather than the foreground. The first song I really listened to was ‘In Liverpool’, which I had to learn for a gig. I didn’t warm to her like the singers I was into at the time (Holly Cole, Emily Saliers, Dar Williams) – she seemed cold and unapproachable somehow. That said, I had recently left (or ‘run away from like a lily-livered coward’, to use the technical term) a life and a relationship in Liverpool, and there’s a line in that song about being in Liverpool hearing someone in the church belfry ringing the bells like a mad person who ‘sounds like he’s missing something or someone that he knows he can’t have now’, which seemed to have no small amount of irony.
The next time I really paid attention to Suzanne Vega was when I was arse-deep in the Britpop movement, trying to make it as a pop-indie rock star. I hadn’t been trying very long, and my heart was never really in it. But I came to realise that one event which put that plan to rest forever was watching a late night documentary called Faith In Music, that featured Suzanne Vega. It was a gentle god-bothering show in which music luminaries talked about their respective religions and how they affected their music. Vega was a Buddhist. And, I was surprised to find, also seemed to be warm and funny and self-deprecating. She talked a bit about her childhood, as an adopted white child in a Puerto Rican family in New York – knowing that she was different somehow, but not knowing the full story. Growing up with this heightened sense of being an outsider.
And in this show she talked about the song ‘Luka’. Sadly it appears no YouTube clips of this interview exist (or none that I can find). But a good sense of it can be found here:
For me, as a songwriter, it was something of a Road to Damascus moment. I’d been so lost in irony and self-referencing and name-checking cool artists that I realised I’d drifted away from the things that made me love songs in the first place. I’m a compulsive note-taker, and although I don’t have the original note I made I can remember it was something like:
Suzanne Vega’s ‘Luka’. Oh yeah. What about honesty?
What about warmth instead of cool? What about trying to be inclusive and welcome the listener in, rather than make them feel excluded or slightly made fun of? What about… just not being a dick?
I videoed the programme (lost the video, I think), and watched it over and over. The next song to grab me, and the first to weave that very particular Suzanne Vega spell me, on was ‘Undertow’, which she explained was about an eating disorder. But she went right deep into the psychology of it: she had fallen in love with the idea of being sleek, stripped down to essentials, like a diamond or a bullet in flight. She made it sound glamorous. But then went on to explain how actually it didn’t work out like that, and instead the hunger made her feel weaker and weaker, and it was like an undercurrent in a river catching you and pulling you under.
And here is the point where I could just list song after song. For the record, I don’t think that every single one of her songs is a masterpiece – and probably neither does she. I think some work better than others. But the reason why I’m eulogizing her whole body of songs rather than just an album is because I think she’s not an artist who is defined by albums (in the way that, say, Tom Waits is). I think you could argue her style hasn’t developed much: it was great at the beginning, and it’s stayed great. She has always produced intriguing and original songs, and most could exist on pretty much any album. The subject matter may have changed as she got older, and some of the 80s production sounds dated now, but the songs themselves all form one coherent body of work.
Once these songs got under my skin I could listen to almost nothing else but Suzanne Vega songs for maybe a year. It got to the stage where I just needed to hear that voice on a daily basis, even if if I’d played the actual songs to death.
She is one of those artists, like Neil Finn, who you assume you’ve got completely figured out, and yet when you analyse their work closely you see maybe you were a few degrees off… but then the more you look, the more those few degrees take you further and further away from your original impression, like a dodgy map reading, until you realise you don’t know where they’re coming from at all.
I recently went on a binge watching her videos on YouTube, and I’d forgotten how moody and bookish she isn’t. I remember, for example, seeing her play a gig in Edinburgh, and hearing her joyfully recall reading a critic’s interpretation of her song ‘Rock In This Pocket’: a song about the killing of Goliath from David’s point of view. Presumably the critic learnt what the song was called, and then heard the lyrics ‘And what’s so small to you / Is so large to me…’, and then he wrote about how the song was clearly about her having sex with a guy with an enormous dick, which she (and the Edinburgh audience) thought was hilarious. So I don’t know why her music video persona surprised me this time. Even though I’m a fan, I’d somehow assumed she’d be the kind of ‘artiste’ who might look like she’s embarrassed to be in music videos. But of course this is someone who studied at the school that the film Fame is based on. And I love the way that she seems to have this attitude of ‘Okay, if we’re going to make a music video, let’s make a fucking music video. And we’ll have an extremely fit topless guy gyrating at the camera, while I just sit on a chair. Because, y’know, fun.’
Even though it’s stylistically very dated, I think this is a fantastically sexy video. And ‘99.9 F’ is a classic example of Suzanne Vega songwriting. She’s writing about that initial moment when you realise you’re attracted to someone, using the metaphor of an illness. But this isn’t ‘You give-a me fever…’ She makes the point that it’s only a very mild temperature: ninety nine point nine Fahrenheit degrees. It could be normal, but it isn’t quite. It might pass quickly, or knock you out completely. It would be so easy to write about it as an extreme moment: a bolt of lightening, or an electric shock. But most of the time, attraction doesn’t work like that. I can’t think of another songwriter who has written about love in this way, or would even be interested to do so.
She’s so good at picking emotional situations that no one else has really pinpointed before, and finding memorable ways to express them. (Sort of like a musical version of Douglas Adams’ The Meaning of Liff.) And I often find myself remembering her songs, and using them as a sort of instructional manual for navigating relationships. There’s a song of hers called ‘Caramel’ which I think beautifully describes the pleasant and dangerous way in which a person can float into cheating on their partner:
I love how still she is all the way through this. She is often this strangely commanding and cinematic presence in her videos.
She also has this wonderful way of writing as if she’s just woken up with deep amnesia, and everything is strange and new. And the song that perhaps captures this most is ‘Small Blue Thing’. Perhaps the most Suzanne Vega-y Suzanne Vega song: detached, poetic, strange, hypnotic.
And I think this song, and the others I’ve mentioned, add up to an artistic philosophy that’s very different to the conventional rock star one. It’s interested in finding beauty beneath the seemingly mundane surface of everyday life. It’s about drawing you deeper into the real world, rather than helping you escape from it into a fantasy of wish-fulfilment. And it’s very different to the attitude you need if you want the overwhelmingly male rock critic fraternity to consider you as ‘Hall of Fame’ material.
And so, yes, here we go. About 30 years of following the music business has taught me that if you want to be ‘Hall of Fame’ famous then you really need to live up to one of a number of male-fantasy clichés. The most popular in the music business is the hellraiser (e.g. Keith Moon, Keith Richards, Keith Floyd, people called Keith, basically). And another big one is the nihilist (the Sex Pistols, Charles Bukowski, every indie artist ever). There are others, and many of the acclaimed songwriters have carefully crafted a balance of these persona clichés for themselves. These are lifestyles and attitudes that make a good celebrity, but I don’t think they necessarily make a good artist. Not if you believe that art should tell you the truth, rather than what you want to hear.
If the hellraiser’s view is true, I always wonder, then why don’t the critics who celebrate them adopt the same lifestyle? Why, in fact, aren’t we all doing it? Isn’t it because the wider story of these hellraisers is always more complex? There’s always more sadness: broken marriages; estranged children; failing careers; being trapped in a persona that the public wants but they want to be free of; being worshipped by teenagers, but being a bit of a joke to people your own age. And is it me or do nihilists always lead such comfortable lives? Sure the interview you watch might take place in a derelict building with mould and rats, but they always end up living in pretty semi-detached houses in Islington or Beverly Hills.
Music critics tend to write about glamour. And that’s fine: that’s what celebrity is all about. Sure, Bob Dylan was fucking glamorous, in his scruffy way. But when you’re talking about artists, the old masters like Vermeer are not great because they captured the zeitgeist, or because they had a great PR team, or because they make you nostalgic for childhood, or because they generally had a wild glamorous life. We know almost nothing about the life of Vermeer. They are great when all of that context is removed, and all you have is the work.
Suzanne Vega’s songs assume that the real lives we lead are at least as interesting as the fantasy ones we dream about, and they are things of beauty even if you know nothing about her as a person. (Maybe even more so as, like Vermeer, that heightens their mystery.) You get to know her through the work, and that’s pretty much all she lets you see.
You’re not interested in just songs (I find myself ranting, to an imaginary audience of music industry types) and what songs can do, completely stripped of the celebrity glamour? Fine – Suzanne Vega is probably not for you. But I think it would be a mistake to claim she’s less of a songwriter because she doesn’t do the celebrity. She’s not. She’s just less of a celebrity. And be honest, I think that if you feel she’s missing that masculine edge that greatness demands, well, you’re not really that into songwriting. You don’t really care for music, do ya…
And I’ll admit, I like a bit of celebrity, and a bit of glamour. Glamour is fun in small doses, but it is really for young people. Because at my age who has time for those comfortable delusions? As we get older, very few of us still believe that life is about hedonistic oblivion or rejecting everything with an ironic smirk. Instead we tend to feel that life is about snatching moments of beauty and meaning and passion whenever you can, in between the daily struggle of routine and job and family and health and just getting by. It’s difficult to do. It takes conscious effort. And it also takes constant reminders of what is important from artists like Vermeer and Vega.
One last song dissection: on one of her more recent albums, called ‘Edith Wharton’s Figurines’. It’s inspired by the death of author Olivia Goldsmith (who wrote The First Wives Club amongst other things), who went into a coma while having cosmetic surgery. The fact that Goldsmith was a celebrated author, and yet still felt the need to artificially enhance her beauty, perhaps reminded Vega of the heroines in the novels of Edith Wharton.
Basically, I feel about Suzanne Vega’s songs the way she feels about Edith Wharton’s characters – her ‘lovely figurines’.
Edith Wharton’s lovely figurines / Still speak to me today / From their mantelpiece in time / Where they wrestle and they play / With passions and with prudences / Finances and fears / Her face and what its worth to her / In the passing of the years.
In the second verse, she draws the sad comparison with Olivia Goldsmith:
Now Olivia lies under anaesthesia / Her wit and wonder snuffed / In a routine operation / Her own beauty not enough / Her passions and her prudences / Finances and fears / Her face, what it was worth to her / In the passing of the years.
And she ends with a verse that feels like a mission statement for her whole songwriting career:
Edith Wharton’s lovely figurines / Still speak to me today / From their mantelpiece in time / Where they wrestle and they play / We lie under anaesthesia / Our wit and wonder snuffed / In our routine operations / Our own beauty not enough.