In this review: Suzanne Vega, Suzanne Vega (A&M, 1985).
Suzanne Vega was just always out of earshot for me. My friends listened to her and she influenced the music I liked. With the exception of the inclusion of a track or two of hers on a mixtape here and there, it wasn’t until the DNA remix of ‘Tom’s Diner’ got some major radio play in the mid-90s that I began to think about her in her own right.
Listening to her self-titled 1985 debute, it is very clear that she started as she meant to continue. I find the clarity of her vision to be really amazing, especially for a first release. There is something about the clear, intellectual vocals paired with just-complex-enough instrumental backing that sounds timeless. In an age of overblown stadium rock, Suzanne Vega stands out for its intimacy.
But if intimate it is not small or insular. The topics she covers are actually quite bold. A strong feminist, or at the very least empowered, theme comes across. Love is complex, but it is also not about objectification. In ‘Marlene on the Wall’, one of her best known tracks, Vega deals with the very reverse: the actual fall out of being in a toxic relationship from the point of view of a woman struggling against societal expectations of how she is supposed to behave. Perhaps in our post truth era such themes resonate particularly. Actually, songs like ‘Straight Lines’ (which I think is all about mental health) speak of the empowerment that comes from self knowledge and self belief.
The subject matter doesn’t weight down the songs, though. There is an effervescence throughout this album that is very beguiling. Vega occasionally lulls you into a false sense that this is all a bit of bubblegum. But the words and thoughts worm their way into your mind in a way that hasn’t happened to me very often. I found myself staring into space at work this week thinking about ‘Small Blue Thing’. I’m not sure I understand the song completely, but I did wonder if I was/is/have ever been a small thing in someone else’s pocket.
My friends who listened to Vega were all women. I have an inkling about why Vega’s music would appeal especially to young women trying to find their way in a very uncongenial world. Vega is smart and sharp, and unapologetically so, but she also seems to play the system. The messages in her songs aren’t sugar coated but they also aren’t fully frontal. There is almost a guide-book quality to this album, almost like Vega is teaching her listeners how to appear to conform whilst actually questioning, questioning, questioning. If I had been a teenage woman I can certainly see why I’d have wanted to listen to what Vega was saying. To my ears now, it’s also a call to question how I approach relationships and how I view those around me and their relationships. Vega calls for equality and equity, but also for criticality and clarity.
We could all use some practice on recognising those.