I love a good New York metaphor; if any place can support an extravagant extended poetic comparison, it’s the Big Apple. Using the ineffable feminine mystique as a broad metaphor, on the other hand, is a tricky business. Not many poets have the deft touch to pull it off, but luckily Suzanne Vega is both a lifelong observer of New York’s ebbs and flows, and an empathetic ladyperson not likely to fall into any of the more obvious entendres. If some dude with a ginger ponytail and an acoustic guitar wanted to put forth all the ways that New York is womanlike, it would not go over well. But Suzanne Vega can play with it and she plays it well. These are cliches, rescued from the bins of hard boiled noir and emo fuckboy sentimentality. New York is a temptress. She’s glamorous and indifferent. She’s an old school femme fatale. She lives up to her legends. Lines to be expected from the mouths of men who’ve neither been to New York or with a woman. So Suzanne Vega, a New York City woman, smartly dismisses them and the entire industry of romantic tropes that smogs up the city.
An ode to unrequited desire. Suzanne Vega, of course, can make any topic sound elegant and intellectual. Her trick is the balance of refinement and deep emotion. She’s a cerebral person, I guess. Her use of the plum metaphor is particularly powerful; fruit has long symbolized the sexy and forbidden, though the luscious plum has somehow been outshone by the hardier apple, the naughtier cherry, and the racist watermelon. Plums are sexy – they are sweet and juicy and have a rich color and lustrous, slightly translucent skin. They are also more pricey than apples or nectarines, which makes them more desirable. Yes, the world of the fruit plate is deeply evocative of fleshly desires. Poets and artists have returned to sweet and humble treats for inspiration since Biblical times. Maybe they were just hungry… In Vega’s case, I don’t think she was just hungry. The name of the album is, after all, Nine Objects of Desire, almost a concept album, except that if desire was considered a ‘high concept’ to write about, every album would be a concept album. To underline the point, the singer holds a brilliantly hued green apple, in sharp contrast with her signature red hair. It’s as provocative an image as Suzanne Vega has ever sat for. She’s always written about affairs of the heart with incredible delicacy; this time the condition of longing is explored from every angle and the temptation of delicious fruit is not forgotten.
Ah, phantom limb syndrome, a common and popular topic for songwriters since the dawn of times. And a great metaphor for other things in life. Not to make fun, though. It’s actually a deeply unusual choice of topic and a fresh metaphor for other things in life. Which is why Suzanne Vega is such a great writer. She makes connections that are surprising but makes complete sense. Losing parts of yourself physically is something most people will likely never have to go through, aside from garden variety declining vision and hearing loss, but it’s a near-universal fear. Losing less tangible parts of ourselves, on the other hand, is just about inevitable. We lose our innocence, we lose idealism, we lose things and people we love, we lose large chunks of our sanity. And just like people whose brain still sends commands to body parts that are no longer there, we go on mentally interacting with people who are out of our lives, reaching for possessions we’ve lost, and reliving old memories, whether we like doing those things or not.
“The only soldier now is me, I’m fighting things I cannot see”
It makes me happy that Suzanne Vega pays tribute to Marlene Dietrich, the original ice queen, whose take-no-prisoners-and-give-no-fucks spirit has been a guiding light for so many of us. Vega, a woman of modest style and a poet of gentle rumination, might seem like an unlikely acolyte of the glamorous femme fatale. Dietrich was the face of dangerous, decadent glamour; she ate men for breakfast and women for dinner. She was also self-created, independent, and incredibly brave – those are virtues that have nothing to do with the external business of being glamorous. Emulating Dietrich isn’t about how you draw your eyebrows; it’s about being strong and walking out of every battle scarred but alive. What I think Vega is really doing is paying tribute to the importance of having a role model, some image to look up to as you go about finding your own ways of surviving your battles. The lovers will come and go, just soldiers on the battlefield of your life, but the ice queen will always be there, watching.
“Just don’t ask me how I am”
Deceptively beautiful, profoundly sad, and justly acclaimed. Suzanne Vega was the first and most likely still the only singer to have huge chart hit with a song about an abused child. Some people think that that’s fundamentally not an appropriate thing to write pretty songs about, or even that the act of writing the pretty song somehow romanticizes abuse. This is a conversation that swirled around Vega’s song in 1987, and one we’re still having, on an on-and-off basis, today. It is, of course, an important conversation to have. On one hand, I concede that the haters have a good point; the tendency to romanticize abuse, violence, mental illness, addiction, disease and other problems is not a healthy one, and the idea that suffering is somehow noble and elevated is deeply harmful. Our habit of making victims into holy martyrs and perpetrators into anti-heroes may be a coping mechanism, but it distracts us, as a society, from making a concerted effort to alleviate the root causes of those harmful behaviors. On the other hand, relating to the role played by song’s like Vega’s, it is the job of good art to dredge up difficult subjects. A song about child abuse, dressed up in a nice melody, can start a conversation and inspire deep thought in people who would never bother to watch a PSA or sit down and read the statistics and case studies. It may even be of help to victims who may not be able to articulate their feelings or explain their conditions. On this subject as with many others, art and pop culture is where the real consciousness raising happens.
Not a book reference at all. Well, obviously it is; unlike so much of our cultural jargon, ‘Lolita’ as a word and as a concept does have a ground zero. Poor Lolita has blossomed from her very specific beginnings as a mere character in a novel to being a conceptual catch-all who gets dragged into every discussion pertaining to female sexuality, from fashion to criminal justice. She’s the shorthand for every sexually precocious young woman, demonized and fetishized in equal measure for her perceived wantonness; never mind that the original Lo was the victim of a pedophile, in a story that was meant to be deeply creepy. Everything gets glamorized and turned into fashion, even child rape. Thus we have Lolita, a pretty name with vague connotations of naughty sexiness, the perfect hashtag for your Etsy lingerie shop, Lolita as aspirational figure. So it goes, huh? Now it this particular case, Suzanne Vega is using Lolita as a concept, in the sense of Lolita being a fallen woman. At least Vega has the smarts to see this figure as being a victim, thus not twisting the poor girl’s image into something unrecognizably far removed from what she’s supposed to represent. Vega has, in her quiet way, always been all about empowerment. Here, she is working on two levels; on one, offering counsel and sympathy to an apparent young prostitute; on another, calling out young women who’ve made the mistake of finding ‘Lolita status’ aspirational. It’s a gentle reminder that it’s inherently degrading to present yourself as an object to be acquired, whether in the blatant sense of selling yourself sexually, or in the more subtle and thus more insidious sense of ‘selling’ yourself as ‘wife material’ and the mentality of seeing yourself essentially as a satellite in the gravitation of male desire. Needless to say, not a healthy state of mind or conducive to being an autonomous, whole person.
“If language were liquid, it would be rushing in…”
And so the poet questions her own medium. Suzanne Vega has always been one of my favorite lyricists, and definitely my favorite female songwriter, if you want to get all binary here. I love her thoughtfulness about little things. She can make an observant song about something as simple as getting a haircut or hanging up a poster. Here she tackles the essential inadequacy of language itself, which is not such a small thing when you think about it. Language is, without question, one of the most basic and important aspects of being human. And yet it has a way of coming up short, of betraying us at our most vulnerable. Even those of us who have mastered the art of words at its finest – the poets and writers – still bump up against its limitations. We rely on words, for everything really, but not least of all to announce our identity, to assert our humanity, to insist on our own existence as conscious beings. And most of the time, we achieve those ends. But we still have to face that no matter how eloquent we’ve learned to be, there’s still some level of ourselves we don’t have the power to express, and on that level, we are forever alone. Gosh, what a depressing song this turned out to be!