Smile Politely

Suzanne Vega: Pop music’s missing link

A recent episode of hipster wet dream/sketch comedy children’s adventure series Portlandia cracked a ho-hum zinger at songwriter Suzanne Vega’s expense. When Vega’s contemporary Aimee Mann shows up as a cleaning lady, victim of the music industry’s implosion and not really Christlike resurrection, her employers try to curry favor with a derisive, “Hey, Aimee Mann! You know who we hate? Suzanne Vega!”

This silliness only underscores that we’re still trying to figure out what the hell the nineties actually were.

Much like we’re still trying to figure out where to place Suzanne Vega herself. She traveled through decades to become a toss-away punch line, and I bet flannel was popular in the Pacific Northwest that whole time.

Even zeroing in on her most famous hit single “Tom’s Diner,” it becomes elusive as ever to pin-point what moment, what happened to produce such relevance and staying power. The single was written roughly ten years before it caramelized eardrums with its incessant catchiness and imagistic reserve. Vega wrote it in 1981, released it, a cappella, on her 1987 sophomore album Solitude Standing, only to garner worldwide attention a few years later when it was remixed as a dance single by British electronica duo DNA in 1990. And twenty-one years later, you still catch yourself humming it in rain, on the way to work, or when an old episode of Seinfeld hops across your peripheral vision and into focus through some sort of neural syndication.

Vega probably wrote “Tom’s Diner” at the end of her studies in Barnard College’s English Department, playing folk clubs in the Village. It’s hard to imagine now, but picture yourself in her pixie cut at that age and time. There’s something, probably, like the feeling you get when you made it to a party an hour after the wave crested, you said the most beautiful thing that anybody had all night, but all of the friends you knew who invited you had left. The next day, fifty people will remember what you did, but none of them will be your people. Context is everything.

Suzanne Vega seems one of pop music’s evolutionary missing links, peeking through the surface time and again to remind you that through the boom and bust of “movements” the grace is in earnest, sensitive portraits of songwriting. Which Vega has, basically, been doing for thirty years whether or not anyone was paying attention*. Most recently, she provided a beautiful contribution to musical hoodlum extraordinaire Danger Mouse’s release Dark Night of the Soul.

Tomorrow night, Suzanne Vega is stopping by Krannert for a night that promises to be soulful, stirring, and gorgeous. Beauty won’t rest, no it won’t.

*Outside the UK.

Suzanne Vega performs tomorrow night (April 1st) at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets range from $10 to $45 and are still available as of this posting.

Image via Wikipedia (CC Sharealike 3.0)

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