Tagged: Britney Spears

Suzanne Vega: two hits are better than none

Fame froze Tom’s Restaurant in time. Situated on 2880 Broadway, a block from the Cathedral of St John the Divine in Manhattan’s affluent, intellectual Upper West Side, its pink-on-blue neon signage formed many of the exterior scenes for Seinfeld, and it’s been coasting on its reputation as a pop-culture tourist attraction ever since. Framed photographs of the cast line the walls.

Peruse the menu and it’s casually noted, almost as a footnote, that the restaurant was also the setting for a song by “Susan” (Suzanne) Vega: the indelible, acapella Tom’s Diner. The misspelling is not lost on its author. “Whenever I go there I still have to pay for my whole breakfast, and they’re still kind of bad with the service,” she says, rather tartly. “So between you and me, I prefer the Metro Diner these days.”

Vega remains best known for two songs: Tom’s Diner and Luka, both top-10 US hits from her breakthrough 1987 album Solitude Standing. Some with longer memories may recall Left Of Centre, from the soundtrack of John Hughes’ Pretty In Pink, or Marlene On The Wall, from her self-titled debut. These numbers still turn up on hit compilations from the ’80s.

But for those who have kept up, they are merely the underpinning of a rich, remarkably consistent solo career by a songwriter’s songwriter. In the years following the punk explosion on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Vega was at the forefront of the Greenwich Village folk revival, but her drily delivered, acutely observed visions of New York are as gritty as her late friend Lou Reed’s.

She tours constantly, partially because the streaming age means she has to “for cash flow”, but also because she loves it: “I started performing when I was 16; it’s what I do.” She also continues to make records, the latest being Lover, Beloved: Songs From An Evening With Carson McCullers, the tragic American author whose Southern Gothic classic The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter captivated Vega as a teenager.

Some of the songs were written decades ago, before Vega had a record deal. In 1981, she adapted McCullers’ short stories into songs for a one-act play for her college thesis. Thirty years and many rewrites later, the expanded 90-minute production, Carson McCullers Talks About Love, had a six-week run in New York. In a page-boy wig and pinstripes, Vega bore a striking resemblance to her heroine.

But while the songs were uniformly well-received, Vega still wasn’t satisfied with the script, which hadn’t captured the context in which McCullers’ greatest work was produced: a Southern woman determined to mix it among New York’s literati. “It was a little too abstract,” she says. “I’ve always thought of Carson as a kind of timeless person, but the production was not rooted in anything.”

This time, she’s been more specific. An Evening With Carson McCullers is broken into two acts, the first set in 1941, the year after The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter was published when the author was just 23; the second in 1967, in the months before her death at the age of 50 after a brilliant but tumultuous life blighted by alcoholism, disability and suicide attempts. It was a character that Vega found rewarding to play.

“I loved how independent she was, especially as a young woman – her fearlessness in what she wrote about; her lack of inhibition,” she says. But McCullers had a pitch dark side, exacerbated by the bottle; one song, The Instant Of The Hour After, pictures a late-night drunken argument with her husband Reeves: “The pulse in your neck, how I’ll know it, right to the end / How I love you / How I loathe you.”

While the script tells McCullers’ story, the songs are among Vega’s best character sketches. One song, Harper Lee, records McCullers’ annoyance at being compared to the author of To Kill A Mockingbird, bragging “She only wrote the one book; I’ve written more than three”, elevating herself above a string of other more celebrated writers: “I have more to say than Hemingway / Lord knows compared to Faulkner, I say it in a better way.”

“She might not have found that very funny, but I would hope she would know I mean it affectionately,” Vega says. “She was a difficult person to be married to, a difficult person to be friends with, but ultimately I think there’s something very endearing about her, and childlike – naive, and yet wise. So I think she’s still a sympathetic character, in spite of her also being a pain in the ass.”

Vega’s empathy for others has distinguished her songwriting since her earliest years. Luka is told from the perspective of an abused child; the emotional tug of Tom’s Diner – following several verses of deceptively banal detail – hinges on the ringing of the bells of the nearby cathedral, as she remembers the voice of a lost friend, “And of the midnight picnic once upon a time, before the rain began…”

The song has since been covered and sampled dozens of times, most recently by Britney Spears and legendary disco producer Giorgio Moroder. “I’m just astonished at the variety that keep coming,” Vega says. “The Britney Spears version, I remember thinking wow, this really is something special, and then I learned that it was her idea, she was a fan of the song, so I was very tickled.”

The song has left another, more troubling legacy. In the late ’80s, engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg, who pioneered the development of the MP3, heard the original version and thought its minimalism might be a foolproof way to test the new technology. Vega remained unaware until many years later, when she was dropping her daughter Ruby off at nursery school.

“One of the parents, who I didn’t even know, turned to me and said ‘Congratulations on being the Mother of the MP3,’ and I said ‘Excuse me?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I just read about it in Business Week,’ she says. Vega later travelled to the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany, where Brandenburg played her the first, raw MP3 version: “It sounded like something from The Exorcist.”

Ironically, the song that continues to provide her with her most consistent stream of income is the one that upended the record industry. “I guess the ’80s were just not going to go on forever,” she says. “It was such a bloated time period, and so much money was wasted that I could see it coming, in some ways, as a kind of correction.”

Vega has adapted well to changing circumstances. With the publishing rights of her records owned by A&M, she started her own label, Amanuensis Productions, and re-recorded roughly three-quarters of her catalogue in a series of four albums she called Close-Up, divided by theme: Love Songs, People And Places, States Of Being, and Songs Of Family.

Apart from reclaiming ownership of her own material, the themed approach and intimate, not-quite unplugged productions served two purposes: it introduced her later work to those who lost touch with Vega after her hit-making period, and stripped the originals of some of the production tricks of the time in which they were made. Many of the new versions are superior to their predecessors.

She’s also engaged with her fan base on social media. “At the time I did [the Close-Up albums] I was trying to get 100,000 people on Facebook that I could stay in touch with. Not everybody on Facebook buys, though – if all of them bought a CD I’d be in great shape, but it doesn’t work that way. They’ll like a picture of my dog, but they won’t buy a complete CD.”

In 2010, in a thoughtful blog post for the New York Times, Vega wrote about being a “two-hit wonder”. She said that the demeaning description “makes me look as though somehow I managed to squeak out those two songs and then shuffle back to being a receptionist”. In fact, the songs have had exactly the opposite effect on her life: “they have been my passport out of life in an office”.

What’s to complain about? Being a two-hit wonder is better than one, or none. “I see people at the gigs and I say, OK, they know me for Tom’s Diner, or they know me for Luka, and that’s fine with me. However they come is fine.”

A shorter version of this piece was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 21 October 2016

Taylor Swift is single. Bring on the breakup songs

Taylor Swift is single again, and I for one am glad. Not for her heartbreak (as a fellow human, naturally, I’m sorry for her pain), and certainly not because she’s “back on the market” since, needless to say, I’m not in it. No, I’m glad selfishly, because if it produces a song half as good as I Knew You Were Trouble, the world will be a better place, for she will ease the pain of anyone who’s ever been through the same.

Which, let’s face it, is pretty much all of us. Romantic heartbreak is the lingua franca of the pop song. In the opening soliloquy of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, Rob (played in Stephen Frears’ film by John Cusack) poses a universal question, as the 13th Floor Elevators’ garage classic You’re Gonna Miss Me blasts through his headphones:

“What came first – the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence is going to take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”

And then Laura – who is about to shoot to number one with a bullet on Rob’s desert island, all-time top five most memorable breakups, in chronological order – walks into the room and pulls the plug, literally, on the music and, metaphorically, on their relationship.

The tabloids are already coming after Swift. Grazia listed 13 times ex-boyfriends have apparently inspired her music, saying she had “infamously” mined her personal life for lyrical inspiration. Like every other songwriter in history. Actually, maybe we should be glad for Swift’s critics, because she’s already kissed them off in fine style with Shake It Off. Can we have another one of those, too?

Did anyone complain when Otis Redding practically tore out his (and everyone else’s) heart singing I’ve Been Loving You Too Long? How about the Clash’s Mick Jones, who wrote Train In Vain after his breakup with the Slits’ Viv Albertine, while the band was recording London Calling? Do we even need to talk about Joy Division’s all but sanctified Love Will Tear Us Apart?

No one complained when Bob Dylan got an entire album out of the collapse of his marriage to his first wife, Sara Lownds. That album was Blood On The Tracks. It has been the measuring stick for every breakup album by a serious male singer-songwriter since, from Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call (which features at least two paeans to PJ Harvey) to Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker to Beck’s Sea Change.

Adams, of course, later covered Swift’s 1989 in its entirety. Stripping Swift’s songs back to basics, focusing attention on the brilliance of their construction, threw up an interesting set of questions around pop, authenticity and Swift’s superstar status – especially around what a female pop singer has to do in order to be taken seriously by a mostly male critical establishment.

Or, in this case, not do. For the more cloth-eared members of that establishment, unable to look past Swift’s glossy image or admit that rock music is often equally as factory-assembled, it took Adams’ emo take to legitimise Swift’s talent. (Adams, by the way, isn’t the first male artist to try his hand at this sort of thing: see Richard Thompson’s version of Britney Spears’s Oops! I Did It Again.

Can anyone recall an album by a female artist being compared to Blood On The Tracks? I can’t. Certainly not in pop music. Not even, in the rock arena, PJ Harvey, whose Is This Desire? was dedicated, in turn, back to Nick Cave. Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is frequently described, in a very feminised way, as a soap opera, due to the somewhat complicated nature of the relationships within the mixed-gender group.

Pop music is dominated by women, from Madonna to Rihanna to Sia to Beyoncé, and along with boy bands and almost anyone playing dance music, their music is routinely dismissed as lightweight. But if grown men can confess to being moved to tears when Springsteen and Dylan turn their attention to matters of the heart, then why not, say, Swift’s Wildest Dreams?

I hope Swift finds true love soon. Really, I do. But in the meantime, I hope she goes on too many dates and can’t make ’em stay. Let her go on making the bad guys good for a weekend a while longer. Actually, now I think of it, I hope she gets back together with Calvin Harris, just so she can break up with him again and write another version of We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.

Just like her male peers, like all of us, Swift gets down and out about the liars and dirty cheats of the world. The only difference is she’s doing it to a sick beat. As for the haters, well, we all know what they say about them.

First published in The Guardian, 8 June 2016