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or that kind of thing.‘
That defensiveness, frequently taken for vulnerability, is a mood sustained through her million-selling debut album Suzanne Vega, and its even more successful follow-up, Solitude Standing. While still introspective, the songs on her new album, Days of Open Hand, show her breaking through a shell and deliberately moving towards a more ‘interactive’ music. ‘Book of Dreams’, the current single, is, she says, ‘straightforwardly optimistic, without any dark side to it all’, and the image represented in the album‘s title is the opposite of a clenched fist.
The symbol seems to be more personal than one of international signiﬁcance, but it leads one to wonder if the world events of the past year have percolated their way into her songs. Since she lets a thought or phrase gestate for a year or more before sitting down and writing a complete song around it in an hour or less, this turns out to be unlikely. She also has to tussle with the challenge of writing about weighty subjects ‘in a way that’s not simplistic or stupid’.
‘I don’t like it when people make complicated issues very simple and say you must believe this and we must all stand together on this one issue, because usually there‘s more than one side. Although it’s hard to watch the events of the last year and not be moved by the spectacle. The thing I suppose I‘m most likely to want to write about is the Ceausescu execution, which to me seemed so dramatic and you ﬁgure, you know, all the hatred that must have been built up behind that gesture.’
‘I have done benefits,‘ she says, as we get on to the subject of active — not necessarily the same as interactive — pop stars. ‘For Greenpeace and some child abuse agencies in New York. I try to do things that are local, because then you can really see the effect. Ifit‘s something bigger, you wonder where all the money went. So, for example, if people write to me to ask me to do a benefit for a child abuse agency I’ll consider: do these people know what they‘re talking about? Are they just trying to use a name to get some money? Do they have an actual shelter where women and children can go if they’re being abused? Things like that.‘
In 1987, after her debut album took her from the close-knit New York folk scene on to a wider stage, the former dance student at New York High School of Performing Arts scored a hit with ‘Luka‘, a song she wrote about a battered child. ‘I hadn’t written the song to be a hit,’ she protests. ‘I’d written it out of a genuine expression years before it came out on a record, so the idea that it was being sold as a song about child abuse made me feel slightly weird.’
She is acquainted with the new associations that a song takes on board when it is adopted as the rallying cry for a cause. Since The Cars‘ ‘Drive’ was burned into the collective memory as the soundtrack to shots of dying Ethiopians during Live Aid, it can never be heard in its original context. Vega faced the problem when certain child abuse agencies asked her for permission to use ‘Luka’ in their public service broadcasting ads. She had mixed
‘At the time it bothered me. because I didn‘t want to be linked forever with this one cause, even though I feel very strongly about it. I basically feel that I want to be an artist . . . and on the other hand you feel, “Well, it is doing some good“, you’re not trying to sell sneakers, you are affecting people‘s lives in a very basic way. So perhaps it‘s not the same thing. But I’m not given to that kind of thing. I'm not pushing my beliefs politically, religiously or in terms of causes. To me it‘s just no good to take some words out of a newspaper, and slap them in a song, and feel like you‘ve done a good job. Ifyou’re going to write about a topic you‘re going to have to do it in a way that hasn‘t been done before and you’re going to have to make it immediate, so that you‘re not writing in dead language.’
She allowed the song to be used. But not until after the single had run its course in the charts — ‘because it seemed wrong to me to exploit that issue when I was also trying to promote my record.‘
Compare her handling of ‘Luka‘ to the marketing that hoisted Phil Collins‘ ‘Another Day in Paradise‘ to the Number One position — an emotive video of a concerned Collins intercut with shots of London‘s homeless- and you can find yourself gently persuaded by the way she negotiates the moral minefield of message songs.
Suzanne Vega plays at the Playhouse Theatre, Edinburgh on Sat5. Her new album, Days ofOpen Hand, is on A &M Records.
‘I’m not pushing my beliefs politically, religiously or in terms of causes. To me, it’s no good to take some words out of a newspaper and slap them in a song, and feel like you’ve done a good iob.’
The List 4— 17 May 19905