Saturday, June 5, 2010

"Tom's Diner" by Suzanne Vega (1987)



Is it really possible for an artist to release one of the worst songs in the world and one of the best songs in the world on the same album – in fact, back-to-back as the first two tracks? Well, if you're a New York folkie, undeniably talented yet sadly precious, clever yet too-clever-by-half, sensitive and senseless, it's possible. In short, if you're Suzanne Vega, it's possible.

A few years after the original, this song was transformed into a thing of beauty by a pair of British DJs, who put the vocals over the infamous Soul II Soul beat, with atmospheric synth noises and what sounds like a guitar, taking her adlib at the end and making it into a chorus. In short, this masterful reinvention stripped the song of everything – well, almost everything – that was annoying, and gave it what it so direly needed: songcraft.

The original is as pretentious as it is ridiculous. Completely a capella, solo without even an echo for accompaniment, with awkward silences between verses, it's a nursery-rhyme melody over which Suzanne Vega does nothing more than describe buying a coffe in a café. There's no poetry, no symbolism, no hidden meanings. Songs don't have to rhyme, but in the absense of anything else that would indicate it took her longer than two minutes and nine seconds to compose the song, a rhyme or two would be nice. It really does give the impression of someone pressing record onto a cassette player and singing whatever thoughts come into their heads.

Yet most people, upon doing that, wouldn't release it on A&M as the opening track of an album, put it out as a single (!) and make a video for it (just as low-tech and tossed-off). “Must try harder”, read countless high school report cards. I concur. If this is all you need to do to get released on a major record label...

I mean, obviously this isn't the song that got her signed (it's her second album). And she's quite capable of genius, nowhere more evident than on Solitude Standing itself, after this atrocity fades out and the next song begins. But 'quirkiness' is all well and good, but having no idea which of the material that you produce is worthy and which is just pretentious silliness is a big problem. One that all the coffee and newspapers in the world can't solve.


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1 comment:

  1. Well, obviously you missed the point of the song entirely. This song is about what the narrator (actually intended to be a man) observes happening in the coffee shop while enjoying a morning coffee. It's a little slice of urban life, seen through the lens of a trained observer (in this case a photographer friend was the assumed observer, who had once said that he felt as if were observing the world through a plate of glass).

    The pacing of the song with Suzanne's lovely voice gives it the rhythm you didn't seem to find, and the a capella delivery replicates the sense of the observations unfolding in the mind of the narrator.

    It is, in fact a great song, with or without "the beat", and as the lead song on the album served to get the attention of the listener and prepare him or her for the other great songs to follow.

    Listen some more, and open your imagination to the unfolding scene.

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