Immensely talented, cerebral, beautiful, and tragically under-appreciated, with the sort of unwavering voice that conveys formidable intelligence independent of her always sensitive lyrics, Suzanne Vega has had me under her spell since the mid-1980s. Like Aimee Mann, she’s apt to be characterized as “feminist”, since she sometimes writes about her own experiences and the truths she perceives as a woman, as if that’s deserving of a special label, as if the slanted perspective of gender is ever absent from the work of male songwriters. She had a couple of top 40 hits back in the eighties, most notably Luka, the story of an abused child who lives upstairs, insisting that his various marks and bruises come from being clumsy and walking into doors. It’s a spirited and melodic piece (which perhaps makes its mainstream success all the more mysterious), and a good representation of the style and substance Suzanne always brings to her compositions, but she’s done so much more in her long career. Throughout, she’s displayed a distinctive gift for melody, harmony and arrangement, matched to nuanced lyrics that always seem to make something real about one’s own life stand out in stark relief.
Before Jewel, before Alanis Morissette, Sheyl Crow, Liz Phair and so many others, Suzanne was setting the standard. She has, to my mind, established herself as a worthy successor to Joni Mitchell, and a peer to the likes of Jackson Browne and Randy Newman. Few can write with the understated grace and emotional heft that characterizes Vega’s best work, of which Edith Wharton’s Figurines is perhaps my favourite.
Novelist Edith Wharton wrote in the late 19th and early 20th centuries about high society in the Gilded Age, and the travails of those seeking to secure their place within the tight little circle of New York’s upper classes, with all their snobbery, taboos, and mock-sacred conventions. Her characters need their wiles and wits about them as they struggle against the current, while failing, usually, to break out of the corrupt and hypocritical little bubbles within which their fates were probably sealed since birth. She’s known today for the novels Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence – the latter earned her the first Pulitzer ever awarded to a woman – and, most relevant here, The House of Mirth, in which the heroine, Lily Bart, feels her beauty fading and her prospects for a good marriage drifting out of reach, as she approaches the wholly undesirable age of 30. Lily has a best before date, her standing among the elites being set to expire as soon as she’s no longer the sort of pretty young thing that the right kind of wealthy gentleman invariably prefers. For Lily, this is a matter of survival.
In Vega’s poignant portrayal of the anxieties that afflict all women as they struggle to live up to the feminine ideal, Edith Wharton’s “figurines”, the barely fictional characters like Lily Bart, are with us still, little having changed despite the passing of a century:
Edith Wharton’s lovely figurines
Still speak to me today
From their mantelpiece in time
Where they wrestle and they play
With passions and with prudences
Finances and fears
Her face and what it’s worth to her
In the passing of the years
Wharton’s observations provide the context, but the song isn’t about her. It’s about Olivia Goldsmith, the author of (among many other books) The First Wives Club, a satire about women thrown over by their husbands in favour of more youthful arm candy, a rather Wharton-esque theme that lent itself to a highly successful movie in 1996. Goldsmith had herself been divorced by a husband looking to trade up – it was messy – and it was in the wake of that nastiness that she began writing books about men’s mistreatment of the women they once purported to love. I see here, as I dig around on the internet, that a somewhat desperate resort to cosmetic surgery often figured into the stories.
Olivia thus had insight, but she wasn’t immune. Not long after her 50th birthday, in 2004, she decided to have plastic surgery, a simple “chin tuck” to improve her looks.
Now Olivia lies under anesthesia
Her wit and wonder snuffed
In a routine operation
Her own beauty not enough
Her passions and her prudences
Finances and fears
Her face – what it’s worth to her
In the passing of the years
The tragedy of Olivia’s story, something too ironic and melodramatic to ever find its way into her own fiction, is that the simple cosmetic procedure killed her. She fell victim to the irreducible minimum risk inherent in general anesthesia, lapsing into coma and dying of cardiac arrest within minutes of going under.
Her own beauty not enough. Heartbreaking. Look, I’m just a guy, which presumably disqualifies me from even having a view on this – a woman might tell me that this is a song about a reality I’ll never experience, and can never understand. Yet the point of this series has been that a powerful song can make you understand – if not fully, then enough. I’ve never parachuted out of a C-47 on top of a forest fire, either, and I’ve never been the survivor of a nautical disaster or a young girl terrified of becoming pregnant, but the songs have given me a feel for all of those predicaments. Besides, you don’t have to be female to understand this fundamental truth:
In the struggle for survival
Love is never blind.
You just have to listen. See, she doesn’t just tell you. She makes you feel it.
The final verse is a thing of remarkable beauty, the counterpoint of the cello communicating a world of grief and regret. There are just a few minor variations in the words at this point, which seem to expand the message to embrace all of us, gender aside. All of us struggling, one way or another, to meet the standards others have imposed; all of us out there trudging through our routines, careful to conform in our eagerness for approval; all of us numb and hiding deep inside ourselves, lest we be found out for the frauds we are; all of us fearing that everything we have to offer is yet insufficient. As the song closes, Suzanne makes the message universal:
We lie under anesthesia
Our wit and wonder snuffed
In our routine operations
Our own beauty not enough
Not enough. Everything we hold inside, every little insight we’ve gleaned over the decades, everything we love, despise, fear, or dream about, all the things we like to believe make us special, it all sits there on the auction block waiting vainly in the silence for somebody to bid so much as the minimum asking price. Olivia has been quoted as advising that “the secret to true happiness is low expectations and insensitivity”. Have a care for the hopeful, sensitive souls who can never make that work.