Saturday, August 14, 2010

August 14: Suzanne Vega, "Tom's Diner"

Artist: Suzanne Vega
Song: "Tom's Diner"
Album: Solitude Standing
Year: 1987


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Looking at the overall history of recorded music, there are two distinct categories: mainstream and underground.  While certain songs and artists have been able to transition from one to the other, there are only a few elite performers that have managed to secure a foothold in each simultaneously.  These few performers, or more accurately, the few songs that they have unknowingly placed into this dual state of existence, stand as pivotal and unforgettable moments in music history, and they are often the most puzzling pieces of music ever recorded.  On many levels, standing high atop this list of musical anomalies is singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega, and in retrospect, she was easily one of the most important performers of her entire generation.  Though she may not be seen in the same light as the more pop-styled singers of the 1980's, there are few that can challenge her status as the beginning of the large group of female singer-songwriters that emerged as the 1980's transitioned into the 1990's, and her musical approach remains stunningly unique.  Pulling as much influence from artists like Janis Ian as much as she did from the likes of Lou Reed, Vega brought a sound and presence unlike anything else in the 1980's, and there were few records of the decade that were as impressive as her 1987 masterpiece, Solitude Standing.  While it was not released as a single, and most are unfamiliar with the original version, one cannot ignore the fact that Suzanne Vega's single from that record, "Tom's Diner," remains one of the most treasured songs of the past thirty years.

While there are countless remixes of "Tom's Diner," there are three "main" versions that have been released.  The first two booked Solitude Standing, the latter being a quirky instrumental version of the song.  The original version of "Tom's Diner" opens the album, and it is without question the most sparse, yet completely captivating recording in music history.  Quite literally, there is nothing more to this version of "Tom's Diner" than the voice of Suzanne Vega.  There are no instruments, and she takes oddly timed pauses throughout which give the song an amazing sense of drama. The song sounds like little more than a recorded piece of beat-style poetry, yet there is something in the voice of Vega that made the song unforgettable.  This fact was proven when in 1990, a pair of British producers took the vocal track and added a dance beat underneath, creating one of the most successful singles of the year.  However, the pair kept their identities hidden, as they had created this unexpected hit without the permission from Vega to use the song, yet instead of suing the pair, Vega's record company bought the remixed version and released it as a "formal" single.  The song shot up into the top ten on both sides of the Atlantic, and it led to Vega releasing an entire album of different remixed titled Tom's Album.  While many of these remixes are quite brilliant in their own right, they all owe their entire success to the original, a capella recording on Suzanne Vega's Solitude Standing.

The fact that so many artists felt compelled to put their own spin on the simple vocal that Vega recorded serves as a testament to the inexplicable, yet hypnotizing performance she gave.  Truth be told, when Vega originally composed "Tom's Diner," it was to be performed by a singer with the accompaniment of a piano.  However, Vega could not play piano, so she decided to simply make the song a sung-spoken piece, void of any instrumentation or vocal effects.  In many ways, one can see this as a very punk-rock thing to do, as she has quite literally stripped the song of everything unnecessary to convey the theme of the song, and her unaccompanied vocal helps to create an unparalleled feeling of solitude and loneliness.  This is further aided by the songs' story-style lyrics, which seem at first to be little more than a simple telling of what is happening as Vega sits in Tom's Diner (in reality, Tom's Diner is located on the upper East side in New York City).  From the moment Vega brings the listener into her world, she is conveys this mood, highlighted by the strangely sad lines, "...and he fills it only halfway, and before I even argue, he is looking out the window at somebody coming in..."  She darkens the mood even more as the rain begins to fall in the song, closing with the bells from a Cathedral reminding her of a lost memory of love.  There is not a moment in the lyrics were Vega does not command the listeners' complete attention, and this is the strange magic that makes "Tom's Diner" unlike any other recording in history.

The original version of "Tom's Diner" took yet another odd turn during the early days of development of the computer compression format that would become known as "mp3."  Though it is not all that well known, the creator of the mp3 format, German engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg used "Tom's Diner" as the track to fine-tune the scheme.  As Brandenburg himself stated, "I knew it would be nearly impossible to compress this warm a capella voice..." and the constant use of her song in this process has earned Vega the underground nickname of "The Mother of the MP3."  The fact that so many different products have been yielded by what appears to be little more than a spoken piece of poetry proves over and over that, though largely unexplainable, there is something about Suzanne Vega's vocal performance on "Tom's Diner" that is unlike anything else ever recorded.  With her soft, yet captivating voice, she evokes the spirit of the sober songs of Leonard Cohen, and yet there is a very modern feel within her voice.  The fact that she was able to find success by "playing the game" exactly how she wanted to can be seen as a massive influence on the wave of female singer-songwriters that flourished throughout the 1990's, and it is a true tragedy of music history that she is rarely given this credit that she so richly deserves.  Without question one of the most important songs in history that has had much of its history overlooked, there are few recordings that are as simple, yet critical to the development of music as one finds in Suzanne Vega's iconic 1987 song, "Tom's Diner."

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