would I have shown my secret self
and disappeared like the snow
What's that they taught you?
To revere a kind of beauty?
To paint on that pretty veneer
and try to hide whatever's dirty?
Well, faces lie.
(Book & a Cover)
do you see
where I've been hiding
in this hide-and-seek?
* * *
For this listener, the core of Suzanne Vega's skill as
a writer, the
quality that makes her work grow, not diminish, after repeated listenings,
is how well she plays her cards to her chest. It is what is not revealed
that fascinates. Secrets are buried beneath the surface of songs, just as
they lie beneath the surface of things and people. Her songs do not indulge
in cosmic questions nor preach universal truths. Rather, they bear witness,
with eyes wide, to subtle details so small, that it is as if we might
understand the whole by examination of the minute. Frequently, the camera
of her songs is turned back on itself, to gaze at with perplexed and
fascinated eyes, that strange mix of memories and emotions inside each of
us that forms our secret self.
The secret self inhabits the music of Suzanne Vega. Sometimes,
it is the
shadow of a darker, secret story--vignettes about healing physical or
psychological trauma. "Luka" is the most famous of these songs, a song
about the child who hides and lies. Self actualization is not at stake for
him. It's something more fundamental: is my self worth anything at all?
Sometimes our secret self is all we can call our own and for this reason it
must be protected, for to reveal it is to risk its disappearing, like the
snow. So we quickly learn to hide. We learn to lie, to protect the secret
self. Sometimes it's healthy fantasy. But often, it's survival, escaping
the fist or leather belt. You get hit, but you've already escaped.
The self also lies at the heart of songs like "Bad Wisdom," "Men In a War,"
"Fifty-Fifty Chance" and others. In "Men In a War," psychological trauma is
manifest in the body; and violence to the body threatens our sense of self
and our capacity to feel. We withdraw to survive. Sometimes, we withdraw so
far we can't feel anymore. We wear our skin like armour. Like a psychic
soldier or something small, smooth, round and mute, knees against the
mouth, perfectly round.
And she lay on her back
She made sure she was hid
She was mute and staring
Not feeling the thing
That she did
(Men In a War)
Our bodies and skin leave traces of violence: "Observe
the blood, the rose
tattoo/of the fingerprints on me from you." Traces of bodily violence are
everywhere, just under the surface, the "pan on the floor filled with
something black" or "Looking for a token of blood or tenderness." The
sensuousness of the body, skin, secrets, fills many songs, as if crawling
inside the skin might be the only way to get close to the true self. "I
would leave only bones and teeth/We could see what was underneath."
"Breasts and thighs and hearts." "It's between the binding of her stockings
and her skin." "How I wanted to break in/to that room beneath your skin/but
all that would have to wait."
They'll tell you one thing and then another.
But see what lies
under the skin.
(Book & a Cover)
The secret self is often the unknown self. We rarely
know each other;
often, we lose ourselves. We lose the thread that connects mask to mask to
self. We try to find it, or re-connect to it. In "Pilgrimage" we try to
find and connect to the source, to ourselves. "Big Space" is full of cold
alienation, the "avenues of angles" of our selves like some brutal, fascist
architecture (to borrow Bruce Cockburn's wonderful phrase) where "All
feeling/Falls into the big space." The song is cold, precise, lonely; itasks:
Close to the middle of the network
It seems we're looking for a center
What if turns out to be hollow?
We could be fixing what is broken
The secret self is also fantasy, the life of the imagination,
roles, escaping ("We play that we're actors/on a movie screen"). Yet so
often in this music, the imagination seems to stem from hurt. It might be
pain of not belonging, of imagining what it might feel like to to be one of
"those whole girls." Into what places did Casper Hauser's imagination take
him to escape, to keep his sanity? Perhaps into his wooden horse? It is a
story is like some inverted, terrible version of childhood. The games we
play as children. Our imaginary life and imaginary friends, the doll with
the "secretive stare," as mute and inert as Casper.
This particular reading of some of Suzanne Vega's songs
paints a picture of
lonely, isolated alienation. There are no violins or tears or melodrama.
More the stark, perverted reality of something by Kafka. We exist in this
world but we can barely connect to it, to each other, or to ourselves. It
would be a brutal, sad perspective were it not for the music itself.
Wrapped around and through these words is music that contradicts the
alienation, isolation, and violence of the words: nothing could be so bad,
if music this beautiful exists.