Chapter 1 - The Deep Freeze
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"I Sing the Body Acoustic"
There is, watching Suzanne Vega play her guitar, a sense that cradling the acoustic instrument is both reassuring and satisfying, that regardless of musical style or the conventions of folk music, the tactile sensation of wire on wood is satisfying to her.
From the start, playing the acoustic guitar, and certain aspects of her songwriting style, conveniently classified her as a folk singer. There was also her close association with the Fast Folk Musical Magazine. This association was of immense importance to her eventual success as a songwriter; it is doubtful she could have progressed as far as she eventually did without it. Yet the public concept of folk music, while it has not hurt Vega's career, has, arguably, profoundly affected how her music has been heard.
While the Suzanne Vega who sings "The Queen and the Soldier" conforms in large measure to the popular notion of folk music -- the flowing ballad style, the historical backdrops - one cannot help but think of the "folk singer" Bob Dylan, the writer of "With God on Our Side" and "Blowin' in the Wind," and his songwriting alter ego, the Bob Dylan who wrote "Ballad of a Thin Man." Similarly there is the Suzanne Vega who wrote "Gypsy," and the Suzanne Vega of "Fat Man and Dancing Girl."
In his exploration of the roots of American popular music, Greil Marcus wrote of Dylan and the popular concept of "folk music":
Here [Dylan] entered a kingdom where suffering and injustice, freedom and right, were the coin of the realm, and he spun injustice into right, straw into gold: this is where "With God on Our Side," "Blowin' in the Wind," "The Times They Are A-Changin'," and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" - the songs that took him past his contemporaries - came from.
These songs were embraced as great social dramas, but they were not really dramas at all. Whether one hears them ringing true or false, they were pageants of righteousness, and while within these pageants there were armies and generations, heroes and villains, nightmares and dreams, there were almost no individuals. There was no room for them in the kind of history these songs were prophesying - and none for the selfish, confused, desirous individual who might suspect that his or her own story could fit no particular cause or even purpose. These songs distilled the values of the folk revival better than any others, and what they said was that, in the face of the objective good that was the Grail of the folk revival, there could be no such thing as subjectivity. Could anyone imagine Pete Seeger demanding a world organized, even for a moment, according to his foibles or perverse desires? Could anyone even imagine him having foibles or perverse desires?
In the folk revival such a subjective demand on the world was all but indistinguishable from nihilism - the nihilism, in Manny Farber's words, "of doing go-for-broke art and not caring what comes of it" - and that was because of a fatal confusion in its fundamental notion of authenticity, at its heart the philosophy of the folk revival, its idea of the meaning of life.
Art was the speech of the folk revival - and yet, at bottom, the folk revival did not believe in art at all. Rather life - a certain kind of life - equaled art, which ultimately meant that life replaced it.
The kind of life that equaled art was life defined by suffering, deprivation, poverty, and social exclusion. In folklore this was nothing new "It was a pitiful confusion," folklorist Ellen J. Stekert wrote. "It was monstrous for urbanites to confuse poverty with art." When art is confused with art, it is not merely art that is lost. When art equals life there is no art, but when life equals art there are no people. 
One cannot consider Marcus' thesis without also considering the echoes in Vega's own growth as a writer. To a greater extent than even Dylan, Vega has consistently used her music to play out the inner worlds of her mind, to explore and give form to her subjective experiences in ways that might resonate with her audience. That she favored the acoustic guitar only meant that she would eventually have to lead her listeners beyond the limitations and preconceptions of "folk" singers.
First with her hybrid style -- her grafting of rock, rap, and folk -- then with her popular success (unheard of for a "folk" singer except for Dylan), and then with work like "99.9" she finally blew apart the boundaries. As she moved inexorably and decisively away from the clichés of the folk movement and of the acoustic guitar, she showed the way for a generation of writers how to speak through the acoustic guitar in a syntax that was entirely modern, owing little to the sentimentality of the folk revival, or of the 70's idea of the "singer-songwriter, as typified by performers like James Taylor.
She re-positioned the singer-songwriter away from the flaccid, "confessional" style and towards a more skillful, more eclectic realm, a realm where rap, jazz, ballad, and pop easily sat together, where the form and structure of words took center stage. Vega was, therefore, a stylistic revolutionary, although through subtle means. In her hands, the acoustic guitar was both soothing and avant garde, traditional and modernist.
Postscript: In 1999, they held a tribute to Johnny Cash at the Hammerstein
Ballroom in New York City. Among the many performers was Wyclef Jean. He sang
a song, "Delia", from Cash's recent album "The American Recordings."
The Carter Family's roots in traditional music goes way, way back, back almost
as far as "the old, weird America." Yet here was rapper Wyclef singing
this bleak song, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. There were no contradictions.
At that moment the esthetic Vega embodied had come full circle.
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