Chad Clark is a producer, singer, songwriter, and guitarist. He leads the semi-electronic band Beauty Pill, whose EP Instant Night is out now.
So here’s my thesis: Suzanne Vega is a great singer and you can learn a lot from listening to her closely. Actually that’s the true genius of her singing — you can’t help but listen closely.
Vega is a strong influence on my work. That surprises people when I say it. Beauty Pill emerged from the 2000s DC punk scene where a certain clangorous, confrontational, aggressive aesthetic predominated. But our vibe was always distinct from that. And as distant as Beauty Pill (my decidedly modern, semi-electronic post-punk band) may seem from Suzanne Vega’s singer/songwriter aesthetic, I feel she kind of “licensed” a key aspect of our work: understatement.
Let’s be real: The mainstream music world discourages subtlety.
Facile loudness, flash, and obviousness are rewarded; quietude and ambiguity are swept to the margins. So it’s radical for a singer to rise to popularity while trafficking exclusively in understatement. This is precisely what Suzanne Vega did. She’s rarely credited for this, but she’s a trailblazer. Or she is to me, anyway.
And there was an aspect of punk rebellion in her approach. You may think her singing style comes from the quaint coffeehouse folk world, but I posit that her singing actually runs counter to that tradition. Think about it: folk music has always celebrated cathartic populism or confession. It’s built right into the name! The commanding wail of Janis Joplin, the righteous, quivering truth-teller voices of Joan Baez and Pete Seeger… These people were famous for externalizing their feelings in a raw, brazen way. Very different from Suzanne Vega’s chiaroscuro songwriting and hushed inference.
You can maybe find a precedent in ‘60s Bossa Nova innovator Astrud Gilberto. And then there is a contemporary parallel in the equally brilliant Sade, whose rise to fame was simultaneous to Vega’s. But these artists are working in different genres and working towards different aims.
Worth noting: Suzanne Vega’s voice rarely (maybe never?) exhibits any vibrato at all. Think about how radically this differs from the mainstream melismatic flamboyance of Mariah Carey — the singing style you still find in modern TV singing competitions. Underlying that aesthetic is the belief that emotion is amplified by histrionics. That’s what mainstream people mean when they say someone is a “powerful singer.”
Suzanne found power in restraint.
I could cite “Luka” the famous chart-topping tearjerker you know, but instead I point you to “50/50 Chance,” a lesser-known, album track about visiting a loved one in a hospital ICU. Against an “Eleanor Rigby” string arrangement, Vega intones her anguish and anxiety plainly. She lets the song speak for itself. Anyone who has ever loved someone who’s been hospitalized can identify with this feeling. At the very end of the song, she drops the tragic line “The question is/Will she try it again?” The reveal: the patient attempted suicide! And the listener feels the heartbreak acutely because it’s delivered so dryly.
Not despite. Because.
I have a wide range of other influences. Rattling off a few that come to mind: De La Soul and Fugazi and Arto Lindsay and Kristin Hersh and MF DOOM and Peter Gabriel. These are all people who, y’know, get loud on occasion. I get loud often. But Suzanne Vega’s deliberate, nuanced brand of quiet was specifically empowering to me. I find her economy of gesture inspiring and instructive.
What are songs for? What is music’s function? The conveyance of an idea or a sensation or a feeling… ideally all three! Suzanne Vega demonstrated you can achieve deep impact with just insinuation. So dope to me. Respect.
I mean, to be honest with you, “Luka” is not my favorite song — sometimes I find it maudlin — but it was a massive hit. There’s no question it registered with millions of people around the world and particularly real victims and real witnesses of real child abuse. Luka is quite possibly an invented, fictional character, but people shed tears and embraced him as if he was someone they knew. Affecting people on that scale… that’s a very heavy artistic achievement. And she did it without ever raising her voice.