In the ivory towers that house record industry marketing executives, a fair amount of head-scratching and puzzled speculation is going on over a phenomenon whose early tremors went distressingly undetected by the calculators and sales charts and demographic sheets. A one-woman phenomenon.
Suzanne Vega is the unlikeliest of 1987's new stars, a 27-year-old New Yorker who is more likely to be described as "waifish" and "a folk singer" (somewhat misleadingly on both counts) than as a rock bombshell or post-disco diva. Her lyrics reach for poetry, not pornography; the songs were written on acoustic guitar, not built around a computerized drum track; and she hardly ever even writes songs about love, much less sex.
Yet Vega's gone gold. Her second album, "Solitude Standing," has come out of (almost) nowhere to sell over 500,000 copies in America in less than three months of release. But who's buying?
The prevailing notion is that she's that rare item: a true yuppie-made star, appealing almost exclusively to the lost musical audience of urban adults, a la the surprise post-30 buying frenzy that greeted Paul Simon's "Graceland." But she says she sees a more diverse throng of fans beyond the footlights or backstage at her shows:
" . . . Teen-age boys who look very sincere and earnest with their notebooks and their Camus and their Sartre. . . . And then you have the people in their 30s and 40s who felt comfortable with a softer kind of music, or who liked Joni Mitchell and James Taylor. . . . Then you have Joe Skinheads in black leather jackets who think the lyrics are really cool. . . . It seems like anybody who feels isolated. They come to my concerts and they can be isolated together."
Perhaps the common thread is the cross-demographic contingent out there that feels alone again, naturally, in the crowd.
"Solitude Standing" is, as its title suggests, an album about silently watching, learning, reevaluating and adjusting--all by one's self. But it's not (speaking of Paul Simon) "I Am a Rock." The characters on the album aren't aching, lonely souls in anguished angst; if anything, they like being by themselves, thank you.
"Working on this album, I was thinking on solitude more as a position of strength than of weakness," said Vega, whose low, quiet speaking voice belies an articulate, quick-witted, even cocky attitude that is anything but waifish.
"Therefore these characters would feel that their solitude is a benefit, as opposed to a condition they have to get rid of, something that has to be amended. It's not like they're going to any singles bars and trying desperately to pick up women so that they're not going to be alone.
"There's something very appealing to me about solitude. And I think I've gotten less lonely as I've gotten older, too. When I was a kid I remember feeling very lonely a lot of times. But lately I find that I'm not alone very often, so when I am, I really enjoy it."
The Vega stamp: soft but sharp. She doesn't agree with those who hear her music as coolly detached or dispassionate, and "mellow" isn't exactly in her ballpark either. "I never wanted it to be pastoral or easy-listening music at all," she explained during a recent visit to Los Angeles, where she'll return for shows Saturday and next Sunday at the Wiltern Theatre (she's also at San Diego's North Park Theatre on Friday). "I never wanted it to fade quietly into the background. I always heard it having an edge."
Still, until recently most of Vega's material originated with her career as a genuine minor-league folkie playing solo sets in Greenwich Village coffeehouses, where the edgiest notes tended to be the occasional discord on acoustic guitar.
Rock 'n' roll was all but an unknown quantity to an admittedly insecure young woman--born in Santa Monica, raised in New York, educated at the High School of Performing Arts and Barnard College--who was more interested in exploring dance at school and acoustic music at home than venturing out to the dark byways of the club scene. "I missed the whole punk movement in New York because I baby-sat on Saturday nights," she noted.
Her pre-rock world view was a far more romanticized one--which is one reason why she dated the songs on her new album's lyric sheet, to show the progression from the more sentimental compositions of the baby-sitting days to the objective observations and stark realism of her writing today.
"I think that 'Gypsy' and 'Calypso' are slightly different stylistically than the rest of the album," she said of two songs written in 1978, when Vega was all of 18. "For me it was a marked difference between, say, before 1979 and after 1979. I guess 1979 is when I went to my first rock 'n' roll concert. I went to see Lou Reed, and after that I started listening to rock 'n' roll, which I had never done. Suddenly I realized I didn't want to write about certain things anymore."