Master of Becoming the Other!
Suzanne Vega’s “Small Blue Thing” is one of my favorite songs. I first heard it in 1985 playing through the mid-quality speakers of a boom box in a small record store. It was her debut album.
I stayed until the last song, bought the cassette tape, and didn’t remove it from my car stereo for at least 6 months (yes I made cassette copies for in-home use and friends – but we were allowed to do it back then – different times).
While the entire album should be something studied for its exceptional use of metaphor, imagery, and poetics, “Small Blue Thing” is one of the greatest examples of how to eloquently “become the other.”
What Is “Becoming The Other”?
In short, it’s seeing something from a perspective other than yourself – so completely – you gain a perspective and insight you likely wouldn’t have gained without the transformation. While a poem has open lineage to reach this goal, a four minute song is a monumental challenge.
It all has to start with a great beginning.
Suzanne Vega “Small Blue Thing”
Let’s take a look at the lyric and see how the song starts, and more importantly, if the simile breaks down during the song.
“Today I am a small blue thing, like a marble or an eye.“
The imagery of a “small blue thing” being “like” something else indicates the use of a simile, and in using the simile gives us a sense of how the speaker feels about themself . . . small, lost, or maybe unsure indicated by using the “or” when creating the simile.
“With my knees against my mouth I am perfectly round, I am watching you.” Still ties to the simile originally described and now I’m thinking it might be a small child seated on the floor with their knees pulled to their chin, into a ball. The imagery is helping set the scene.
The chorus is key, because she maintains the imagery created with the simile. This is extremely difficult to do. By attempting to tie a real character (girl/speaker) to an inanimate object (marble) you risk the song becoming comic because the simile is being stretched beyond realism.
For example, “I’m like a bird, I’ll only fly away. I don’t know where my soul is, I don’t know where my home is.” Birds probably don’t have a soul, and if they did, they’d probably have an idea of where it was, and birds do tend to know where their home is – sorry – it’s my favorite example of a bad simile.
Suzanne Vega however, never allows this sort of “Really?” moment to happen – making her one of the greatest songwriters on the planet (Janet).
How It’s Done
 I am cold against your skin. You are perfectly reflected.
 I am lost inside your pocket. I am lost against your fingers.
 I am falling down the stairs. I am skipping on the sidewalk
 I am thrown against the sky – I am raining down in pieces
 I am scattering like light, scattering like light, scattering like light
Line : Marble is certainly cold and reflective. A child can be cold at times, and usually reflects the attributes of a parent – eyes, mouth, personality [works]
Line : Marble fits in a pocket and would be a common item among many. A child may have a feeling of being lost – pocket metaphor for placement among other common things, and lost against your fingers a metaphor for the lack of an emotional connection for a marble and child [works]
Line : Sense of tumbling, running and skipping – motion a marble would make and a child as well [works]
Line : Marble(s) thrown in the air would rain down in what appears to be pieces. A child tossed into the air is the literal image, however, I think it’s referring to the emotional state of the child – it’s not “into the sky” it’s against, implying something being caste into something that has a destructive nature – uncertainty perhaps, and the fear that follows. [works]
Line : Another simile! Scattering like light- I took as the breaking free moment. I also love how she repeats it three times, emulating the scattering with the vocal – nice.
Masterful use of language, imagery and specifically similes are the key to creating a believable song. If you don’t believe the comparison being made in any line of the chorus – as a listener – you’re out. And, even in line 5 when another simile shows up, you trust it rings true, because of the credibility built up earlier in the lyric.
One other device used in the song that goes almost unnoticed – the timeframe. The song takes place in a specific time (“Today”) and scene (the speaker caught in a single snapshot moment of the day).
Amazingly, it never strays from those constraints – equally amazing – it never has to.