The Week In Pop: From The Earliest MP3 To The Latest Britney Spears, A Pop History Of Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner”
“Tom’s Diner” is one of those songs you know even if you don’t realize it. Suzanne Vega’s signature song — written about the same NYC diner they used for exterior shots in Seinfeld — has been remixed, covered, and sampled so many times by so many musicians that its melody is basically imprinted on our collective psyche. Given that seminal pop figures Giorgio Moroder and Britney Spears just teamed for a much-heralded “Tom’s Diner” cover, the time seems right to run back the song’s storied history.
Vega conceived “Tom’s Diner” in 1981 and birthed it as an enchanting a cappella trifle in 1982. Here’s the original, followed by Vega’s recollection of writing the song from a 2008 New York Times essay:
I got the idea for “Tom’s Diner” in 1981, but I wrote it in the spring of 1982, making the song 26 years old now. When I was at Barnard College in Manhattan, I used to go to Tom’s Restaurant for coffee, and after I graduated I also ate there before going to work. It was then a cheap, greasy place on 112th and Broadway, and it still is, in spite of its celebrity. (Sorry, but I have never been to the one in Brooklyn, though I hear it’s really cute. The real one isn’t cute, and isn’t atmospheric. It’s just plain, which is why I liked it.) And yes, it is the same one they use in the Seinfeld credits — the neon sign that says “RESTAURANT.” I actually once saw Jerry Seinfeld right near there!
I have a photographer friend, Brian Rose, who has taken pictures of the Lower East Side of Manhattan and the Berlin Wall. He told me once long ago that he felt as though he saw the world through a pane of glass. This struck me as romantic and alienated, and I wanted to write a song from this viewpoint.
I had been taking classes at Barnard with titles like “The Dramatic Monologue.” I was in Tom’s and I thought it would be fun to write a song that was like a little film, where the main character sees all these things but can’t respond to any of it unless it relates to him directly. The part about the actor dying was true — it was William Holden. Some fans recently looked up the day he died and named the next day Tom’s Diner Day. (In addition, see here.) I made up the part about the woman who was fixing her stockings.
The track was originally released as part of the January 1984 issue of Fast Folk Musical Magazine. Vega released a somewhat corny, dated instrumental version, “Tom’s Diner (Reprise),” on her 1987 album Solitude Standing. Then, in 1990, British dance duo DNA (Nick Batt and Neal Slateford) decided to remix the original a cappella into a very 1990-sounding hypnotic, slow-mo rave cut. Another rave-oriented act, Shut Up And Dance, had already sampled “Tom’s Diner” on 1989’s “£10 (To Get In) The Rave,” but it remained in underground obscurity, whereas DNA’s version instantly took off. Six years after its release, “Tom’s Diner” became an international sensation. Here’s that version, along with the backstory via Vega’s NYT piece:
We were backstage at the Arsenio Hall show when my manager told me that some boys calling themselves DNA, in England — Bath, to be specific — had taken “Tom’s Diner” and put a dance track to it. They had “re-mixed” it. (I don’t remember what we called that type of music back then — house? rap? hip-hop? It wasn’t “disco” or “thrash-metal.”) My manager, Ron Fierstein, told me that A&M and Polygram were considering taking legal action against them for copyright violation.
I thought, well, let me listen to it — and immediately liked it. It made me laugh. It wasn’t a parody, which is what I was afraid of. The song is the same, my voice is still my voice, the story still the story, even though they left out the very end (they told me later they thought it sounded weird, musically, to keep the ending).
After “Luka” there had been an onslaught of parodies that I hated, but there was one cover I really liked — the Lemonheads version, which we called “thrash” for some reason; now it would be considered “alternative.” I thought it was really cool and felt it expanded our audience. I put this version of “Tom’s Diner” in that category of cover song.
Apparently DNA had made vinyl copies of their creation in plain white covers labeled “Oh Susanne!” Their story was: they had tried to ask permission from the record company but no one returned their phone call — which I believe. They didn’t want to wait. They decided to sell them at their local corner record shop. It sold a lot right away. That’s when the record company found out about it.
It was so obvious that these boys were not slick hi-fi wizards, as the sound was boomy and the arrangement repetitive, but the raw energy of the idea jumped out right away. These were not boys with means and money, and I liked it that I had kindled their imagination.
LOL, “thrash.” Since then, it’s been everywhere. Countless artists have covered “Tom’s Diner,” several of them appearing on Vega’s 1991 comp Tom’s Album. It’s been sampled at least 60 times. Computer programmer Karlheinz Brandenburg even made Vega’s a cappella original “The Mother Of The MP3,” as he explained in this video documentary. Business 2.0 (via Wiki) quotes Brandenburg:
I was ready to fine-tune my compression algorithm…somewhere down the corridor, a radio was playing “Tom’s Diner.” I was electrified. I knew it would be nearly impossible to compress this warm a cappella voice.
Although “Tom’s Diner” was pivotal in the development of the MP3, it’s just as deeply linked with another kind of music technology: sampling. In the wake of DNA, other early ’90s dance acts immediately took to “Tom’s Diner,” most notably C+C Music Factory:
C+C’s “A Groove Of Love” featured rapping, but the first proper hip-hop “Tom’s Diner” sample followed in 1991 in the form of KDJC & MPD’s “New & Improved.”
Back when Fatboy Slim’s Norman Cook was going by Beats International, he sampled it too:
“Tom’s Diner” continued to be a popular sample for a couple years, with Triplex, Twin Hype, Tom Tom, and Ratpack incorporating the track into songs of their own. After 1992, it disappeared for about four years until 1996, when it basically came back for good. Timbaland used it in his remix of Aaliyah’s “Hot Like Fire,” for instance:
Tellurian put it into an insanely spazzy DnB song, while both Meen Green and Somethin’ For The People repurposed the melody for lyrics of their own. R&B trio 702 built a whole song around the hook, a trick Destiny’s Child copied with “Know That”:
2Pac also recorded the tepid “Dopefiend’s Diner” before his death, and I can see why it took the archive excavators more than a decade to let this one see the light:
Hip-hop, soul, hardcore dance, and UK garage tracks sampled it. Rapper Young Prodeje built yet another chorus around the “Tom’s Diner” melody. Ghost turned the song into a dark reggae/electronic hybrid. And Eazy E feasted on “Tom’s Diner” for a late-period solo track:
Murs & Slug actually named their “Tom’s Diner”-interpolating Felt song “Suzanne Vega”:
The Ace Of Clubs made it a funky party song, Nashawn made it grizzled jailhouse rap, and Timbaland turned to “Tom’s Diner” once again for his Bubba Sparxxx/Birdman/Lil Wayne collab “Tell Me ‘Bout The South”:
An early Nicki Minaj verse pops up on Park Slope’s 2004 single “La Dee Da Dee,” yet another “Tom’s Diner” rap rip:
Who else? Rapper Bad Azz, dancehall/rave DJ MSD, post-peak En Vogue, and peak Tony Yayo. Dancehall rap hit-makers Gorilla Zoe and Sean Kingston, dreamy backpack rapper Danny!, West Coast knuckleheads B-Real and Evilside, Southern trap star Yo Gotti, Texas stomper Spice 1, and jazzy boom-bap experimentalist Nega, too.
Not one but two 2009 Drake songs feature Boi-1da’s “Tom’s Diner” interpolation:
The list goes on! Damu The Fudgemunk (yes, that’s somebody’s real stage name), Alpersman, Logic, J*DaVeY, Honey Cocaine, King Los, Antwon. Even Evian Christ sampled the damn thing!
After even more “Tom’s Diner” remakes/samples/interpolations from Gemitaiz, Redondo Beach, Movits!, YC The Cynic, Verse Simmonds, Guvna B, Papoose, Sangue Mostro, and Dinos Punchlinovic, we finally got a proper arena-rock “Tom’s Diner” offshoot in the form of Fall Out Boy’s inescapable “Centuries”:
And now, at this late date, we get this from Giorgio Moroder and Britney Spears…
…so don’t expect “Tom’s Diner” to go away soon, or ever.
Alabama Shakes score their first #1 album this week as sophomore set Sound & Color logs 96,000 equivalent units (91,000 in pure sales) in its first week. Billboard notes that it’s the second #1 for ATO Records, which also went to #1 when ATO subsidiary TBD handled the physical release of Radiohead’s In Rainbows. Notably, last week’s #1, Shawn Mendes’ Handwritten, falls all the way to #17 with 20,000 this week. The Furious 7 soundtrack holds strong at #2 with 62,000. That’s followed by the week’s only other top-10 debut, Yelawolf’s Love Story, which enters at #3 with 58,000.
The physical release of Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late helps that project jump back to #4 with 48,000. Then it’s a run of top-10 staples: the Fifty Shades Of Grey soundtrack (#5, 38,000), Taylor Swift’s 1989 (#6, 36,000), Sam Smith’s In The Lonely Hour (#7, just under 36,000), and Ed Sheeran’s x (#8, 32,000). Sam Hunt’s Montevallo rises back to #9 with just under 32,000, thanks in part to his appearance on the ACM Awards. Meghan Trainor’s Title is back up to #10 with 30,000, closing out the top 10. By the way…
My House (EP) by Flo Rida is #31 on this week's Billboard 200 chart, w/ just 1,448 copies sold. *waiting for an album to chart w/ 0 copies*
— Chart News (@chartnews) April 29, 2015
Over on the Hot 100, Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth’s “See You Again” stays at #1 for a third straight week, followed once again by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ former 14-week #1 “Uptown Funk!” Then it’s Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen” at #3, a new peak. It bumps the Weeknd’s “Earned It” to #4, down from its own #3 peak. Maroon 5’s “Sugar” and Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do” are at #5 and #6 respectively, then it’s Walk The Moon’s “Shut Up And Dance” reaching its own new peak at #7. Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” is down to #8, while Flo Rida’s Sage The Gemini- and Lookas-assisted “G.D.F.R.” is at #9. Closing out the top 10 is Jason Derulo’s “Want To Want Me,” rising to #10 to become Derulo’s sixth top-10 hit.
Wiz Khalifa – “Good For Us”
Last week I mentioned that if anything could sway me to support more Gaye family lawsuits, it would be Charlie Puth and Meghan Trainor’s “Marvin Gaye.” Turns out Puth’s “See You Again” buddy Wiz Khalifa has his own Gaye-referencing track. “Good For Us” finds Khalifa piling shame upon the legacy of “Sexual Healing.” Somebody get Nona on the line.
Nate Ruess – “AhHa”
So yeah, Ruess basically just made the next Fun. album. And you thought he sounded like Freddie Mercury last time around!
Mariah Carey – “Infinity”
I was surprised none of Carey’s singles from that ridiculously titled album really connected — unless you count the Miguel duet “#Beautiful,” released more than a year before the album dropped — but I’ll be dumbfounded if “Infinity” doesn’t click. It’s the grandiose, futuristic version of a mid-’90s Mariah hit. I’m all-in on it.
Jason Derulo – “Cheyenne”
Jason Derulo has apparently traded the sassy horn blurts of last year’s Talk Dirty for sleek synths on his upcoming Want To Want Me. “Cheyenne” is being promoted as a tribute to Miami Vice, which, whatever, but it’s another solid single from a guy whose career is proving to have some legs.
Rudimental – “Never Let You Go”
DnB act Rudimental are a bigger deal in the UK than even fellow ascendant dance stars Disclosure, and “Never Let You Go” is the lead single from their second album. It sounds a lot like Microsoft dubstep dude Alex Clare — so much so that I Googled to make sure Clare isn’t a guest vocalist on the song — which is funny because Clare released his own song called “Never Let You Go” last year.
Tori Kelly – “Unbreakable Smile”
Max Martin’s latest protege is already climbing the charts with the danceable pop hit “Nobody Love.” This mid-tempo boom-bap sway is just as winsome, and its minimal video lets Kelly flaunt all the star power she’s got.
Taio Cruz – “Do What You Like”
It’s no “Dynamite,” but it will do.
Sevyn Streeter – “4th Street”
The J. Cole-esque sentimental hometown ode “4th Street” confirms one thing I already knew about Streeter — that she’s really good at writing in-the-pocket radio R&B songs — and refutes another (I thought Sevyn was her real name).
Sage The Gemini – “Guantanamera” (Feat. Trey Songz)
Sage’s latest crossover bid is not a Wyclef Jean cover.
Twenty One Pilots – “Stressed Out”
These guys are from my hometown, and I wrote a big profile on them when they were on the rise. I like to see them succeeding, so I have no objectivity here. “Stressed Out” is actually less of a schizoid genre-hopper than usual (see: “Ode To Sleep,” “Tear In My Heart“), which might make it more palatable for some listeners.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- According to Stephen Hawking, Zayn Malik is still a member of One Direction in an alternate universe. [Buzzfeed]
- Speaking of 1D, Liam Payne says their new songs sound a bit like Oasis. [NME]
- Justin Bieber crashed a high school prom. [MTV]
- The Biebs also might be making an appearance in Zoolander 2. [Instagram]
- The surviving member of Milli Vanilli is collaborating on an album with the guy who sang for him. [TMZ]
- And speaking of disreputable early ’90s stars, Vanilla Ice defended Adam Sandler’s allegedly racist movie. [THR]
- Intentionally or not, Katy Perry’s latest costume made a powerful political statement in China. [Quartz]
- Steve Aoki will be a judge on Simon Cowell’s new DJ talent show. [FACT]
- A New Jersey judge ruled that going to a Pink concert did not harm an 11-year-old girl and was not evidence of bad parenting. [NJ.com]