Suzanne Vega’s Marlene on the Wall was one of the great pop songs of my youth, but its meaning was always murky to me. Over the weekend, I happened to hear the song again. For the first time, its meaning became clear.
It is well known that the Marlene on the Wall in this song is a picture (poster, painting) of Marlene Dietrich. Below is Susanne Vega in 1996 doing Marlene on the Wall with an introduction about how it came to be written. The story is a little confusing, because Vega merges how she came to admire Dietrich with how she happened to write the song. [The video is no longer available. Thanks to commenter RichardP, here is a different recording with the introduction.]
Here is the quotation from the concert. It shows that she is not talking about the start of the song, but rather the start of her adoration of Dietrich:
So I turned on the knob and you get the little tiny dot in the middle of the screen. And I hear this man’s voice saying, “You have lead many men to death with your body.” I was like “All right!” because I didn’t see anything, you know, I didn’t know who the guy was, who he was talking to. And for a split second I had this fantasy, what if someone came to my door and said that to me? What would I say? And I thought that I would probably apologize. I would probably be like “Oh, I’m terribly sorry, are you sure it was me? It might have been so-and-so down the hall.” So, I was curious to know what who ever he was talking to would say.
Of course right then the picture came on and there’s Marlene Dietrich’s beautiful face in close-up. And her answer, of course, which is the only proper and logical one “Give me a kiss.” So right from that moment I was just hooked. I watched the rest of the movie. I became a huge Marlene Dietrich fan. The photograph on the wall I’m singing about in the song, is one that someone had given me, back in the days when I was hanging out at Folk City. They gave it to me because they knew that I was a fan of hers. I had it framed and had it on my wall. The song is written from the point of view of the photograph of Marlene Dietrich looking down into my bedroom at that point when I was in my early twenties.
It is usually a mistake for artists to talk about their work. I wish that Vega had not made the title character concrete, because I think it would be even more interesting to consider that it was a Marlene Dumas painting. But Marlene Dietrich is interesting, and the whole idea of adding the perspective of a painting hanging on a wall is very clever.
“Marlene on the Wall” starts out with its two fundamental themes: apathy and violence. The first verse:
All this to say, what’s it to you?
Observe the blood, the rose tattoo
Of the fingerprints on me from you.
She is saying that she’s unsure of why she is in this relationship, but whatever it might be, it can’t be outweighed by the violence that she suffers at the hands of her partner. However, she is vague about this violence. The bruising—”rose tattoo”—does not come from fists or other tools of torture. In fact, fingerprints imply someone trying to hold on. I imagine a large male hand grasping a thin female wrist.
Regardless of the kind of violence, this opening verse clearly says that the singer is unclear about whether she wants to be in this relationship, even apart from the violence she is subjected to.
The plot thickens in the second verse:
That you and I are still alone
We skirt around the danger zone
And don’t talk about it later.
Here she continues her clinical appraisal of the relationship in “Marlene on the Wall.” The main problem seems to be that the partners are alone despite their physical proximity. It is easy to conclude that the “danger zone” that she is talking about refers to the violence of the first verse. I think this is wrong. When she talks about the danger zone, she is talking about the area where people are close to being truthful to one another. I’m sure we’ve all had relationships where we could never quite get past the play acting, which is the foundation of most human interactions, into being truthful with the vulnerability that requires.
Then she comes to the refrain:
Her mocking smile says it all
As she records the rise and fall
Of every soldier passing.
But the only soldier now is me
I’m fighting things I cannot see
I think it’s called my destiny
That I am changing.
Marlene on the wall.
Vega does something very strange. She’s been singing in the second person to her lovers, but here she switches suddenly to an introspective third person through the vale of Marlene Dietrich. The implication is that her encounters with men are at their places. At home, she is alone. Also, it would seem, she only really exists when she is alone. Hence the third person narrative when she is away with her lovers.
The use of the soldier as a metaphor serves two purposes. First, it reinforces the violent subtext of the song. Second, and even more important, it puts forth the idea of a line of men—serial monogamy. At this point—during the first refrain—this seems to be the extent of her changing: from one abusive man to another.
Vega complicates matters in the third verse:
By the butcher’s shop with the sawdust strewn
“Don’t give away the goods too soon”
Is what she might have told me
Here she continues the effective but confusing second person point of view. The first two lines make clear that the singer is not forced into this relationship—she goes of her own free will, if indeed any of us have such a thing. Mostly, however, she is speculating about the advice that Marlene Dietrich would give her, but which she (as we see shortly) doesn’t follow: don’t give yourself away to these awful men.
In the last verse, she resolves the plot and shows growth of the singer:
When you held me in your handsome fist
And reminded me of the night we kissed
And of why I should be leaving
Here she comes back to the original violent image of “Marlene on the Wall.” But it is contrasted with her memory of their first meeting, which we can assume was much more gentle—no fists were used that night. This contrast tells her that she should not be in this relationship. I choose to believe that this insight is enough to change her behavior, but of course, a darker reading is possible.
When she repeats the refrain, Vega changes the word “soldier” to “men,” to make it concrete. She is, shall we say, past speaking about her relationships in terms of metaphor. As such, her claim that “I am changing” sounds far more credible; now she may be changing in a more fundamental way, away from her dysfunctional relationships to something better, if only to being alone with Marlene Dietrich. It is due to this that “Marlene on the Wall” is hopeful despite its dark themes.
 She is likely referring to the 1931 film Dishonored, but she misquotes it.
 Note that Vega is incorrect in the video above when she talks about the POV of her song.