The Meaning of Marlene on the Wall

Marlene DietrichSuzanne 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:

It was written for the actress Marlene Dietrich. That’s the Marlene that I am talking about in this song. And the very first time that I ever saw Marlene Dietrich was one night when I was watching television, I was in my apartment sitting in the East Village in New York City which is where I’m from. So there I was and I turned on the TV set. It was one of those old sets that take a while to warm up.

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.[1]

Marlene DumasIt 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.

Verse 1

“Marlene on the Wall” starts out with its two fundamental themes: apathy and violence. The first verse:

Even if I am in love with you
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.

Verse 2

The plot thickens in the second verse:

Other evidence has shown
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.

Refrain

Then she comes to the refrain:

Marlene watches from the wall
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.[2] 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.

Verse 3

Vega complicates matters in the third verse:

I walk to your house in the afternoon
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.

Verse 4

In the last verse, she resolves the plot and shows growth of the singer:

And I tried so hard to resist
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.


[1] She is likely referring to the 1931 film Dishonored, but she misquotes it.

[2] Note that Vega is incorrect in the video above when she talks about the POV of her song.

18 replies on “The Meaning of Marlene on the Wall

  1. Beau Hooker says:

    Either Marlene Dumas or Marlene Dietrich fits Suzanne Vega’s song. Both had very illustrious love stories. My interpretation is this: Love is a battlefield for women, the men in their lives the soldiers. What a very wonderful song this is!

  2. admin says:

    Beau Hooker: Interesting take, especially given other Vega songs. Regardless of this fact, however, the song only works because the singer grows during the time period of the song. She moves beyond her dependence on dysfunctional relationships. The details are open to interpretation. I prefer to not to focus on the physical violence because the issue of loneliness is so much stronger. If she leaves a violent man, she ends without a violent man. If she leaves a lonely relationship, she likely ends with solo loneliness. Is that better? I think so. Now is not the time to go into it, so I will just quote an American Music Club song that I think says most of what needs to be said, "If I have to be so lonely, I may as well be alone."

  3. C. S. P. Schofield says:

    I stumbled onto this looking into the song, and it struck me that the references to soldiers ties in a third Marlene; Lili Marlene. This is a song, dating to WWI, but also popular in WWII, about a pretty girl who a soldier sees being escorted by progressively higher-ranking soldiers.

  4. admin says:

    @CSP Schofield – Excellent catch! It was also a big hit for Dietrich. It always reminds me of Brel’s "Madeleine." But in that song there is none of the serialized romance that you connect to MotW. Thanks for pointing that out!

    Here is Dietrich doing the song in English:

    [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5M7kyr1jYks[/youtube]

  5. Jack says:

    I always imagined that the song was about a forbidden relationship, one that he wants but she feels is wrong even though she wants him. I picture them as co-workers & he is married (perhaps she is also married).

    • Frank Moraes says:

      That’s a reasonable interpretation. It doesn’t really explain the violent imagery. But it is the same basic dynamic.

  6. jveeds says:

    Nice exegesis. Just catching up to it several years later as I was pondering the lyrics myself.
    Lyrics correction: As the records the rise and fall…should be “she” I believe.

    • Frank Moraes says:

      Thanks for that!

      I enjoy trying to make sense songs that never made sense to me before. By my own philosophy, the name of this article should be “A Meaning…” I’d like to write more of these, but they take a lot of time.

      Interesting blog you have. I used to work with a skydiver. He always said he would get me to skydive. I would drink Drano first. But I loved watching people do it!

  7. bluejay says:

    Never seen the rose tattoo fingerprints left by a handsome fist when it has been gripping a woman’s throat then?

  8. Karen says:

    I think Suzanne is going through some messed up stuff with partners and herself. Suzanne puts herself in Marlanas eyes looking down at the situation. Thus Suzanne looks at her messed up stuff from a different point of view or vantage point. Then Suzanne decides she’s changing the situation. She’s fighting things she cannot see and she is changing she says addressing the picture.

  9. RichardP says:

    Here is the song performed with the introduction referred to in the article:

    • Frank Moraes says:

      Thank you so much! I changed your comment so it displays the video correctly. I also updated the text in the article and put this new version of the song in it. Thanks again!

  10. The Blocked Dwarf says:

    I stumbled across this rather thoughtful blog whilst googling something and read fascinated your interpretation. I’ve heard a lot of different meanings given to this song since it first came out in my teens and I have to say i’ve always felt the ‘abusive relationship’ or ‘domestic violence’ interpretation was the ‘easy option’, a bit of a red herring to be honest- no doubt because ‘Luca’ was very much about domestic violence Mind you some of the other meanings given to this song go too far in the other direction and get hung up on MD being described as a ‘soldier’ at her funeral and also her ‘missing’ film The Lost Soldier.

    Of course the (almost) definition of a well written song is that it can be understood on any number of levels- compared , say, to the ‘yeah-yeah-yeah’ songs of any of the generic teeny bands. Stock, Aiken & Waterman have much to answer for.

    So how do I understand the song? Well sometimes a rose tattoo is just a rose tattoo (remember the 80s?). I think it is the story of the loss of virginity to a ‘first love’ but whom she knows doesn’t really love her. Her mind is in turmoil. Guilt, regret, and a feeling he has committed a ‘crime’ (‘finger prints’, ‘evidence’, ‘resist’ etc) against her by not really loving her. She walks (ie doesn’t drive) to his house (an older married man?) in the afternoon (ie not at work) by the butcher’s shop with the saw dust strewn (on the floor to soak up the blood-images of ‘I bled like a stuck pig’ as more than one woman has described it). “Don’t give away the goods to soon’ needs then no further interpolation.

    Right, I’ll stop waffling on but I hope I’ve said enough to show that the song MAY NOT be so obviously be about a violent abusive relationship. Other interpretations are also just as valid -even the one I heard about it being about an abortion.

    • Frank Moraes says:

      That’s an interesting interpretation of the song — and certainly as valid as any. I don’t claim that my interpretation of the song is right, except in the sense that meaning is something that comes from the reader (listener, viewer) and not the writer. This is why I hate it when writers talk about their work in an explicit way. This causes everyone to say that this one take on the work is the right one. It isn’t helped by the fact that artists are usually terrible at analyzing their own work. In this case, I doubt Vega had a a clear idea of what she was writing. And that’s why this song continues to interest me, whereas “Luka” was not that compelling even on first release — not that it isn’t a good song, I’m talking theme and meaning here.

  11. Mark says:

    This song is about ‘early love’. It’s not complicated but cryptic..nothing more, nothing less.

    • Frank Moraes says:

      You are absolutely right! Because I have written extensively about the fact that it is the reader (viewer, hearer, etc) that defines what a piece of art means, then of course you are right about what it means. Never listen to a writer — they are the most ignorant people when it comes to their own work. If one is an artist, they are working all parts of their brains. And so if you ask them what a song (for example) is about, they will tell you only what their higher brain makes of it. In other words: they will trivialize it. It’s like explaining a joke. Most jokes work on multiple levels and that’s why they work. Yes, you can pick the most obvious and say that is it. But you are just trivializing the joke. I never said that I have to think anyone’s interpretation of a work of art needn’t be trivial and boring.

      But if you are saying that your meaning of the song is right and mine is wrong, then you are wrong. The song means what it does to you and it means what it does to me. Although I must say that that “early love” doesn’t really give me a clue as to what you think the song means. How does “rose tattoo” fit into your shallow dive of the song?

  12. …..Dietrich eh ? So thats it, and while all the Queens worship her, as do I, I’d always imagined the Marlene on that Wall was a identity-non-specific one, a name given to an anonnymous generic portrait of a non-specific entity that hung, unchanged for years, in at some Immunolgy Resistant Waiting Room Clinic as its gaze remained unchanged for many years as it records the rise and fall of every soldier fighting, but the only soldier now is me, I’m fighting things I cannot see, and jealously I thought it was about me somehow, or at least the relationship I had with an imagined Marlene on the Wall at an unknown clinic somewhere.
    We have pictures of trees at London’s Mortimer Clinic, less controversial I suppose, but trees rarely speak to me.

    • Frank Moraes says:

      I wouldn’t take Vega’s ideas any more seriously than anyone else’s. She is simply talking about process, not meaning. In the song, “Marlene” is simply a symbol of accusation — to me more self-accusation than anything, because how can some inanimate object have an opinion or attitude other than what we read into it?

      The reader (viewer, listener) is the final arbiter of the meaning of a work of art. This is why I would prefer that artists shut up about their work. The truth is, the greatest artists are not in control of what they do. When they talk about writing this or that, it doesn’t tell the rest of us anything but how the work came to be. Artists are usually the worst people to ask about meaning. Artists generally aren’t working in terms of meaning. I write plays. I never think about meaning. And I would never presume to define their meanings. They often have some meaning to me. But I’m probably in a worse position to see them objectively than literally every other person alive.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *