[REVIEW] “Tom’s Diner” – Suzanne Vega

August 11, 2009 at 4:51 pm Leave a comment

Title: Tom’s Diner
Artist: Suzanne Vega
Media: Song
Primary subject: English Language Arts

It might be a sign that I’ve finally taken this all too far but I kid you not this idea came to me in a dream. Tom’s Diner is a song from the early 80s that tell’s a first-person narrative of a seemingly boring event. It carries so much detail, however, that it becomes a compelling story. Also, a random fun fact, the original a capella version of the song was used as the original test track for the file format known as MP3. The creator felt that if he could get this song compressed and not lose any of Vega’s voice then he’d made the format right. Here’s the lyrics and a video then I’ll explain why I think this would fit well in a classroom. Note there is a remixed version by DNA that students would probably enjoy quite a bit more as it adds a beat to the song.

Tom’s Diner lyrics

I am sitting in the morning at the diner on the corner. I am waiting at the counter for the man to pour the coffee. And he fills it only halfway and before I even argue. He is looking out the window at somebody coming in.

“It is always nice to see you,” says the man behind the counter to the woman who has come in. She is shaking her umbrella. And I look the other way as they are kissing their hellos. I’m pretending not to see them and instead I pour the milk.

I open up the paper there’s a story of an actor who had died while he was drinking. It was no one I had heard of. And I’m turning to the horoscope and looking for the funnies when I’m feeling someone watching me and so I raise my head

There’s a woman on the outside looking inside. Does she see me? No she does not really see me because she sees her own reflection. And I’m trying not to notice that she’s hitching up her skirt and while she’s straightening her stockings her hair is getting wet.

Oh, this rain it will continue through the morning as I’m listening to the bells of the cathedral. I am thinking of your voice…

Motivational Potential
4/5
As I said the version by DNA (found here) should be plenty appealing to students today. The beat is plenty interesting and Vega’s voice has a haunting quality and just grabs you. You should have no problem getting them to listen to the song. They might whine at first (as they always do when asked to listen to and “old” song) but they’ll like it.

Beyond enjoying the song itself your students should really get into the idea of using detail is writing after hearing it. Part of what makes the song so great are the incredibly minute details. You really do get the idea that you are seeing this scene play out in front of you even though it is told through song. I’ve tried tons of methods to get kids to see the importance of detail in story-telling but none ever really stick. I’d argue that is because there is little motivation in an activity, there’s a ton when presented this way.

Educational Potential:
3/5
There obviously isn’t any specific content here but examples of two important concepts of writing sure are. Whether you are teaching first-person perspective or using detail to create a scene this song will do a great job at least introducing the topic.

As far as first-person goes I think the song is fairly obvious. It is not just written in first person but written in such a way as to truly make you feel as if you are in that person’s mind. I would highly recommend playing the song as audio only before showing any of the video forms of it to students. Let them “see” how visual the words are in their mind before feeding them the images. It would be interesting then to have students write a first-person account of some, seemingly mundane, happening in their life to the melody of the song – bonus points if they’ll sing it!

There is a minor hiccup in using this for details. It is the epitome of “Tell-not-Show” which is often the opposite of what we want to teach with detail. The whole song is “tell” in a sense. I think there is still value in it though due simply to the incredible amount of “tell” going on. While it may be direct the picture painted using only words really is amazing. The simple comment that the actor was “no one I had heard of” really takes this to another level. Those are the kind of details we want our students to learn to use and there isn’t a much better model for it out there.

Overall:
I can’t wait to try this out in my creative writing unit this upcoming school year. I think it will do a better job in 3 minutes than my days long series of literary examples. It is going to be far more real to the students and therefore far more educational.

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Entry filed under: Music.

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