The Queen and the Soldier
Since moving from Brooklyn to Albany, NY a few years ago I have basically curated my own makeshift, midlife Lilith Fair—the 90s summer music festival with an all-female line-up. I didn’t mean to, but a pattern has clearly emerged. It started with Aimee Mann in April 2017 at The Egg, a concrete spaceship of a venue that grows unbearably quiet between songs. Performers inevitably comment on how “polite” the audience is, making me want to hide under my seat or run on stage and give them a hug. I saw Gillian Welch there, too. Neko Case I caught twice, on the same tour, first at The Egg then a few months later in Poughkeepsie from the balcony of the Bardavon 1869 Opera House, where I cemented my unhipness by not so politely nodding off toward the end. Then there was “An Intimate Evening with the Cowboy Junkies,” which was worth all the unforeseen jam-band noodling to bask in a white-blond Margo Timmins crooning “Cause Cheap Is How I Feel” and “Sun Comes Up, It’s Tuesday Morning.” For my 40th birthday, I ventured back to Brooklyn to watch Liz Phair, or what I could of her, anyway, from the back of a buzz-killingly dude-packed room.
There’s nothing odd per se about my going to see all of these women perform, except that I almost never went to concerts when I lived in New York City and had infinitely more opportunities and options. Of course, that’s why I didn’t. I consumed my fair share of culture: I went to museums, saw some Broadway plays and musicals. But the smaller scale and the lower cost of the Capital District cater to my fondness for old favorites. I want to hear what I already know and love and what I can’t imagine not having known and loved. It feels easier to do that here. I also suspect that my drive to take refuge in familiar feelings has been fueled by the transitions I’ve had to make over the last ten years. The physical moves have been relatively confined geographically. Miraculously, I’ve been living in some part or other of New York State since I was twenty-two. The more dramatic shifts and rifts have taken other material and emotional forms as I’ve tried to build something like a stable, satisfying life in and around academia as institutions double down on austerity, extracting far too much for far too little and disinvesting in so many of the people and things I care about. Academia’s hardly unique in breeding precarity, or in any of its worst tendencies for that matter. And I know that for all the frustration I feel, I am more or less fine, fortunate even. Still, day to day, and year to year, keeping going can feel like an interminable battle, one I am tired of fighting but also cannot quite forsake. So when a woman whose music has given order to the disorder of my psychic life for decades performs nearby and I can swing it, it’s not a question. I just go.
The height of my self-fashioned festival has been seeing Suzanne Vega at a sit-down club with dinner service in Hudson about an hour downstate. It was all very adult, watching her from a table for two with my spouse and a glass of wine. Except that sitting just a few feet away from her and hearing her voice—the mix of softness and sureness that is so distinctively hers—I felt steeped in all the ache and awe of adolescence. Vega knows her audience. She played her biggest hits—“Luka” and “Tom’s Diner,” both from her second album. She revealed small, spare, and hence all the more precious personal details—like that “Gypsy” and “In Liverpool” are about the same guy. She snuck in a couple numbers from her recent one-woman show about Carson McCullers, complete with a top hat and an unlit cigarette as props. And she played my favorite, “The Queen and the Soldier,” from her first album. I looked around at my fellow thirty-to-fifty-somethings sway-nodding and noiselessly mouthing the words, and then up at Vega. I leaned in, feeling impossibly sated and starved by hearing this song—the song I came to hear more than any other—again and anew and not enough, all at the same time.
“The Queen and the Soldier” is more folk song than pop, using storytelling and dialogue to develop characters and create a world. It’s also about storytelling, and the soldier’s desire for a story to give sense to the senselessness of war.
The soldier came knocking upon the queen’s door
He said, “I am not fighting for you anymore”
The queen knew she’d seen his face someplace before
And slowly she let him inside
He said, “I’ve watched your palace up here on the hill
And I’ve wondered who’s the woman for whom we all kill
But I am leaving tomorrow so you can do what you will
Only first I am asking you why”
His is a question about war but also about the woman for whom war is waged. In knocking on the queen’s door, the soldier also knocks his head against the enigma that stumped Sigmund Freud: the riddle of femininity. His “why” is a version of the question Freud still found himself asking toward the end of his career: what does a woman want? The wording—a woman—is important. Whatever a woman wants is not what every woman wants. There is no monolithic woman with a capital “W.” Freud knew this. Or, as Freud himself might say, he knew this without knowing it, hence his return again and again to the question of feminine desire. It is in some respects the groundless ground of psychoanalysis, the excess it circles, the thing it wrestles with, often by showing how patriarchal culture has erected fantasies about femininity that leave little room for women’s desires, whatever they might be.
One of Jacques Lacan’s favorite examples of such fantasies is medieval poetry of courtly love, the way it elevates the figure of the Lady as an object of desire, turning her into something other than human—an ideal, a cipher, a terror even, like Vega’s queen. What matters most about the Lady, in Lacan’s reading, is that she is inaccessible. She is there so that she cannot be reached. That is her function—to give room for masculine desire.
Vega’s reimagining of this heterosexual (if not heterosexist) matrix invites us to ask if the Lady’s inaccessibility doesn’t also serve a certain function for her. Though the queen doesn’t think the soldier will understand why she does what she does, she answers his question, or at least begins to:
And she said, “I’ve swallowed a secret burning thread
It cuts me inside, and often I've bled”
He laid his hand then on top of her head
And he bowed her down to the ground.
The soldier, too, wants to know more, but also continues to do most of the talking.
“Tell me how hungry are you? how weak you must feel
As you are living here alone, and you are never revealed
But I won't march again on your battlefield”
And he took her to the window to see.
And the sun, it was gold, though the sky, it was gray
And she wanted more than she ever could say
But she knew how it frightened her, and she turned away
And would not look at his face again.
And he said, “I want to live as an honest man
To get all I deserve and to give all I can
And to love a young woman who I don't understand
Your highness, your ways are very strange.”
What the soldier wants is reciprocity. Taken out of context, the words look ridiculous to me: “to get all I deserve and to give all I can.” So earnest! So presumptuous! Can you imagine? Then again, I, too, want a version of what the soldier wants. I have devoted years upon years of my life to living in the future perfect tense, looking forward to some phantasmatic moment when the fighting will have been worth it, or at least when the battle might finally feel like less of one. It is hard not to wonder, as the soldier does, why?
But I also can’t help but think maybe the queen, tyrannical though she may be, is onto something in refusing the soldier’s wish for a fairy-tale ending, for a romantic resolution to what is really a political problem. The song’s ending is brutal: the queen has the soldier killed as he waits for her outside expecting to run away together. The guitar is harsh and militant as we are told, The battle/continued on—the battle on the field but also the queen’s battle with herself as she “went on strangling in the solitude she preferred.” Vega returns to the song’s central, lilting riff and drifts, for the second and last time, into an elongated, elegiac ooh. In both instances the sound effectively stands for what the queen does not tell the soldier, for the desire she cannot articulate.
But perhaps some battles need to be fought even when, or especially because, they seem like senseless ones. And how senseless are the queen’s ways really? Strangling in solitude is something I can understand. It’s a choice that may not feel like a choice, especially when the alternative is having to explain yourself to some guy who won’t let you get a word in edgewise and can’t hear you anyway. (And let’s be honest, a relationship with the soldier was never going to work long-term.)
Though Vega’s first album came out in 1985, I didn’t hear it or “The Queen and the Soldier” until about 10 years later, around the same time as the actual Lilith Fair. I saw the tour once, in Camden, New Jersey, in the summer of 1998, though sadly Vega wasn’t part of the line-up. Sarah McLachlan had launched it the previous year because she was frustrated with radio DJs and concert promoters not playing or booking female performers back to back, making me, a young woman who pretty much only listened to women—especially folksy pop singers—its target demographic.
And I still am. I spend road trips in my affective time machine of a car practicing harmonies on Rites of Passage as if I were auditioning, badly, to be the third Indigo Girl. I wear out ancient mixtapes with songs by Tracy Chapman, Heather Nova, Sinéad O'Connor, Beth Orton, Luscious Jackson, Jewel, Dar Williams, and Lucinda Williams. When I listen to “The Queen and the Soldier” now, I hear more strongly than ever an echo of both my desire for a neat narrative and those other persistent desires that keep me going when so much of the world continually asks why, or as happens more often than not, says, quite simply, no. These desires can’t be explained away or escaped but are driven by some idea I swallowed long ago about the value and meaning of intellectual work.
Something like these seemingly irrational desires was foundational to Lilith Fair itself. When promoters claimed that having more than one woman would be box office poison, its organizers banked on the potential of female performers to attract larger audiences together than they might individually. And yet this investment in multiplicity—in the irreducibility of women and their wants—is lost in some accounts of the festival’s legacy. What we get instead is a standard narrative not unlike that sought by the soldier, one in which I have a hard time seeing the messy uncertainties of my own life reflected.
In a 2017 interview with Rolling Stone, McLachlan talks about meeting fans, “women [who] would come up to me and say things like, ‘You showed us that you were living your dream and you were succeeding at that, and it kind of opened up my eyes, that we could do whatever we wanted to do.’” One woman told her she was “now running a company. You all inspired me to understand that I could actually do anything that I wanted to do.” For these fans, Lilith Fair was the start of a success story, an entrepreneurial lesson in leaning in that happened to pay off. Their brand of girl power is more Spice Girl than Riot Grrrl. They all seem to have gotten what they really, really want.
But for those of us whose fighting has not always been worth it—who find ourselves inexhaustibly enamored of the queen and the soldier and most of all Vega, but who also want something more than a choice between strangling in solitude and an old romance of reciprocity—the battle for a new and different ending necessarily continues on.