BOUND (music and lyrics by Suzanne Vega)
“Bound” has always been one of my favorite Vega songs. It appears to be quite straightforward at first, but is really stunningly ambiguous on second sight. Vega married an old friend 20 years after he had proposed to her (in the booklet the wedding photo is posted next to the lyrics) – and of course “Bound” makes perfect sense as a ‘simple’ biographical song about accepting the proposal with the kind of humility and insecurity one has about taking up an offer that was made that long ago. But to me this biographical reading doesn’t seem as important or interesting as the more general notions of self-doubt and the inadequacy of language that the song expresses.
“Bound”, to me, is about insufficiency. Or more specificly about the fear of not sufficing (anymore) because one is “ruined by rain / weathered by wind”. Since we are subjected to time and thus to change there is the constant threat of losing acceptance, love and passion. These doubts are expressed in the central question of the song “I’m asking you if you might still want me” which is of course not being answered. Posing this question means exposing yourself completely, letting down all guard and defenses and delivering you to the judgment of someone for whose love and affection you strive. To me, this is the most vulnerable and daring position you can assume.
In 2010 Vega rerecorded the song for the “Close Up” series. This close-up production of “Bound” (just voice and guitar) is one of the most intimate recordings I know and it takes the central idea of letting down guard to the performance level: her voice during the chorus is clearly out of her comfort zone but thus reaches a rare quality of not only describing a certain state of frailty, but incorporating it with guts and grace: of course she hits the right notes, but the tones themselves sound like a question, and it becomes apparent that the vulnerability expressed in the lyrics is also expressed in the voice.
As so often in Vega’s songs, an additional, more subtle topic is the insufficiency of language. “All these words” she is singing “like darling and angel and dear / crowd my mouth in a path to your ear” – unable to adequately express her affection on the one hand and on the other doubtful about whether or not she is still an adequate object of desire, she ends the song with a gutpunching line that literally made me gasp and gave me sparkling skin the first time I listened to the song: “When I said: I am bound to you forever / here’s what I meant: I am bound to you forever.” I must have listened to this song hundreds of times but I still can’t decide whether this is the total affirmation of language or a complete capitulation to it: whether she insists that language is transparent and that what she has said is *exactly* what she meant to say or whether she is giving up on images, metaphors and metonymies, with the only option of simply repeating the same words in the vain attempt to make them more meaningful.
Additionally these lines oscillate between two other meanings, likewise contradictory: by singing the line “I am bound to you forever” two times (and note that the repetition is made necessary by the ‘plot’ of the song and does not just have an ornamentory function because of the convention of pop to repeat a hook-line) she allows it to exist with two meanings at the same time. The first time it has the lightness of a very sweet and reassuring declaration of eternal love and affection with a rising melody at the end of the line. But the second time the line has a totally different ring to it: all of a sudden a darker, more unsettling meaning prevails and it expresses the impossibility to align the wish for togetherness with the wish for personal freedom. It almost sounds like a threat and a sudden realization of being unfree: “I am bound to you forever” – especially since the next song on the album is called “Unbound”, celebrating the feeling of cutting ties: “I was once bound at the root / confined with twine both mind and foot / I cut it loose / and now I am free / as anything alive can be”.
To me, “Bound” is a dazzlingly dense and rich song: it addresses the fear of losing love and affection. It expresses the uncomfortable and daring step to let down (emotional) guard and to allow yourself to be vulnerable lyrically and musically. And – in two simple but brilliantly complex lines – it deals with the impossible desire to bind yourself to a person while being free at the same time as well as with the struggling relationship we have with a language that simultaneously binds us to each other but will always fail to connect us truly – and yet we are bound to it forever.