Saturday, June 5, 2010
"Luka" by Suzanne Vega (1987)
Is it really possible for an artist to release one of the worst songs in the world and one of the best songs in the world on the same album – in fact, back-to-back as the first two tracks? Well, if you're a New York folkie, undeniably talented yet sadly precious, clever yet too-clever-by-half, sensitive and senseless, it's possible. In short, if you're Suzanne Vega, it's possible.
They like to talk about the evolution of pop (or 'rock') lyrics in the 1960s, how Bob Dylan led music away from the so-called 'moon in June' style of lyrics to something more powerful. Superficially, that's true – but all I can say is that there are different types of 'power'. There were certainly moving lyrics before Dylan, and Dylan operated on a plateau that, while stunning, perhaps didn't always offer the most direct access to the listener's heart. I don't think Dylan would see that as the point.
One of the many things that good lyrics can do is tell truths that can't be told in a spoken voice: when wedded correctly to melody, well-written words can take on a second layer of meaning entirely absent otherwise. This is why poetry and lyric writing, while obviously related arts, are ultimately distinct.
The jangling guitars, those closely-miced drums, that keyboard-imitating-a-marimba that serves as the main instrument – all these things put the song unquestionably in the mid-80s. Without them, Suzanne Vega might just be any folkie-out-of-time. But I don't know if folkies were actually brave enough before Suzanne Vega to stare child abuse in the face like this, unflinching, courageous.
It's easy to be preachy about child abuse, to condemn the abusers and to turn the victims into faceless charity cases: soapbox stuff. Don't get me wrong: I like my righteous indignation as much as the next person, but this is something altogether more impressive: written from the perspective of the abused child, the lyrics make every effort to hide the abuse, to apologise for the abusers, to say 'it's no big deal' – all clearly illustrating without ever needing to directly say just how big a deal it clearly is. Suzanne Vega's plainspoken delivery underlines this. This is no heart-swelling, overwrought performance. This is something altogether more subtle, and as a result more direct. It's all very moving.
The other thing that makes this different from, and truer than, a more ham-fisted approach to the topic is the fact that there's no resolution. As the song ends, Luka's not been saved from his destiny, the parents (about whom we know nothing really) haven't gotten their just desserts, no victory has been proclaimed. All you get is Luka's desperate cry to be left alone: 'just don't ask me how I am'. Those neighbours' doors will continue to hide scenes of torment and torture. All Suzanne Vega has done is remind us that such things really do happen.
And yet, a mere reminder is sometimes the most powerful thing you can give.