Happy Wednesday and welcome to another installment of Song Musings, where I take a closer look at tunes I’ve only mentioned in passing or not covered at all to date. Before getting to this week’s pick, I wanted to take the opportunity to announce this blog is going on a one-week hiatus due to some personal travel to Germany. I’m planning to resume posting next Wednesday, March 22.
Now let’s turn to Luka by Suzanne Vega. Written by the folk-oriented singer-songwriter who was born in Santa Monica, Calif. and grew up in New York City, the tune was included on Vega’s sophomore album Solitude Standing, which appeared in April 1987. Luka also became the album’s second single in May of the same year.
The melodic tune, which featured Shawn Colvin on backing vocals, was Vega’s first to chart in the U.S., climbing all the way to no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Its highest chart position, no. 2, was in Sweden. Elsewhere, it was most successful in Canada and New Zealand where it reached no. 5 and no. 8, respectively. In the U.K., it became Vega’s fifth charting song, not counting the re-release of her debut single Marlene On the Wall, which also had charted there following its initial release in 1985.
Based on the upbeat melody and Vega’s soft vocals, I immediately liked Luka when hearing it for the first time on the radio back in Germany. What I didn’t realize then is the song’s dark topic of child abuse (more about this later). Luka led to three nominations at the 1988 Grammy Awards, including Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. It lost to Paul Simon’s Graceland; Somewhere Out There, performed by James Horner & Will Jennings; and Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me), respectively.
Solitude Standing became Suzanne Vega’s most commercially successful and critically acclaimed album. It reached Platinum status in the U.S. (1,000,000 certified copies), UK (300,000 certified copies), Canada (100,000 certified copies) and New Zealand (15,000 certified copies). The album topped the charts in New Zealand and Sweden, peaked at no. 2 in the UK and Norway, and reached no. 6 and no. 7 in Germany and Australia, respectively.
Following are some additional tidbits from Songfacts:
On a 1987 Swedish television special, Vega said: “A few years ago, I used to see this group of children playing in front of my building, and there was one of them, whose name was Luka, who seemed a little bit distinctive from the other children. I always remembered his name, and I always remembered his face, and I didn’t know much about him, but he just seemed set apart from these other children that I would see playing. And his character is what I based the song ‘Luka’ on. In the song, the boy Luka is an abused child – In real life I don’t think he was. I think he was just different.”
Speaking with SongTalk magazine, Vega explained that she started with the title for this song. Describing how she wrote it, she said: “It takes months of kind of fingering it in my mind, while I’m walking around or doing something else, it’s just like a problem that my mind goes back to. It wiggles. It’s like you’re trying to get the right angle, and once the angle comes, I can write the song in two hours. Like ‘Luka’ took two hours. It took months of thinking about it and lining up the shot, in a sense. Like if you’re playing pool and you want to clear the table, you line it all up, and then you just hit it and everything clears. It’s very satisfying, but it takes months of preparation.
I wasn’t sure what the character would say. I knew what the character’s problem was, but I didn’t know how to get the listener involved. I wanted it to be from the point of view of a person who is abused. Now the problem that that person has is that they can’t say it. So how do you get the problem out if you can’t say it? How do you involve the listener? Well, you introduce yourself: ‘My name is Luka.’ And ‘I live on the second floor, I live upstairs from you,’ and so therefore you’re engaging the listener. ‘I think you’ve seen me before,’ so you start to listen. You’re drawing the listener into this world with very simple, basic information. And it then proceeds to state the problem without ever saying what the problem is. That was my problem as a songwriter: How do I give this information without ever giving it?
It’s easy to point a finger. It’s easy to say, ‘Child abuse must stop’ and everybody knows this.”
Vega wrote this song about three years before it was released on her second album. It was written before her debut album, but Vega said it “needed some time for it to settle into the bag of songs.”
There is a great deal of lyrical dissonance in this song, as the stark story of child abuse contrasts with the catchy melody. Vega explained to SongTalk: “Because I was aiming at such a complex subject, I was aiming for the simplest line to get there. Simple melodies, happy chords. I felt I had to make it accessible because it was such a dark subject. So I went all out. But I also tried to write in the language of a child. So that’s probably why it worked, because it is so accessible.”
The video was directed by Michael Patterson and his wife Candace Reckinger, and it used an experimental animation technique that they popularized in the video for a-ha’s “Take On Me.”
…Around the time of writing this, Vega was listening to a lot of Lou Reed’s music. “I was impressed by the way he wrote about a violent world, and I had to think of how to write about a subject that no one talks about,” she told Top 2000 a gogo. “One day I was listening to Lou Reed’s Berlin album and the whole thing came out. Started about 2 o’clock, by 4 o’clock I had the whole song done.” Not only was it done, but there were no rough drafts or alternate lyrics; it was written just as we hear it…
Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube