Profundity of Pop Music and Memory
But that's not the point.
The point is that one of the categories I like, I think it's "Women of Alternative Rock" includes the song Luka by Suzanne Vega. I have very specific memories of this song, which brought me to tears when I listened to it again in its entirety just a few minutes ago. So here's what I remember: I remember thinking when it came out that Suzanne Vega had "sold out" because it was an over-produced pop song and was popular. I had listened to her first album over and over again, singing along with songs like "Marlene on the Wall" so many times that I still can sing along in time to the record after 30 years without having heard it a single time since then. (This is true of "Luka" too, despite my professed scorn for it.)
I was in Italy that summer and terribly unhappy, having broken up, reunited and broken up again from a bad-for-me boyfriend, who seemed to think that suggesting he might have a drug habit made him more attractive. This trip to Italy had interrupted my quest to "win" him back. As part of that quest, I was reading Naked Lunch, which put me in a state of cognitive unrest, trying to speak and think in Italian while ending each day with a book that was reinventing English and narrative in a most disconcerting way.
I was staying with my father, my stepmother and their kids, and I was so constantly angry with my father, but unable to say anything, that I once spent an entire night vomiting because of the anxiety involved in tamping my feelings down. I had no friends there, at least no one I could talk to, and this song was playing everywhere I went. People were singing along phonetically; it was that "American pop song". It had the chimey guitars that REM brought to 1980s college rock. I wondered if the many people who enjoyed this song with the name of small town nearby had any idea of what the song was about. Their happy faces singing the catchy song about child abuse infuriated me.
Here are the lyrics
Maybe the fact that it's a chimey pop song distracts from the more profound lyrics and commercializes or even exploits people's feelings. I'm never sure what it is about a pop song that I think is profound, which is why I mostly listen to music and don't feel qualified to write about it. Are the lyrics really profound or are they just manipulative cliches that we're all trained to respond to?After all, I'd seen kids like Luka on After School Specials about child abuse. Suzanne Vega probably watched those shows too - she and I are nearly the same age. She said herself that she set up the song to incriminate the audience, to make them bystanders by the direct address "I live upstairs from you"...and thus pull them in. So, in some ways, probably, but the song really works by being somewhat understated. It's much more successful than this histrionic song about an abused child. The refrain "just don't ask me what it was" and later "just don't ask me how I am" seems to capture, without saying anything shocking, just how a kid might react to whatever it is that "something late at night/some kind of trouble/some kind of fight" that the song's "you" might hear from downstairs.
But what really happened, and what seems to happen with lots of songs, had more to do with the way that one or two lines came out of the story in the song and spoke this moment of my life under the surface of my consciousness. I wasn't beaten as a child, but today I can remember the experience of feeling something that Luka articulates: :"I try not to act too proud". It's literally evocative, bringing a voice out from inside, or giving voice to what's inside.
And maybe that's what it always is that creates these odd moments when we react so strongly to a song we haven't heard in years. We might hear even one line in a song that had framed or secretly resonated with some experience, and nonsensical as it may be in the rest of the song's context, the song becomes a container for these inarticulate and buried feelings in such a way that years later, hearing the song pulls up our old emotions like a bucket drawing from a well.