When asked to think of a pop song, what comes to mind? Likely, it’ll be a song that covers topics like much of the rest. Most of our popular music plays the safe game: love, sex, and heartbreak sell— all digestible themes whose universal reach feels boundless. But what of those serious subjects that are deeply unsettling and difficult to address? Suzanne Vega’s “Luka” might just come to mind.
It takes a certain bravery – or naiveté – to write a song like “Luka.” In 1984, Suzanne Vega had a little bit of both. At 25-years-old and without a record deal, she set out to create a piece addressing child abuse. Her muse turned out to be a scrawny boy of about nine, who lent his name to the song. After meeting him, she would write “Luka” in one sitting on a Sunday afternoon, fabricating his story of trauma. “They only hit until you cry / And after that you don’t ask why,” she sings in the verse, only to later reveal the lengths to which victims of abuse feel they must hide their pain: “Walked into the door again / Well, if you ask that’s what I’ll say,” she suggests.
Upon its release in 1987 as a single from her sophomore album Solitude Standing, “Luka” peaked at No. 3 on the U.S. singles charts. Much to Vega’s own surprise, it was an instant hit. In a 2008 essay published by The New York Times, Vega admits:
“Luka” was not a popular song when I would perform it back then. I would watch people from the stage. You could see their faces change as they thought about the lyrics; a frown would appear, then a general look of unhappiness, followed by a scowl directed at the floor and, at the conclusion, a smattering of reluctant applause.”
In this quote, Vega is describing the years prior to the song’s 1987 release. It’s hard to say what changed in the public psyche, but when “Luka” finally debuted, it appears the world was ready to celebrate difficult, honest works.
Months after the song’s release, Vega took to San Francisco, Calif. to perform her signature track at the Warfield Theatre. Her crowd was receptive, listening thoughtfully to Vega’s expository tune and erupting into cheers by its end. Listen to this sharp performance below, recorded on this day in 1987.