Continuing my series of the analysis of meaningful song lyrics   , I would like to examine a relatively obscure song that deeply moves me for similar reasons to the Donna Lewis song “Simone,” which is not surprising since both take a similar approach to a related subject by combining an innocent and sparse approach to dark subject matter.
As the singer and songwriter of this track explains, Luka springs from a flash of insight that a “different” young boy from her building could serve as an entrance into the serious and “unspeakable” sin of child abuse . By writing in deceptively simple and deliberately implicit language, the lyrics of the song, full of pretense and false bravado, expose the complicity of ordinary people (such as neighbors) in the abuse of helpless and defenseless children, a matter of considerable personal interest. As I saw the music video to this song yesterday during a series of pop-up videos on songs about abuse (a rather painful half-hour, to be sure), I thought it worthwhile to examine the lyrics to this deceptively simple song and their significance.
The song opens very simply and very cleverly, pulling the listener into a conversation with a boy named Luka: “My name is Luka. I live on the second floor. I live upstairs from you. Yes I think you’ve seen me before. If you hear something late at night, some kind of trouble, some kind of fight. Just don’t ask me what it was. Just don’t ask me what it was. Just don’t ask me what it was .”
As the song opens, the listener is made aware that he (or she) knows Luka, and is a a neighbor that the listener has seen before. They live together in an apartment building, where sounds travel easily and perfect privacy is impossible to maintain. From the beginning, the boy refuses to tell the sort of trouble or fighting that goes on late at night in his household. Victims of abuse, especially children, suffer a great deal of shame as a result of the abuse and are often unwilling and unable to talk about it. It is unbearable and intolerable for a child to be around dangerous people against whom there is no defense–such as parents–and is causes serious mental, emotional, and spiritual damage, aside from the physical injuries. Poor Luka.
The second verse and chorus only deepens the clinical examination of the effects of the long-term child abuse: “I think it’s because I’m clumsy, I try not to talk too loud. Maybe it’s because I’m crazy, I try not to act too proud. They only hit until you cry, And after that you don’t ask why. You just don’t argue anymore. You just don’t argue anymore
You just don’t argue anymore.”
Suzanne Vega’s accurate understanding of child abuse reveals itself in this verse, and further implicates the listener in complicity with the abuser. Luka appears to suffer some classic markers of serious abuse. The hyperanxiety that often accompanies Post-Truamatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a disease I know all too well, often reveals itself in clumsiness because of excessive nerves frayed from being on edge constantly. The visible and real clumsiness also serves as a cover story for the injuries suffered by victims of child abuse. Additionally, the mental disorders that frequently result from child abuse (which include PTSD, depression, dissosiative disorder, and others) label the victim as ‘crazy’ and serve to further decrease the credibility with the outside world and resilience of a young person who (like Luka) has endured tremendous suffering, and prevent a proper sense of ‘pride’ and self-respect. The seriousness of the abuse is then revealed in a somewhat emotionally detached boy saying that “they only hit until you cry,” perhaps hinting at some kind of barbaric social code where “boys don’t cry” no matter how much they hurt, as well as the futility of trying to reason with abusers.
The third verse closes on a grim note of pretense and false bravado: “Yes I think I’m okay. I walked into the door again. Well, if you ask that’s what I’ll say, and it’s not your business anyway. I guess I’d like to be alone, with nothing broken, nothing thrown. Just don’t ask me how I am. Just don’t ask me how I am. Just don’t ask me how I am.”
Here again Luka uses clumsiness as a cover for the injuries of the abuse. Walking into the door is like falling down the stairs, a way to deflect shame and attention by removing it from abuse to an accident due to clumsiness. Luka is clearly defensive that what goes on his troubled family is a subject of personal shame, making it preferable to pretend that everything is alright rather than feel even more ashamed to belong to such a crazy family and be unable to defend himself or escape. Poor, poor Luka. Additionally, before closing the song Suzanne Vega adds one more touch to the portrayal of Luka. It’s a very difficult thing for survivors of abuse to answer the question “how are you” with any kind of comfort. Most of the time people ask that question out of politeness with the expectation of an answer like “pretty good,” or “I’m doing well, thanks, how about you?” But to a kid like Luka, a question like that would cause a great deal of confusion. For one, Luka’s emotional detachment might make it difficult to know how he feels, or at least admit it, but another part of Luka would want to talk about how sad or how angry or how frustrated he is. Ambivalence is a common feeling for survivors of abuse, even decades after the abuse, and so it’s easy to understand why someone like Luka would dread being asked how he was, no matter how ordinary the question is in polite society.
There are a few touches that make this song so deeply touching. For one, there is the simple childlike language, the obvious pretense, the intimacy of the conversational lyrics between Luka and the listener, the threefold repetition of the last line of the chorus, and the clinical details about the physical, mental, and emotional damage suffered by victims of child abuse. This song ranks in the early part of the Generation X preoccupation with child abuse in music and culture, along with songs such as Donna Lewis’ “Simeone” and Pearl Jam’s Alive. Perhaps the barbaric upbringing of many Generation Xers such as myself, and the hostility towards seeing such abuse continue, provides a major part of the backdrop of these gloomy anthems about subjects that few would pay attention to unless they had no choice or say in the matter.