“Tom’s Diner” is over 30 years old, but it’s built out of parts that are timeless. There are the lyrics, which read like the sort of observational, creative nonfiction you see threaded through your Twitter timeline every day. (A man walks into a diner for coffee and gets caught up in watching the people around him. He reads a newspaper and gets lost in a thicket of fond memory before leaving to catch a train.) There’s the song’s close-miked, a cappella intimacy, with Suzanne Vega’s warm voice ripping at the edges like she’s singing right into the lid of a MacBook. There’s the melody, tossed wordless into the song’s outro like an afterthought and denied a resolution — a melody that’s since sliced its way through three decades of music, always stepping out of the diner with a cloudy head.
We started thinking about "Tom’s Diner" again earlier this year when electronic music pioneer Giorgio Moroder and iconic pop cyborg Britney Spears covered the song on Moroder's new album, Déjà Vu. It’s a world removed from Vega’s original — the same diner, perhaps, but festooned with gaudy disco fabrics and staffed entirely by robots — but it somehow taps into the song’s essential solitude. Britney stands in the eye of the storm as Moroder's production rages around her, observing both the diner’s patrons and his garish arrangement. Like Vega before her, she understands that "Tom’s Diner" isn’t a lonely song, nor is it sad. It just asks you to watch, digest, and react.