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Tracing the long, strange history of 'Tom's Diner'

A 30-year journey from café curio to 2015 chart-topper

“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.

The original "Tom’s Diner" wasn’t written all in one go, though it’s an appealing fantasy: Vega sitting in a diner, banging out a vivid recollection of the morning’s events and meditating on the power of memory. The diner in question is actually Tom’s Restaurant, a Morningside Heights staple popular with Columbia University students. Discerning the rest of the song’s origin based on its lyrics has become something of a treasure hunt for avid fans.

"Tom's Diner": a History

And Giorgio and Britney released the cover described at the top of the piece, the danciest take yet on Vega’s humble piece of solo folk. The three songs released most recently represent a vast amount of musical and cultural terrain in 2015: different genres, different mediums, different ages and personal backgrounds all tied together through one song. It’s a testament to the unpredictable power and universality of "Tom’s Diner": a morning like any other at a café like any other, made part of our shared history.