Reconciling Sufjan Stevens: Religious Hipsters and The Inevitable Queerness Of Christian Music
The accessibility of Christian artists in culture has changed over the past decade. Ten years ago, the Christians who were succeeding in secular culture were widely sellouts. Bands like Jars Of Clay and Audio Adrenaline were among the first Christians to pump some Jesus into mainstream MTV watching culture. When I was a young youth group attendee, I saw the video for Jars Of Clay’s “Flood” on MTV and officially declared myself a hater of the music channel as well as contemporary Christian music, or “CCM” as anyone in Nashville will tell you it is called.
The reason for my anger wasn’t so much that there were Christians on MTV. My anger existed because the Christians on the radio and MTV were just crappy facsimiles of what was already there. In my mind, Christians who tried to sing like Eddie Vedder were even less cool than the pagans who did.
I made a promise to myself in middle school that I would be cool but wouldn’t do drugs1 and this was my way of living in culture but not of it. It also meant that I would try to be better than everyone on MTV. I thought this was a new idea at the time, but a group of older kids was beating me to the punch.
To secular circles, Sufjan Stevens first made a scene with the album Michigan, a baroque chamber folk tribute to the singer’s home state. Intimate praises of workers and unions, towns and landmarks of Michigan, this record became an underground piece of Americana, a favorite secret of record store clerks everywhere. To Christian circles, it was the next album, Seven Swans that made Sufjan a hero. Seven Swans is for all intents and purposes, a Christian record. It is a collection of raw and lo-fi meditations of subjects ranging from the death of Christ to the transfiguration and the second coming. Its haunting melodies and arrangement are a suitable fit for the eerie subject matter. This is how I was introduced to Sufjan Stevens — a Christian friend told me about this “Christian artist who is actually good.” The madness of this claim motivated me to buy the album.
Last year Sufjan put out his most groundbreaking album Illinois, the conceptual follow-up to Michigan and one of the highest selling indie records of last year. Besides introducing Stevens to a new tax bracket, Illinois also introduced him to a brand new and larger audience ranging from the typical hipster to botox injected soccer moms to little old ladies. The Avalanche, the subsequent B-sides album from the Illinois sessions was released earlier this summer.
The Avalanche showcases Sufjan in his modus operandi — the songs are full of fluttering string arrangements, soaring background vocals, and painstaking crescendos. The problem with this record lies in its obvious lack of Sufjan’s usual superhero-like focus. While Illinois sounds ambitious with arrangements that would confound the geekiest of music theory majors, The Avalanche sounds like Sufjan horsing around in the studio. Why the tapes were not burned after the sessions is baffling. However, the strongest point of the record are the three alternate versions of the Illinois song, “Chicago,” which allows insights into how Illinois was made. The Avalanche works as an illustration of the writing process but does not stand up to Sufjan’s other endeavors.
I have since become aware of a whole group of “good Christian” artists: David Bazan, Danielson, Rosie Thomas, Ester Drang, and Half Handed Cloud. They are different because they are subversive Christian musicians. They do not directly evangelize and they barely even mention the name Jesus. They are not under pressure to convert any souls through their music, only pressure to make good art. In fact, few people even realize they are Christians. This makes for some interesting confusion. The most hilarious and fun example is the ever growing idea that Sufjan Stevens is the new voice for gay America.
Any Google search for the phrase “sufjan stevens gay” will provide a plethora of followers of this theory. One blog entry is dedicated to figuring out what kind of gay man he is, a dominant or submissive. One blog heralds his arrival as the first decent male role model for gay America.2 The author says “Gay activists have been pushing for gender equality for years. A good friend of mine, a transsexual, wanted to work in a female bridal-gown shop, but they wouldn’t let him because he’s a man. He fought the bridal place and now they’re out of business. I was happy for him, but I also found contradictions with his lifestyle. All over his room, he has posters of female gay superstars, but no men. I pointed this out to him, and he told me that the reason why females are worshipped in gay culture is because, ‘There has yet to be a truly expressive effeminate man in pop culture.’ Enter Sufjan Stevens.”
The reasons for thinking this are many. Stevens has several songs that seem to be love songs to men. In the Seven Swans song “To Be Alone With You” he tells of a man who gave his body up to be alone with Sufjan. In the song “The Predatory Wasp of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us!” from Illinois he says in reference to his brother (or possibly his friend) “We were in love.” In the song “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” Sufjan says that in his best behavior he is just like the main character, a man who raped little boys before killing them. Sufjan also fits the gay stereotype — every part of his aesthetic, his clothes, his looks, his voice, could be described as pretty. Sure, Sufjan sings about women sometimes, but any look at the pronouns in his lyrics will prove him to be at the very least, ambiguous.
In the comment threads on these blogs, visitors rarely question the theory. Every once in a while someone will raise the problem that Sufjan is religious and these songs might have some other meaning. On one blog someone comments, “One major thing to take into account is his faith. This is, in fact, the single most important thing to understand about Sufjan Stevens: his music is emensly [sic] influenced by his faith.”
The response? “Christian, repressed homosexual — same difference.”
So for everyone else Sufjan’s music begs the question “Is Sufjan gay?” but I find that pursuit a bit tiring. It does, though lead to a bigger, more entertaining question, that being “Is Christianity gay?”
Everyone who is in a gay relationship or knows someone who is, knows that sex has little or nothing to do with the relationships success or failure. What makes any relationship work is commitment. Whether a man is gay or not depends on who he chooses to commit to, a man or a woman.
So, at the very least, there is something a little gay about men who love Jesus. We commit our lives to him. We submit to him. His love for us surpasses the deepest of passion between the greatest of lovers. Priests take vows of celibacy so that they can be completely devoted to him and so that women will not be in competition for their affection. Sufjan does sing love songs to a man, that is for sure, and whether they are to his friends, a lover, or to Jesus himself, that is a little gay.
What is unique about Sufjan is that he addresses love unfettered by the social construct of gender association but also free of culture’s pressure to make that association sexual. He can confidently sing songs about lovers of no sex, not in a way that a bisexual might discuss loving men and women, but as someone who really understands the nonsexual stuff that love is made of. In other words, the whole “Is Sufjan gay?” question doesn’t really seem to bother Sufjan. It sounds like he just loves people, and that genitals don’t really fit into his plan of how to love them correctly.
Unfortunately, the danger for “enlightened” lovers, Christian or not, is passiveness, a trap which The Avalanche and the rest of Sufjan’s music falls victim to over and over. Don’t worry ladies and gentleman, Sufjan still seems fully committed to people and relationships. But his music, especially this album of admitted Illinois rejects, doesn’t really go for the gusto. Sufjan may have given up the battle for alpha male to Jesus but that doesn’t excuse his music for sounding so castrated.
In the years between the release of Seven Swans and Illinois I went through an ill-advised phase of guilty pleasures, most of them were television shows, one being the FOX sensation “The O.C.” This show is one of the catalysts in the ongoing process of taking underground culture, indie rock and hipster-nerd fashion and making it mainstream. Just imagine “Saved By The Bell” but Screech is the hero instead of Zach Morris. In one episode I watched, there was a scene in which the geek protagonist is boating on a lake and the soft music slowly fades in from the background: “I’d swim across Lake Michigan… to be alone with you.” It was the aforementioned Seven Swans song “To Be Alone With You” and as I was watching two things struck me. The first was that whoever makes “The O.C.” had probably chosen the song simply because it referred to being on a lake and that is just silly. The second realization was that “The O.C.” is the new MTV and that Sufjan Stevens is a perfect fit.
So if all music by Christians is just a gayer version of the stuff that is already popular, what is the difference between Sufjan Stevens and “CCM” artists?
While “CCM” artists only know how to speak about Jesus in their songs, Sufjan is good at addressing the Jesus in other people or other situations. This is what makes him ten times more relevant than Jars Of Clay ever was, even though he might be ten times less gutsier. While contemporary Christian musicians try to inject as much of Jesus into mainstream culture as they can, religious hipster musicians spend time pointing out that he already was and is. Sufjan may not be talented at rocking our socks off but he can find the Gospel in the pettiest of stories and situations. He can point it out in the most mundane of characters or in the most evil of serial killers.
So now that record store nerds, like myself, are bitter that they are no longer unique, and undercover Christian artists, like myself, are welcome in pop culture, my dilemma is deciding whether or not Sufjan Stevens is as overrated as my coworkers say he is, or as necessary as my church says he is. Unfortunately, the more I listen to these records, the more this decision becomes every bit as confused as Sufjan’s blogging admirers, and I have to say the answer is probably yes to both.
1. I accomplished one of these goals.
2. I don’t know why the author has decided the role model has to be a musician but since he does I would rather have Rufus Wainwright or Stephen Merrit. And since he apparently only has to be “effeminate” and not necessarily gay, why not Prince?
John Totten is an editor for The Other Journal. He has a master of arts in counseling psychology from the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology.