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14 October 2009

Too much, too much, too much: A short attention span essay about Sufjan Stevens & Liberace

I. THE SURFACE

Maybe you heard about Sufjan Stevens’ recent US tour. Maybe you read my braggadocious post about the (tiny) role I had in kicking off this latest round of shows.

Last Wednesday I saw the last gig of the run, one of four sold out New York shows. Let’s take advantage of what the internet has to offer and kick off this discussion with one of the new tunes he debuted. I’ll start with my favorite, the relatively straightforward “Age of Adz”:

Now let me admit, I came away from the show feeling both intrigued and baffled. As one of my fellow concertgoers said to me that night, the music borrowed all the signifiers of rock but contained no actual rocking. Add to that a liberal dose of spacious textures from electronic music and jazz. Another friend left early, complaining that the music was a tepid mess.

And, well, I sort of agree with these sentiments. My befuddlement can best be expressed by a series of comparative thought experiments.

- Imagine if James Taylor aspired to sound like Miles Davis
- Imagine if Cat Stevens took a greater interest in Frank Zappa than the prophet Muhammad
- Imagine if there was a male equivalent to Joni Mitchell’s experience of getting lost in a jazz hole
- Imagine if Erik Satie decided to compose his take on jock jams, more or less missing the point of what jock jams are

In case you’re mistaking these comparisons for disses, here’s a last one:

- Imagine if there were more young(ish) musicians making music so strong & brave you felt comfortable namedropping them alongside such heavyweight peers

Let’s go deeper into this with a second song, “There’s Too Much Love,” which reminds me, alternatively, of Prince and…


…well, mostly it reminds me of Prince. In his post-Top 40 years. Writing songs that boggle the imagination (on purpose). I can spot two main differences. First, Prince & Suf have very divergent musical roots: where Prince’s musical core is electric funk, Sufjan’s seems to lie in a combination of twee pop and the sort of general purpose virtuosic playing displayed by kids sent to music camp at an early age. Second, I don’t think Prince has ever expressed such an affection for lengthy (and I mean l-e-n-g-t-h-y) expanses of free, jazzy jamming — emphasis on “free jazz.” After the 3:30 mark in the above video, Sufjan has left traditional song form behind.

The thing is, Stevens is nothing if not fastidious. The looseness of “There’s Too Much Love” in the song’s latter half is not laziness. So, what’s going on here exactly?

My most genius insight of the night can be summed up in a single word: Liberace. Initially the main connection I made between these two was visual.
sufjanliberace
And if those pictures don’t convince you, perhaps the photos below will. Let’s compare and contrast a shot of the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas (via Peripheral Vision Blog) and the stage set for Sufjan’s Music Hall of Williamsburg show (via Zachary Arthur):
sufjanliberace2

Regrettably, the photo of Sufjan’s stage decorations doesn’t get across the full extent of the spectacle. For example, if you play Where’s Waldo? with the picture you can only spot two disco balls. In reality, there was a third in the upper left corner of the stage.

Let’s dance?

II. THE DEPTHS

Please don’t let this comparison be read as some coded implication of homosexuality, or a critique of tweeness. Nico Muhly would have my head for that. What I have in mind is the Liberace depicted in the flowery prose of art critic Dave Hickey:

“Liberace was without doubt and in his every facet a genuine rhinestone, a heart without malice, whose only flaw was a penchant for imitation pearls — a certifiable neon icon, a light onto his people, with an inexplicable proclivity for phony sunsets. Bad taste is bad taste, of course, and good taste is the residue of someone else’s privilege. Liberace cultivated both in equal parts, and often to disastrous effect. But if by his reactions — his antiques and his denials — he reinforced a tattered and tatty tradition of `Old World’ respectability, by his shows and his `showmanship’ (which showed what could not, at that time, be told) he demonstrated to my generation the power of subversive theatricality to make manifest attitudes about sex and race and politics that could not, for the moment, be explicitly avowed’.”

I’ll get to the bolded part of that quotation in a second. But first I want to steal Hickey’s rich descriptive prose to explain Suf’s persona — “a heart without malice, whose only flaw was a penchant for imitation pearls” — as well as Hickey’s notion that a performer’s gloss & bluster can be a front for subversive interests.

Let’s replace Liberace’s musical manifestation of 1950s-era taboos (homosexuality) with Sufjan’s support of ideas that are taboo to the 2000s counterculture. The underground music community’s religious attitudes can, at best, be described as agnostic; Sufjan’s lyrical themes communicate a morality rooted in Christianity. Where the indie rock scene is obsessed with MP3s and blogs, Sufjan displays a kind of cultural technophobia. Viz this line from a recent interview by Vish Khanna (via Pitchfork):

“I definitely feel a kind of claustrophobia because of the excess in our culture and the availability of so much.”

Or, as his backing singers coo in “There’s Too Much Love”: “Too much, too much, too much.”

Both these artists are traveling to the outer reaches of something, an exercise which brings to mind A Journey to the End of Taste, the wonderfully evocative subtitle of Carl Wilson‘s book Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love which actor James Franco semi-famously namedropped on the red carpet at the entrance of this year’s Oscars:

What separates these two is a half-century of context. Liberace came to prominence in the ’50s, a culturally marginalized homosexual, living in an overly moralistic universe. He penetrated the emergent mass media so he could rise above his circumstance, famously becoming the highest paid entertainer in the world from the ’50s to the ’70s.

By contrast, Sufjan emerged in the 2000s. He became famous in a world where everyone has their 15 minutes & where moral ambiguity is accepted. My argument is that he’s trying to use his popularity to critique popularity, and to poke around at the boundaries of the taste- & fame-obsessed scene that has made him so well-known & critically adored. To accomplish this Sufjan will write a song that empathizes with serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr. He will unspool the careful arrangements that made fans & critics acclaim him. He will keep. Wearing. Silly. Headcoverings. In a way, his songs and themes have always been about excess, but now he’s decided to let excess have its way with everything.

So, if nothing else, let this review (?!?) serve as a counter to the rockists who dislike Sufjan. That critique is a dead end road. Just as Liberace had little interest in classical music’s orthodoxy, Sufjan has little interest in using “rock” to “rock out” or “funk” to “get down.” He has no desire get to the apex of rock stardom — to play Madison Square Garden or Giants Stadium. Similarly, declaiming Liberace on the basis of style was pointless. The point of his career was not to play Carnegie Hall (even though he did it in 1953). The point was to create his own little universe in Las Vegas. Everything else was an advertisement for making the trip out west.

III. DEEPER IN

I’ve been talking here about a lot of things that these two artists are not. This begs the question: What are they? And what are they trying to do?

Well, a journey to the end of taste is also the beginning of something, that being a road to emotion. These artists don’t inhabit specific styles because they’re paying tribute to a tradition. They’re not trying to be cool. If anything, they attempt to get to the place where cool doesn’t matter anymore. Stylistic ticks are utilized as you would a tool, a can opener if you will. The signifiers of rock and classical and electronic music — the costumes & the lights, the arpeggios & the bleeps — are merely the sharp end of the blade, what allows them to get at a listener’s deeper feelings.

What they accomplish is something that cannot really be named, something both elevated and laughable, human and transcendent, heavy and light. If they have to let their art become a bit sloppy to get to that place — a bit of a mess emotionally, technically & otherwise — well, so be it. People will continue to love them despite what critics have to say. That’s because they get at things. Under the floor boards so to speak. They go in, then deeper in.

Sufjan Stevens: fan-generated video of “John Wayne Gacy Jr.”

Liberace: in Las Vegas performing a medley of “As Times Goes By,” “Chopsticks” & “Send in the Clowns”

PS – Before I disappear, let me admit that I haven’t actually read Wilson’s book. I say this not to highlight my own (considerable) ignorance but to congratulate Wilson for coming up with a work whose power & suggestiveness extends to its title. Take my use of his phrase as a lazy, blog-era analog to Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence, which I have read, and whose concept of creative misinterpretation suits my purposes here.

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

5 Comments

  1. On 2009-10-15 conrad said:

    Intriguing similarities between S and L. I’ve seen both artists—Sufjan last week at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, and Liberace in 1986 at Radio City.

    I agree that SS is still feeling his way through his new, self-granted ‘freedom’… he, or the show, seemed tentative at times, but never discouragingly so.

    Liberace, of course, had been at it a long time by 1986 (the year he died). A career honing his act had resulted in a mastery of comedy, which allowed him freedom to put on the show he wanted to.

    In concert, Liberace was self-deprecating and timeless, performing an act, but also winking at it. He was never condescending, which of course he could never be, given his aged audience. Older audiences want to laugh with the performer, and each other, but not AT anyone.
      
    Midway through the show, Liberace showed a film of his travels, and at various points (in the film), he would wave to the wealthy and glamorous celebrity giants… the Queen of England, Jackie O, etc., and of course, they cut in stock footage of those people “waving back”. The audience loved it.
      
    And I, a 12 year old kid who was forced to go, cracked up along with everyone else.

    I don’t predict nor desire a similar path for Sufjan, but when an artist begins to step outside a genre’s accepted borders, similarities with other artists in a heaven and earth not dreamt of in a particular brand/category’s philosophy emerge. Which is exciting.

  2. On 2009-10-15 TS said:

    OMG. Do you think Sufjan will make his main squeeze get plastic surgery to look more like him?

  3. On 2009-10-16 Alec Hanley Bemis said:

    It is an interesting thought experiment to imagine Sufjan morphing his body a la Orlan, Michael Jackson or the artist you are most directly referencing Genesis P-Orridge. I guess you’d want to slap a pair o’ prosthetic wings on his back?

    Honestly, though, I do not see this happening. I am not even sure who he is squeezing! I’ll let Stereogum figure out that kind of stuff.

    To me, some things are meant to reside in the mists of mystery.

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