Thursday, December 29, 2005

Another Reason to Love Sufjan Stevens

There are many reasons to love Sufjan Stevens. This is another one:

If someone asked, I would say that I was born again. I would look you right in the eye and say it.

I don't know anything about CCM. I'm not an evangelist. I'm a songwriter and a storyteller. If that story happens to be about Christ, then perhaps, in some odd semantic way, the song could be termed 'evangelical'. I gladly accept that. I also sing about divorce. And murder. And adultery. I sing about chickens and war and bathrooms. In my mind, the gospel is not something to pander and pawn off like a diet soda drink. There is no product. There is no selling point.

This is what it means to be born again: to fully and completely disengage with the preconceptions and preoccupations of the adult world and its religions, to dismantle all laws - of physics and society - and yield yourself to the birth canal, and what comes after, in which everything begins to shake and tremble with all senses fully turned to the center of the universe, the creator, God the Father, in whose cultivation we begin to know and understand our true selves, our real selves, as a reflection of God's image, his creation, like newborn babies, full, fresh, suckling, elated and laughing at everything. But honestly, I have no idea how this relates to my music. I hate talking about this stuff.

I'd like to spend less time talking about God and more time being in God's presence. I think that would put an end to this conversation, once and for all.
-- from an interview in Plan B Magazine, Oct. 2005

40 comments:

mg said...

i'm so sick of sufjan

Andy Whitman said...

I'm sorry. Hope the rest of the day goes better.

John McCollum said...

Andy,

I liked this quote. Sufjan seems like a very, very nice guy.

Michael,

You're such a player-hater. Sufjan rocks.

Andy Whitman said...

I participate pretty regularly on an Internet forum called Arts and Faith (http://artsandfaith.com/). Sufjan is the de factor hero there, and frequently elicits reactions like the following from Jeffrey Overstreet, who reviews movies for Christianity Today Magazine:

---------------------------

Do you ever have those "peak listens" with particular albums... the one in which the thing just opens up and reveals more rewards than you ever knew it had?

I listened to his on Christmas Eve as Anne and I drove down to Portland from Seattle. We were enthralled, this time far more than ever. When CPD came on, the tears just started flowing.

This is my favorite album of the year. I know that now without a doubt.

-----------------------------

To which I responded:

It's interesting. I like Sufjan. I love his music. And I live in the midst of a full Sufjan backlash, a church full of people who know his music well, find it highly overrated, and who loudly and persistenly lament the lemming-like chorus of admirers who froth at the mouth at his every grunt and fart.

Hey, I'm quoting, okay? I don't feel that way. I've never even experienced a Sufjan fart in any sensory way.

It's kinda lonely. I just find it interesting. While my guess is that many of you are in churches where you're playing Sufjan evangelist, and trying to get people to listen, I'm playing Sufjan evangelist of a different sort, and defending him against various aesthetic and olfactory charges.

------------------------

Be proud, CVers. Represent.

One other thing: Jeffrey is right. Objectively. :-)

Jeff Cannell said...

Andy-

Anti-hip is the new hip.

And wheter or not Sufjan Tops the top 5 hip-hop albums of the eyar. I will be a happy listener of his music because I enjoy it. BTW-- I think the non appreciators of Sufjan at CV are just sad beacause Petra, Allies, and Kenny Marks are no longer Touring.

;)

John McCollum said...

Andy,

I value you. And I don't think you're a lemming. Really. It was just a joke.

Mike,

Just messing with you.

Jeff,

Jesus said, "Take the 'Oral Roberts Surf Classics LP' out of your own eye before you try to take the Kenny Marks 'Make it Right' cassette out of your brother's."

Oh, and speaking of surf, "Smile" is the most overrated album of the year, maybe of all time, permanently displacing "Illinoise" from my list. Sorry.

:-o

John McCollum said...

Oh, and Andy -- it's interesting that you perceive CV to be full of people who think Sufjan is overrated. I've always felt like the lone voice (now, with Michael for company) in a choir of Sufjan worshippers.

And, just for the record, 'overrated' for me doesn't mean 'bad.' Just 'not as good as everyone else seems to think.'

I think that a lot of Sufjan's stuff is very interesting, and some if it is really enjoyable. I still contend that there are people out there who are so in love with Sufjan as a concept that they're unable to hear any faults in his music.

Among his highly lauded Christmas tracks, for instance, there are a few gems. There are a few, however, that are (objectively speaking, of course) complete crap. Out of tune, badly recorded, detatched, they sound like he LITERALLY phoned them in. I honestly think that he could record the first four pages of the yellow pages accompanied by a flutophone and a bag of rubber bands and many of his fans would weep at its transcendence.

I'm willing to concede that Illinoise is a very good 'concept album.' I don't think it's that I don't 'get' it. I just don't like it that much.

It's kind of like my reaction to Picasso: I love some of his stuff. There's no doubt that he was talented and insightful. (Guernica, for instance, is a really great painting. I almost cried when I viewed it in person) But I think that a lot of his stuff is actually crap. Among some folks, that's tantamount to heresy. Same with Rothko, Pollack and Andy Freaking Warhol.

I don't even think that everything U2 has ever recorded is good. I think, for instance, that "A mole/digging in a hole/digging up my soul" is about the stupidist thing I've ever heard. Right up there with "I like the sound of my own voice/I've never given anyone else a choice/an intellectual tortoise/racing with your bullet train." Still, u2 is my favorite band.

I compare my ambivalence to Sufjan to your feelings about Bono, at least as I understand them. I have to think that you rolled your eyes a little bit when Bono was named 'Person of the Year.'

mg said...

well said john, and amen

he definitely isn't bad, just severely overrated.

Andy Whitman said...

It's not just you, John. It's you, Mike, Randy, Grant, Karen, and Dan. And throw my brother-in-law Bill and sister-in-law Jan in there too, even though they're not CVers. They compared Sufjan to Rafi.

I don't like every U2 song ever recorded. But overall, I'm a fan. And believe it not, I actually think Bono deserved that "Person of the Year" honor, which has even more to do with who he is rather than what he sings.

FWIW, here's some feedback on my comment:

-----------------------

Kate Bowman-Johnson at Calvin College:

Yeah, we got "Illinois" and "Michigan" on vinyl for Christmas, and have passed several quiet evenings just listening to the records pop and spit on the turntable. It's a totally different experience listening to them on vinyl.

Andy, sorry you have to deal with all those snobs. There's a backlash at Calvin, too--it's now cooler NOT to be into Sufjan, to think he's overrated and geeky and not really that talented after all, than to be into Sufjan. That's ok, though, I've never minded being unpopular.

Anyway, if it's any comfort to your churchgoing friends, Sufjan hates the cult of personality surrounding him as much as they do.

-----------------------

Peter Chattaway, Christianity Today movie critic:

So Sufjan HIMSELF is NOT into Sufjan -- and that makes him REALLY REALLY cool! And presumably it won't be long before this added coolness of his makes it cool to be INTO him again! Oh, it's a vicious, vicious circle!

--------------------------

Someone named Opus, who has a really hip web site called Opuszine: (http://www.opuszine.com/)

It's such hard work being a hipster... why do people even bother?

--------------------------

Josh Hurst, CT movie critic:

Ten bucks says Pitchfork hates his next album, regardless of its actual quality.

Andy Whitman said...

By the way, I agree with you about some of Sufjan's Christmas music, John. Some of it was very good. Some of it could be metaphorically considered as grunts and farts.

John McCollum said...

It certainly is interesting how people get passionate about these sorts of things.

My 'interest' in this debate was actually sparked by a conversation I had with a friend who actually became red-in-the-face-angry when I said I didn't think Sufjan was all that great. "You're just a hater. Sufjan is so clearly amazing, that anyone who doesn't love him is either stupid or just trying to piss people off."

That's the kind of attitude that I just can't figure out. And it does, I must admit, provoke a feeling of 'backlash.' Maybe it's snobbishness, maybe stubbornness. Don't know. I admit, I've developed a cynicism about almost anything that is unanimously praised by any academy or group of critics. (Unless of course it's U2. Heh.)

Did I mention that I really don't enjoy listening to the Beatles? Oh, well. I can't really tell if I'm a snob or lowbrow clod. There's no accounting for taste.

Andy Whitman said...

"There's no accounting for taste."

There you go. I agree with that. I can't fault anybody who's seriously listened to Sufjan and simply decided that he or she doesn't like him that much. And as far as I know, everybody who has commented here about Sufjan fits into that category.

I understand that far better than disliking someone because he's won a bunch of awards. Or liking someone because he's won a bunch of awards, for that matter. That logic escapes me. But I can't really argue with anyone making up his or her own mind based on the music.

danthress said...

[reluctantly, dragged in by proxie]

The problem is not one of being over-rated, it's being over-worshipped, just like Bono, the Simpsons, and Johnny Cash. No man is worthy of being worshipped. And all of this idol worship in a church makes me feel uneasy. I don't get it and I've been very consistent in my remarks condemning it.

Secondly, I guess I have a village mentality. I don't understand why any of us would like Sufjan or Bono more than you like Michael or Matt Beckler. These are people in our church and home-groups. BTW, anyone called Matt lately?

It's ok to enjoy people as models of a creative life, but CV has more creative people, both latent and active, than we can shake a stick at. I'd rather we encourage each other and develop our own gifts. Annie and I try pretty hard at this, and we have been very blessed by CV by this. Incredibly blessed I must say. Thanks Jeff, et al.

Finally, I don't see why it matters what we listen too. If it's one think our church needs to be it's more diverse. Musically would be a great place to start. I'm doing the best I can.

Let me end with this: do you think that a SS is more beautiful than a conversation with Chris Kay at the Giant Eagle? I'll take a Scott Woods poem, an Andy Whitman post, or a hug from Karen James over anything you could by on iTunes.

Karen said...

Andy,
i don't care about whether there is hype or no hype. i find it strange that people defend him to me like he's some religious figure. i'm guessing he would find that strange too. i just... don't care for his music. the sound of it doesn't grab me. that doesn't mean he's not any good. i don't like led zepplin and i know they are good.
i know you know all this, already. i just felt the need to re-say it.

Dan,
i'll give you a hug anytime. that made me smile. thanks. :)

danthress said...

Thanks Karen.

We'll know we've gotten somewhere in 2006 when we read posts called, "Another reason to love Andy Taylor."

Andy Whitman, don't take this as an attack on you. Although, I am a bit miffed by your new background color.

mg said...

led zep rocks!

Andy Whitman said...

Dan, I called Matt a couple weeks ago and left a message, but I haven't actually spoken with him in a while. I believe he's doing well. He, Tiffany, Kate and I are going to a Sigur Ros (note musical reference to someone not named Sufjan Stevens) concert together in a few weeks.

Re: idol worship. No. It's not idol worship to recognize and celebrate creativity and beauty. And although I would agree that there's no accounting for taste, and that everyone is welcome to his or her own opinion about Sufjan's music, I would also say that there truly is an objective component to this. To my knowledge, the level of critical acclaim that has accompanied Sufjan Stevens' album "Illinois" is unprecendented for a Christian artist. U2 obviously sells more albums, but U2 doesn't receive the level of praise that Sufjan Stevens has received this year. There's been almost unanimous (except from Christians and publications like Christianity Today; how ironic is that?) for Sufjan's album. That's a big deal. And it's a good deal. Peoople who normally wouldn't give Christians or Christianity the time of day are sitting up and taking notice of a wonderful talent. That, in and of itself, and regardless of what you think of the music, is worth celebrating.

Re: local talent vs. more widely known talent, I'd say that you're setting up a false dichotomy that doesn't need to be there. Sure, I'm proud of Michael's and Matt's music, and I want to support it, just as I want to support Scott's and Louise's poetry, your drumming, etc. By all means, let's do that. Let's cheer on the local talent. But that doesn't preclude the fact that people I don't know and can't hang out with are producing some amazingly creative work. And I can celebrate that, too. Let's do both.

Finally what's wrong with the background color? I decided to be wild and crazy and go for something other than white.

Karen said...

andy,
i, for one, like the background color. nice change. :)
i like what you said about supporting both local and widely known artists. after all, the widely known were once local somewhere.
i do appreciate that an artist who is clearly a christian is getting so much critical acclaim.

dan,
i appreciate your enthusiasm for supporting local artists. it's great, and it reminds me to do so. thanks.

michael,
i cann't stand led zeppelin. which randy finds funny, b/c so much of the white stripes stuff sounds influenced by zeppelin. who knows.

danthress said...

The beauty of you blog is that is has no bells or whistles. It's only your words. The white background accentuated this point.

FYI, in musician-speak there is nothing more disparaging than to be called, local. This is in no way a local vs other discussion. Local talent is different from people you play with or know.

Here's the rub: I fully endorse David Dark's "there isn't a secular note in the universe" theory. I think you do too, at least to a degree, so when you go on and on about Christian music it seems to be a bit of a contridiction.

Is SS the best music of the year, or the best Christian music of the year?

Michael, in a contest of ultimate wankers, Led Zepplin is only beat out by a band called... Rush.

danthress said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Andy Whitman said...

Dan, Sufjan doesn't make Christian music. He is a Christian who makes music. There is a huge difference, one I'm sure you can appreciate. I can't stand Christian music for all the same gag-inducing reasons that I can't stand any art that is fundamentally based on propaganda. In fact, I'm not sure that it's fair to use the words "art" and "propaganda" in the same sentence.

But I do think it's worth noting and celebrating when Christian musicians, who have historically been marginalized and ignored in the mainstream musical media (often for good reasons, I might add), create something that is so artistically noteworthy that the mainstream media not only review their work, but almost universally praise it. And that has happened this year with Sufjan Stevens.

My opinion? Sufjan Stevens released the best album this year. Period. But he is a Christian, and he writes as a Christian, and, if anything, that makes his achievement all the more worthwhile. Imagine American society at the height of Jim Crow and segregation, and then imagine a novel by, say, James Baldwin or Richard Wright winning universal acclaim in literary circles. And that happened, of course. It's a great achieveent in any case. But it's an even more remarkable achievement given the cultural tenor of the times. And, in my opinion, Sufjan Stevens' effort is no less worthy.

John McCollum said...

Dan, Andy, Karen and Michael,

I am so thankful that each of you are in my home group. I hope to see you tomorrow night.

Maybe we can light a couplea cigars and solve this once and for all by talking about something completely different.

Like Sigur Ros. Now THAT'S something on which we can all agree. Right?

John McCollum said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Karen said...

john,
i'm thankful that i was a part of your homegroup. i'm going to miss it.
we won't be able to make it tomorrow night, and next week we start ours.

i have yet to listen to sigur ros. sounds like i should...

chelsea said...

i'm still stuck on rothko...??? just kidding... i'll forgive you john.

chelsea said...

andy... are you familiar with makoto fujimura and IAM?

danthress said...

Andy,

Knowing you personally, I know your heart on this issue. I respect and bless what you're saying.

Chelsea,

I've been enjoying Makoto's blog all year:

http://www.makotofujimura.blogspot.com/

I see a lot of God in Rothko's work. Are we ready to discuss John Cage yet?

[heading back to my room]

John McCollum said...

Chelsea,

I know, I know. Rothko's a giant. And his brushwork and colors are great. Any five of his paintings from his 'classic' period or later works (such as those for the Seagram Building) are nice. But after a while, it just looks like squares and lines. Boooring.

Do I think he's an important artist? Sure. Do I like him? Eh, sorta. Do I loooove him?

No. Some people act as if I'm an idiot or a Philistine for not being ecstatic about some critically acclaimed artists' work. And when I express that opinion, or enter into a dialogue about why I don't like it, I'm the snob. How does that work?

Rhetorical question. Please don't answer.

At any rate, I'm not jumping on you -- I wasn't offended in the least by your reaction to my Rothko comment. I have, however, realized that I must express my opinions with either a vigor or tone that makes people feel defensive. I'm working on that.

It's something that plagues me. It has for years. And sometimes it makes me mad at myself, sometimes at other people.

Here's how it usually goes for me...

---

Person: Hey, man! Have you ever (listened to John Mayer/watched The Office/asted Bombay Sapphire)? (He's the best singer ever/It's so funny you'll pee/It's the nectar of Ambrosia)!

Me: Yeah, (he/it/it) doesn't really do it for me. I just don't think it's (spectacular/hilarious/delicious). It's not bad, but it doesn't make me want to (cry/pee/dance).

Person (angrily/incredulously/weepily): What do you mean?!!! Everyone in the world loves (him/it/it)! What's wrong with you? You're just a contrarian. That's it.

Me: Hunh? I thought you asked me for my opinion...

Person: Well, if you're not a contrarian, you just don't know what (sounds good/is funny/tastes good).

Person (to second person): Man. John is really opinionated. And arrogant. He thinks his own farts smell like flowers and everyone else's flowers smell like farts. What a jerk.

---

I guess I've just gotten past the stage when I'm willing to pretend to like something just because everyone else does. I used to do that with stuff I was supposed to like at the Wex. I'd walk into an exhibit and pretend to carefully study some 'sculpture' that consisted of a box of tampons, a razor blade and a pile of poo, clench my jaw, tilt my head and nod knowingly.

As an English major, I had to read William Carlos Williams. I tried to like him. I even memorized and quoted him. "So much depends on the red wheelbarrow, blahde blahde blah..." Looking back, I know that the only appeal for me was a sort of guilty suspicion that I was missing something that all of the smart people were catching. I don't want to play that game anymore.

Now that I'm an adult, I'm willing to listen/watch/taste and walk away unimpressed, unashamed.

I am grateful beyond words for the erudition of the people in our church and in my community. Andy and Teddy and Dan and Jeff and others have introduced me to a world of unfamiliar music and literature that I like -- and some things I either don't like (or don't LOOOOOVE as the case may be).

Personally, I'm thrilled that this kind of conversation can happen in our community. I loved the whole poetry slam debate as well. As an artist, I find this kind of dialogue stimulating.

John McCollum said...

Dan,

John Cage, as in the composer of 4:33, the 'musical' performance, in which not a note is played?

4 minutes, 33 seconds of silence?

Interesting. Different.

Enjoyable? Not for me. But then again, I haven't heard everything he's done.

He describes his music as "purposeless play", but "this play is an affirmation of life—not an attempt to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we are living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and desires out the way and lets it act of its own accord."

Personally, I don't like 'detached' or 'aloof' art. I can't possibly see the appeal of 'getting one's mind and desires out of the way.' I guess that's why I'm not a Buddhist.

That having been said, I'm glad his music exists. It provides an fascinating counterbalance to the extremely structured, formalistic composers of earlier days.

danthress said...

John, you might have to go a little deeper than wikipedia on John. :)

John McCollum said...

Dan,

You're right. I did pull the quote from Wikipedia. I'm not sure which resource you'd recommend to quickly find a quote from John Cage, but I'm open to other suggestions. ;-)

Anyway, I have studied a just little bit of music history, and have always been alienated by works like 4:33. But then again, my interest in music and most other arts is less academic, more visceral, less universal, more personal. That's probably why I don't really like music that strikes me as 'aloof' or 'detached.' Nor do I like music that is overly experimental, at least when it's experimental at the expense of being experiential.

And I suppose there's nothing more subjective than the 'experiential.' Some may find the (intentionally?) out-of-tune vocals and wind instruments in some of Sufjan's tracks innovative and endearing. Someone else may find them contrived and grating.

Having said all that, I'm tired of being the critic, and have had enough for at least a couple of days. I'm going to take a hot bath, put on some music that suits ME, and try to get back to talking about music and and art and people I actually enjoy.

Andy, you and Dan really are master baiters.

I hope to spend some time IN PERSON with both of you before 2005 expires. Much love.

chelsea said...

oh john... i totally agree with you. i was only teasing. i'm completely on the same page... you wanna' hear my list of things people have been irritated by my lack of interest in...

the doors, the who, the rolling stones, bob dylan (the music not the man), beer (any beer... just tastes like they forgot to put the goodness in.), ernest hemingway (yikes), fresh garden grown tomatoes.... or really any tomatoes, braque, bitch's brew (please have mercy), paul mccartney's new album, reubens, frank stella (yuck!), etc... i could go on. and vice versa... there are a lot of things i like that people sort of turn their nose up at... i try to own up to those things too. :)(i'll give you that list some other day.) sometimes i just have to admit that there are completely trite and overdone things that i just can't help loving. oh well...

for some reason people tend to feel threatened when you don't like something that they do.(secret: sometimes i catch myself feeling this way too... because deep down i'm pretty insecure.) i can recognize that all of the things i named are valuable and worthy of interest... and i used to try to force myself to like things... but life is too short. now i strive to appreciate things... especially art.. even if i don't like them... but i by no means expect everyone to "like" what i do. (rothko included)

sometimes... i can be kind of serious so when i tease someone it's taken a little too seriously.

Andy Whitman said...

I thoroughly enjoy discussions like these.

John, I love you. I love everybody in these here parts, in fact. I am a big, cuddly bundle of love. I hope that our occasional disagreements about the stupendously gifted, criminally misunderstood Sufjan Stevens doesn't persuade anyone otherwise. :-) It wouldn't be true.

We're off for a short trip up to Cleveland to see Kate's family, so we'll miss the home group tonight. But we'll be around later this weekend. Save that cigar for me.

Chelsea, thanks for your comments. I'm only vaguely familiar with Makoto Fujimura, but I certainly appreciate what he and IAM are attempting to do. I am, sadly, woefully ignorant about the visual arts. Part of that is my orientation; I'm a words and sounds guy, and Kate frequently has to point out when, for instance, our walls change from white to maroon. Part of it is just ignorance, though, and that I can address. I'll certainly spend some more time investigating his work, and the mission of IAM.

John McCollum said...

Andy, you are cuddly.

Although, when I showed my kids your caricature/portrait in the latest issue of Paste, Chien shrugged, and Pak said, "I don't know. Count Dooku?"

Fred Kohn said...

hmmm... Sufjan Stevens.

I'm really going to have to listen to something of his someday.

teddy dellesky said...

My opinion? Sufjan Stevens released the best album this year. Period. But he is a Christian, and he writes as a Christian, and, if anything, that makes his achievement all the more worthwhile.

thanks, once again andy, for putting it into words for me.

i've followed sufjan for some time, enjoying his music before even knowing about his faith. if he weren't a believer, i would still rate his album as #1 this year. as an "indie" music listener, he is doing something, in my opinion, that no one is doing. his musicianship is off the charts, his arrangements are felt, his lyrics are unique and life-centered. what he does just bleeds with life, and that, more than anything else, is what i listen for.

KarlandBethany said...

I love all of you, I love all who enjoy art, Praise be to God for giving us art. Life would be very dull and we wouldn't have anything to blog about.

More later when I have a chance to comment

Scott Sloan said...

He's Not Metal!!!!!

Happy New Year you all, I am back!!!!

Anonymous said...

this discussion is really funny. all this discussion about Sufjan being over-rated and over worshiped , is he deserveing of this praise is he not and all that stuff. it makes me laugh. its funny how easy it is to become absorbed into the world of music, esspecially indie music. It cracks me up because i think all these things but then i go out in to the world of "the masses" and nobody even knows who the fuck sufjan stevens is, honestly. overratted? maybe by the small portion of this country who actually listens to him or knows who he is... (all though i love him, i can see how is music could annoy some people) but you wanna talk overrated turn on the MTV music awards....

Anonymous said...

in reality a review in pitchfork means almost nothing, whether they gave sufjan's next album with a ten or a two its doesn't affect the fact that 97% of the kids on my college campus don't know who he is, don't care and are plugged into their ipods listening to the lastest 50 cent album