Postmodernism has jacked it all up. In its wake, the cultural zeitgeist of irony has become so prevalent and requisite that plain old earnestness ceases to make sense anymore. Or maybe it’s that irony is the only type of sincerity there is, and sincerity is so passé that its manifestation has to be ironic. And more than that, the vicious cycle gets twisted upon and tangled up in itself, so that ironic sincerity is sincerely ironic, one man’s sincerity becomes another’s irony and vice versa, vis a vis, bullshit bullshit bullshit. There’s so much winking and nodding (not to mention anti-winks and shakes of no-no), that it seems we’ve all got severe cases of nervous ticks, and I’m not sure anyone is keeping his eyes open and his gaze straight ahead.
I meander through all this semantic, cultural studies crap as a simple preface to a highly complicated event: a Sufjan Stevens concert. Curious because, in this confused landscape, determining what transpired on both onstage and in the crowd proves difficult, if not impossible. Sure, music can be meaningful beyond its intent or its reception—in the plain space of its simple content—but since we’re talking about live music, to be so essential is to be evasive of what’s really at stake.
The curious phenomenon of Sufjan Stevens stems from the quiet success of the quieter Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State, in some critical accounts among the top five releases of 2003. In New York City, Sufjan has become something of a cult celebrity, popular in the same record shops, newsletters, and other publications that have championed the likes of the Rapture, Dizzee Rascal, or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. His indie cred skyrocketing and his name quickly becoming one to drop, Stevens’ recent show at the Knitting Factory was one of those “things to do,” that friends and acquaintances wanted to know about after the fact.
All this is fine and understandable—after all, New York City indie is little more than a surprisingly small pocket of semi-influential, highly navel-gazing tastemakers—but what becomes confusing is taking into consideration what Sufjan has done. He’s written an album about Michigan. A hushed little album, plump with horns and banjo, celestial female harmonies, and delicate, almost painfully shy singing. He’s namechecked K-Mart and rinky-dink towns one can only access via two lane highways with speed limits under 45. And he’s made a promise to do the same not just for his home state, but for all 50.
As a Michigander used to enduring smart-ass jabs from NYC denizens about the “middle of the country,” my gut reaction to the Sufjan Sensation is that it has to be endemic of some mocking, exotifying fetish, at its heart about chic New Yorkers marveling, with a mix of dumbstruck awe and disgust, what it’s like to live someplace where the zip code doesn’t begin with a 1 (or maybe a 9). Worse, I continued, is that this derision has couched itself in the façade genuine appreciation, a sort of musical equivalent to National Geographic. (Look, aren’t those Midwesterners so cute! Oh honey, do you think we could stop by one of those adorable little truck stops and pick up a hat?) I recoiled at the thought that something produced by some regular Joe from the LP (that’s Lower Peninsula for all you non-natives) could become a faddish souvenir for cool kid trailblazers on another bout of musical tourism.
Taken live, however, I began to question who was the puppet and who was pulling the strings—or if this question was even one impossible to ask, let alone ascertain. Taking the stage donning a cue-ball curved baseball cap and a button-down printed with the stars and stripes, Stevens obviously and overtly trumped up his Americana cachet. So did his stage companions the Michigan Militia, instrumentalists and a choir of girls with fresh, cornfed beauty and neckerchiefs garnishing their pale, swanny necks. It was incredibly cute and strange and maybe disturbing. Having transplanted himself to New York City in recent years, perhaps Stevens too had become part of that condescending hipsterati, feeling compelled to project back to his new peeps some satirical version of his former kin. Or perhaps his look was an act of defiance, the exaggeration of Midwestern archetype a visual protest akin to wearing drag, or a mid-American nationalism if you will. Maybe he was being who he thought we expected him to be, and by fulfilling our stereotypes, he would demonstrate just how ridiculous they were.
The problem was that none of these understandings seemed to fit once Stevens et. al opened their mouths and took to their instruments. Suddenly, what had all the trappings of an ideology-ridden moment was reduced to the simplicity of a congregation-wide talent show given in a church multi-purpose room in Anytown, USA. Stevens whispered out his wobbly tenor at a volume so quiet it seemed incredibly rude to so much as sneeze during a song. His female companions sang with a level, plain kind of prettiness, often in unison and sometimes slightly out of tune. It was basic, unadorned, marked by little commentary or communication. The audience listened patiently, politely, respectfully.
So maybe what was going on up there was real—maybe he meant the shirt or, further, hadn’t thought twice about it; maybe the girls were singing their best; maybe the crowd was just there to hear pretty music they’d enjoyed on the CD. Maybe it wasn’t about hype, or image, or preconceptions, or regionalism, or New York or Tecumseh, MI or any fucking other place. Could it be that Sufjan Stevens, in the there and then had transcended the here and now, bypassed all the iconic, ironic, pomo mess that has been mucking up popular culture ever since Kiss played a comeback tour, Cornel West made a rap album, and news anchors learned how to pronounce Foucault? Could be, but it’s hard to believe that to be the case. Because these days, especially in a place as self-obsessed and self-important and double-taking and who’s-who-ing and five-minutes-ago-ing as New York, to abandon image for even a millisecond is a luxury too few of us can afford.
But if Sufjan Stevens has done it—if that’s what it is that people connect to in that red, white and blue outfit; if that’s what people notice in his understated stature, organic singing, cherubic back up and music special in how un-special it tries to be—my god, this man deserves more than critical accolades: someone should conjure up cold, hard cash for him bringing a much needed ending to the postmodern era. Even more if what he’s done brings people to a level deeper: to hear the plaintive sadness, but also joy, that Greetings embodies at its finest moments. Yet I still wonder how likely this is, for anyone in that audience or up on that stage. If self-presentation, expectations, assumptions, desires and misconceptions come into play even on the street, their acuteness must increase exponentially when hundreds of pairs of eyes are watching you, or when you know who you’re watching is aware of being watched.