As early as 2005, the Los Angeles Times was announcing the arrival of a new generation of musicians whose preference for introversion over boisterous ego and overwrought sexuality signaled a “Soft Revolution” of sorts. At the forefront of this timid overturning within the music world was Sufjan Stevens, a singer-songwriter whose sincere style seemed to offer some form of respite from the nonstop churning of commercial hits with easy hooks. Attributing Stevens’s success to an audience hungry for evidence of authentic artistic expression that could provide a break from the pulsing beat of nonstop commercialism, the Times opined, “It’s about the fact that everything is Coke and Pepsi these days, and it’s all mass-marketed to kids, and they just want some relief.”
In that sense, it’s obvious why we millennials are drawn to Sufjan Stevens music, and perhaps even more so for those of us raised on evangelical American rhetoric. The “relief” referred to in the Times piece was even greater for us. For in addition to being subject to the mass-marketing efforts of companies like Coke, Pepsi and Warner Bros., we also had an entirely separate marketing machine vying for our attention, one whose output seemed to say that music’s “goodness” is measured from its overt message rather than its aesthetic quality or formal nuances.
I first heard Stevens’s music in the twilight of the early 2000s while attending an evangelical Christian university in Virginia, and after a lifetime of Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, and W.W.J.D. bracelets — a lifetime of being in the world and not of the world.
From an early age, I was informed of an all-out culture war between Christians and non-Christians, those who knew the Truth and those who believed lies. Christian music was about Jesus’s love and believing the things that keep you free from eternal damnation. Non-Christian music, the music of the secular world, was about sex, drugs, and materialism and it was best to stay away from it.
As an alternative, we were offered music that sounded similar to its “secular” counterpart but was missing the same raw energy and effortless enthusiasm. By comparison, the music felt rather fake and lifeless. When I asked why this was the case, why secular music was so much more enjoyable than Christian music, the most common response was that sin is designed to be appealing and pleasurable. It didn’t feel like sin, though, in middle school when I’d stay up late in my bed, curled around a tape deck radio, listening to hours of programming and quickly (but quietly) hitting “Record” for the songs I liked but had to keep secret. It felt like excitement. It felt like discovery. A sonic portal to a brave new world.
What the Christian music industry struggles to realize is that when aesthetic value takes the back seat in the church van to over-present, often alienating dogma, the work fails at its central purpose: “to shatter the frozen lake of the soul,” as Franz Kafka once put it. In other words, the music fails to proselytize in the truest sense of the word: to create an experience wherein the individual recognizes and accepts something new that will change their life for the positive.
Stevens, at least in practice, understands that when you shout, people are inclined to cover their ears. When you whisper and invite them to hear, however, they just might incline themselves closer to get a better listen. It all sounds way more believable when you don’t feel the need to increase your volume to attract attention. By allowing his work to be the byproduct of faith rather than letting faith itself become the product, Stevens proves that authentic belief and expression can co-exist on the global stage. That such an expression of faith can even come through in a world where most everything else seeks attention by being big, loud, fast and bright, makes Stevens’ project all the more valuable to the ears of his listeners.
Such a post-evangelical approach to songwriting often means he never addresses his faith as static dogma, but rather within the context of where it truly exists: in the act of living, in breathing, in caring for others, in reconciliation and in loss.
Whether it be the beautiful or grotesque — a mournful ode to the devastations of bone cancer or reflections on John Wayne Gacy Jr. — Stevens manages to find a place of reconciliation through soft vocals, biblical references, and symphonic structures to create not so much songs to consume as narratives to visit and experience. One result of such narratives, for us millennials at least, seems to be relief. Relief from trying to reconcile the words of Christ with one’s interaction with a Church that so often tends to favor those same forms of expression and coercion which undermine the type of experiential richness available within the arts once attended to less dogmatically. Clearer still, Stevens shows us that carefully crafted expression can provide a space for theological concerns to exist in a public forum without alienating (or boring) anyone from any perspective.
Here we seem we seem to be invited to come together and enjoy something for what it is, and perhaps to reflect upon what makes it so meaningful – what makes life so meaningful – amongst a variety of people who are likely to have a range of answers to these questions. The possibility for such an exchange, be it in music or otherwise, seems to depend only upon our capacity to listen and to speak with a certain sincerity at our disposal. As if to sing, once again, without worrying what one’s tune might sell.
Article by Marcelo A. Quarantotto