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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Lets Compare - Sufjan Stevens

Folk music is complicated, and that is something that is easy to forget. Especially in this, the internet age, folk, for most people is more about the sound rather than the actual content. But if you look at the greats, people like Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young, you can glean pretty quickly that those guys rarely stuck to only one sound. While it may seem obvious, the common thread that ran through their music was that it was about real people, or at least people that could be real. In the twenty first century we have this stereotyped conception that folk music is about butterflies, the fluttering of birds, learning to appreciate the music of a quiet wood, and other crap like that. But it isn’t, and that is something that Sufjan Stevens knows all too well.
                    It would be flat out inaccurate to pigeonhole Stevens in the folk genre, especially stylistically, but to think of the tone of his albums as anything other than folksy would be just as inaccurate. Even on the spacey and at times weird Age of Adz he comes across as a relatable guy, a man of the people, a people that are strange and disenfranchised but know how to have a good time. I would almost call Sufjan Stevens more folk than those greats I mentioned earlier, and that is because he is ours. Things have changed since the sixties and so have we, and so should our musicians. Stevens comes across as a Richard Thompson with a Macbook, a Loudon Wainwright III who likes pictures of cats as much as the next guy. And that’s what musicians should be, real people. That’s what makes Sufjan great; he is one of the few musicians who has a compelling personality without having to play a character. Remember, folk music is complicated, and that is something that Sufjan Stevens never fails to remind me of.

                    Here we analyze artists by putting their works in context. We look at how they build off of each other and how our music is evolved. Steven’s story then is one of particular interest considering how eclectic his style is and how honed his sound feels. After all he is a great story teller, much deserving of a good story unto himself.

1. Give Yourself Goosebumps, choose your own adventure books by R.L. Stine
Little Comic Shop of... Remember these things? Of course you have the main canon of Goosebumps stories, but these were different. The main character was you and you were given choices, choices that impacted what you read and how the story went. There was nothing frightening about these books; I don’t even remember being frightened as a kid. They are more dramatic than scary, every chapter ends with a cliffhanger whether big or small, like an episode of Lost, except Goosebumps made far more sense.
            Im holding a copy of a Goosebumps choose your own adventure.  It has a sparkly cover, you know the kind, it shines tacky silver around the edges. I run my hand over the cover. At the top is the trademark Goosebumps font, that sticky looking green ooze lettering that is pretty iconic. Then there is the picture. This particular one depicts a humanoid lizard tearing out of the back recesses of a comic book shop. Its tasteless, but it works. Now is Sufjan Stevens tasteless? No, instead I give him credit for successfully being able to get away with things that could be seen as tacky.  For instance his Christmas album, all forty two songs of it, is probably not something that many other artists could get away with. Not to mention the follow up rap mix tape that has a song about man on Santa love action. These Christmas tapes evoke several feelings, confusion, laughter, nostalgia, delight. But there is one thing that those tapes don’t do to me, they don’t surprise me. Are they supposed to be surprising? I don’t know, but a move like that just feels like vintage Sufjan, he gets away with it because it sounds like something he would do, tasteful or not.
                  The greatest thing about the Chopped and Scrooged tape though is that it seems like something people want. Its 2013 now and almost everyone I know has been on or at least heard of a website like Imagur, 9gag, or even *gulp* 4chan. These are sites where if it’s funny (or has a cat in it) it flies and the people that follow those sites seem like the type of people who could appreciate man on Santa love action. The choose-your-own-adventure stories have the same sort of vibe to them. It seems as if both R.L. Stine and Sufjan have the same “If you have to ask why than you already don’t understand me” mantra. For Sufjan that style plays right into his hands. He is a man that wholly understands the age in which he lives and can create songs that people will related to, whether it be on an emotional or comedic level. And that works so well because Sufjan isn’t tied down by having to conform to the will of his fans. He is one of the rare artists where who does whatever he wants who has a fan base who will enjoy whatever he does. 

A picture of Rl Stine and Sufjan Stevens,
if Sufjan Stevens were dead

              Another way in which Mr. Stevens and Mr. Stine relate is that they both have a wide collection of works. There were sixty two original Goosebumps stories, and an additional fifty Give Yourself Goosebumps books. Sufjan has put out eleven albums in twelve years. While this may seem like a superficial connection at first, in actuality it says a lot about both men; mainly that the way in which their arts are received by the public is roughly the same. By this I mean that whatever the two men’s output happen to be, there are fans waiting with open arms at the end of bookshelves and underneath CD racks. You are a boy with a fifth grade reading level? Here is your Goosebumps book. You are of college age and are into music? Here is your copy of Illinois. Not to say that Sufjan’s fans are childish, but it does say something about twenty first century consumerism when you can release an album with absolutely no fear that it will be a financial bust because of its quality. While I wouldn’t be bold enough to suggest that Sufjan has released a record unworthy of the hour’s wage it costs and the hour it takes to hear it, there are artists aplenty who have failed to meet those requirements and come out in the financial green regardless.

2. Chicago Poems by Carl Sandburg
Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat
Plaer with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders
-Carl Sandburg excerpt from Chicago

I know what you are thinking, that this is too obvious. And maybe you are right, but the prospect of analyzing two very different artists depict the same subject is just too good to pass up. You see this over and over again in art. One artist does something and then another artists comes along and tries to do it better. Like the David’s of Donetello, Michelangelo, and Bernini, while the skylines of Steven’s and Sandburg’s Chicago may be different, those differences reveal plenty about the man Sufjan and his opus Illinois.
Look! its Chicago!
              The first difference between the men is not so much a defining factor as it is an obligatory point that needs to be made. It is this; that Sufjan was a born and raised son of Brooklyn where Sandburg called Chicago his home. While it may be a trite detail that does not say much of either’s works, it is nevertheless something that I give credit to Sandburg for. It is one thing to articulate the habits and lifestyles of an out-group, but to do the same of an in-group is a different matter. This is why anthropologists favor field work among foreign peoples but discourages people from “going native” and embracing the culture they are studying. Being aware of ones in-group is akin to self-awareness, a quality that is of the utmost importance among poets and not a lesson lost to Sandburg.
            Another difference of course resides in the fact that Illinois touches on the entirety of the state, whereas Sandburg focuses on just Chicago. This difference is perhaps a testament to the ADHD driven society that we currently live in, or perhaps that could just be our propensity to over think things. Either way, focusing on one subject does have its advantages. The view that we get of Chicago Poems is of course more in depth. The way in which Sandburg finds beauty in every single breadth of urban smog is lovely realism with just a hint of hope. Chicago to Sandburg was as much of a character as any of the people he writes poems about are. Sufjan conversely has a leg up on Sandburg in that Sufjan, or at least the narrator of his songs, becomes an extremely constant and relatable force. Strangely I am not even sure that the narrator is supposed to be the same person from song to song, but Steven’s voice becomes a constant companion on your trip through The Land of Lincoln.

Asides from that though, there are few thematical differences between Sandburg’s Stevens’ work, especially Illinois, and Chicago Poems. That is of course if you bypass the idea that Sufjan rhymes most of his lyrics and puts them to music and that they were written a number of years apart from each other.  At their hearts, Chicago Poems and Illinois are both love letters in the truest sense. By that I mean that they take the good with the bad. Both works acknowledge the faults of the city or cities that they depict. For every praise worthy Andrew Jackson there is a John Wayne Gacy lurching around on Illinois. In Chicago poems for every Hungarian in the park there is some looming robber baron. And in a way it is that contrast that makes both works compelling pieces. Teasing apart these distinctions is what skilled artists and writers do. While the differences between these two writers are staggering, its that one shared quality, their way of truthfully depicting things as they are, that enters them both into the pantheon of their respective fields of song and poetry.

1 comment:

  1. Look! It's a picture too large for the post, and it has really really low resolution