November 15th, 2005

My Latest for Tikkun: Sufjan Stevens

I've been meaning to point out that my latest piece for Tikkun magazine is up on its website. The last one, mostly focused on Alain Badiou's Infinite Thought, never made it online. But the new one did, luckily. It's a bit of a departure, Tikkun-wise. I had been writing book reviews: Badiou, Butler, Hardt and Negri, Rudolph Rocker. Now it looks like I'm going to be doing mostly music-related stuff. Indeed, I've become the de facto music editor, which sounds impressive until you realize that the whole music section averages only 1500 words or so.

This new piece, on alternative musician Sufjan Stevens, came about in a strange manner. The managing editor contacted me after the piece they'd been planning to run fell through. Could I come up with something in less than a day that would A) run 1500 words; B) fit Tikkun's "politics of meaning" format; and, ideally, C) contribute to the magazine's new emphasis on interfaith matters? I thought for a minute and said, "Well, that's an insane deadline, because I'd really only have four hours in which to write it, but I'll give it a shot. How about a religion-friendly take on Mr. Illinoise?" And so was my mission born.

Because I'd written about Stevens here in De File prior to his Tucson show, I had some material to build on. Still, the pressure was intense. Had I been beset by the insecurities that often plague me when sitting in front of the computer these days, I never would have finished. For once, though, everything clicked. I wrote fluidly without worrying about revising. There simply wasn't time. This explains the rhetorical excesses of the piece. When my "flow" is unimpeded by the dams of expectation, my prose becomes more ornate:
The banter and between-song cheers of Stevens’s band are so wholesome that they would seem fake, were it not for the moments of introspection in his songs. When he sings the haunting conclusion to Illinois’s “John Wayne Gacy,” “And in my best behavior/ I am really just like him/ Look beneath the floorboards/ For the secrets I have hid,” the orange-on-blue attire—the colors of the University of Illinois—and pom-pom twirls are reimagined as relatives of Gacy’s clown costume, grotesque in their forced buoyancy. It’s often difficult to hear lyrics in a live setting, but Stevens’s mountain-stream voice and burbling pace make it possible even for newcomers to his work to hear every word. And that gives his first-person singular special force. It’s one thing to hear someone sing “I” on a record, another entirely to experience that live. The line between singing in character and singing his character breaks down.

It is this confusion, however temporary, that perplexes Stevens’s listeners the most. Because over time, in the interstices both of elaborately wrought—and sometimes overwrought—compositions that can sound like Philip Glass’s attempt to become a pop musician, and of spare, whispery folk songs that cut the complexity of the former like lemon sorbet after a rich main course, he reveals something out of character with the circles he frequents. Stevens sings as a Christian. At first, members of his audience brush this realization aside. They are among hipsters, after all. Most of the people in this room devote their Saturday and Sunday mornings to servicing hangovers, not attending services. If they do believe in a higher power, it is a belief locked deep inside them, like a memory of early childhood that only comes out when they are mad or frightened or stoned. But as the clues pile up—references to divinity, righteousness, Bible study, Emanuel—they become impossible to ignore. Maybe Stevens is singing as someone other than himself, but if that is the case he shows a remarkable preference for first-person narrators who wear their religion, if not on the sleeve of their coat, then in the satiny lining inside it that flashes whenever they move.
When I read the finished product to Kim in the car, she remarked its eloquence, suggesting that it was one of the best things I'd ever written. And some of the people who have read it and my next piece for Tikkun, on the Dutch Anarchist band The Ex, have remarked that my writing about music is stronger than my writing about theory. Although praise is always welcome, though, part of me is troubled by this assessment. I work very hard on my book reviews, not least because they require the reading of long, difficult books. While it is true that they take fewer risks than some of the things I've written about music -- reviewing popular music almost demands risk-taking -- I like the fact they are so solid. I won't regret them five or ten years down the road. At any rate, although I'm excited to be writing about music again, I'm hoping that I can still crank out the occasional theory-minded book review from time to time. If nothing else, the exercise provides me with lots of raw material for more expansive scholarly pursuits.

Anyway, please let me know what you think about the piece on Sufjan Stevens. Oh, and please do note that the description of "hipsters" that opens it is leavened with a healthy dose of self-critique. I'm wearing black Converse high-tops right now, for example, and am famous for exhibiting a failure to commit.
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Born to Rerun

We're living in the era of excess. Everything of any consequence seems destined to be rereleased and frequently more than once. Modest Mouse has already put together new versions of their past two albums, for goodness sakes. But there are some revised-and-expanded reissues that I will not hesitate to buy the minute they become available. And tops on that list is the thirtieth anniversary box-set edition of Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run, complete with a DVD documentary and the film of a 1975 London concert that sounds amazing:
The full theatricality of Mr. Springsteen's songwriting for "Born to Run" comes through in the Hammersmith Odeon concert DVD. The show was filmed and recorded in 24-track sound. Mr. Springsteen had almost forgotten about it until he started looking through his archives recently. "I was told, 'He's going to be sending over some footage,' " Mr. Zimny said. "It was 16 cans, unlabeled, from 1975." The films were silent, separated from the recording, so Mr. Zimny had to do some lip-reading to connect images to songs.

Onstage, Mr. Springsteen wears a floppy knit cap that gets nearly as much of a workout as he does; band members have wide-brimmed hats and loud suits with bell-bottom pants. They tear through the songs: "Born to Run" has probably never been played as fast before or since, while "She's the One" starts with Mr. Springsteen's lone harmonica and builds its Bo Diddley beat into a syncopated jackhammer. And if Mr. Springsteen was nervous - he had spent the afternoon rampaging through the theater getting rid of promotional fliers that seemed like too much hype - it barely shows as he struts and clowns and emotes and sweats. "We were seeking that spotlight out, we were trying to do something that would be noticed," he says in the documentary. "You wanted something that was explosive." He was just a Jersey guy, ready to take on the world.
That barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain just inched a little closer to me. If I extend my hand, I might even be able to touch her ankle.
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