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De File
Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
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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Mode: tensile
Muse: The Other Man's Grass Is Always Greener - Petula Clark - Twin Town

36 comments or Leave a comment
flw From: flw Date: November 15th, 2005 06:05 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I really doubt that many Tikkun readers would know what a hipster is, and if they had suspicions, they would lean more towards Kramer (of "Seinfeld") than indie-rock. So, you need not worry about offending anyone.

I think perhaps you and I are the only people in the world who know of the Tikkun deal and the indie rock deal. The fact that you are writing for Tikkun blows my mind.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: November 15th, 2005 07:06 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Oh, you'd be surprised. All those aging 30-somethings reared on "alternative" are now in search of the spritual sort!
From: catfishvegas Date: November 15th, 2005 07:45 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I really like the notion of the satiny lining - not hidden, not displayed, but simply existing. Of course, if you're intrigued by one glimpse of that satiny lining, you'll spend the rest of the show straining for more glimpses.
I think Stevens' Christianity is acceptable to most hipsters because of his (apparent, through songs) approach. It's certainly not evangelical, and it's not tortured Catholic youth. His is a religious studies or a literary allusion sort of Christianity. For whatever reason, he's retained his fascination with the Christian notions of devinity. It's a respect for the intellectualism of Christianity and the traditions. It's a reminder that Christianity is an incredibly varied entity - Stevens' God is not the God of George W. Bush, for example.
I think Stevens' approach to religion fits well with his stage show and albums in general. He has a childlike fascination with religion, just as he does with serial killer tales, superhero legends and the other stories and minute factoids that really make up the cloth of a place.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: November 15th, 2005 08:16 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I agree with everything you say here. More than that, though, I want to say that I love the way you wrote it. "The cloth of a place" -- nice!
kdotdammit From: kdotdammit Date: November 15th, 2005 07:56 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I already told you this in person, but I'll say it again here. This is such an awesome piece of music writing. One of your best ever (in my humble opinion). It's great.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: November 15th, 2005 08:17 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Thanks. It means a lot coming from a writer as good as you!
katieengl From: katieengl Date: November 15th, 2005 09:09 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)


check the little mail box on the front of your office.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: November 15th, 2005 09:17 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: pst....

Thank you! I'll give you a stack of blank CDs in return, ok?
From: vodkashuffle Date: November 15th, 2005 10:17 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I really enjoy reading your thoughts on music -- I hope to see more.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: November 15th, 2005 10:41 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Me too!
From: (Anonymous) Date: November 16th, 2005 12:03 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Large Red Man Reading

If you'd've suggested that the Moebius strip Stevens devises is one of embarrassment and candor instead of irony and sincerity, I'd've had firsthand evidence that I'm finally dreaming in color, as if in the native hue of resolution. I agree with the poster who can't believe (Heideggerian) you is writing for Tikkun, as well as with the poster who likes -- and no doubt learns from (as do I) -- your writing on music (hence, with your wife).

Boy, do I miss the days when a mind as by turns expansive, generous and brilliant as yours seemed as expendable as the EPA seems now. I was then what we still refer to now as a rich American.

cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: November 16th, 2005 01:01 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: Large Red Man Reading

Thanks. That's a lot to parse, but it makes me happy to try. Irony and sincerity is a pretty threadbare binary, I realize, but sometimes you gotta go where the river wants to flow.
Parsimoaning - (Anonymous) - Expand
elizabeg From: elizabeg Date: November 16th, 2005 07:18 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Well you clearly don't need one more voice to tell you that it's good so I'll just tell you what you know already which is that also this is not un-theory. Need I come to the defense of waxing wonderfully on pronouns? I don't think so. And I think that sort of thing is part of the wonder of the way you write when you are writing what you love. I mean, you know that I love pronouns--but I wouldn't have to love them to love reading this and that makes for some damn fine prose indeed.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: November 17th, 2005 04:24 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Thanks! I'm glad you noted the theory angle. Benveniste et. al.
From: (Anonymous) Date: November 17th, 2005 04:15 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Stevens Article

I find this thread absolutely fascinating. As Tikkun's Managing Editor - and Charlie's friend - its a total delight. As I said to you last week, Charlie, don't take my fellow ed's comments about your book reviews too critically. They were offering what for all intents and purposes was a personal taste preference for your music writing over your book reviews.

As someone who has edited you for years - Punk Planet, for seven years before joining Tikkun last year - I can clearly say that your Stevens piece is one of the best pieces of writing I've ever seen of yours. That's what my fellow editor was clueing in on. You're going to write more theory-oriented book reviews for us in the future.

And by the way: you're the official music editor of Tikkun, not defacto.

Rock and Rule, Joel

cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: November 17th, 2005 04:23 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: Stevens Article

Thanks, Joel! It's always a pleasure and an honor to write for you. By "de facto" I meant that I'd be doing more writing myself than editing of others, at least for the time being. Anyway, I do hope to do both kinds of writing, so it's good to hear that I will be able to. Take care.
From: (Anonymous) Date: November 17th, 2005 06:33 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I'm a cranky toddler when it comes to music crit, but this is a really great piece of writing, Charlie. It's simply incandescent in places. It's hard to find music writing where the quality of the writing squares with the strength of the observations, but you've got it here to the nth degree.

-- Mark
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: November 17th, 2005 06:38 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Thank you so much, Mark! It means a lot to hear such kind words.
From: ozric_dampierre Date: November 17th, 2005 06:47 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)


i seriously doubt you could name anyone in the audience who would accept the hipster label as described by you as someone who when not servicing hangovers has --their belief that a sophisticated independent-label musician the darling of big city critics can't really be the believer he seems to be...leaving the hipsters in his audience embarrassed at their own discomfort with religious conviction...he reveals their desire to remain non-committal. a better label for such a character if 'he' exists might be 'jerk' while you prefer to turn 'him' into a hipster in order to denigrate whoever you think is too dumb or drunk to realize-- the spirituality that motivates stevens more rewarding than sleeping off hipster hangovers... far as i know 'christian' band starflyer 59 is reviewed based on what they sound like not on whatever religious beliefs they have but i guess they are not the darlings of big city critics like sufjan stevens is at the moment that makes him a suitable subject for tikkun...
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: November 17th, 2005 07:06 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: hipsters

Obviously no one is going to want to embrace the "hipster" label I'm constructing here, since it's not very favorable. But I was writing a caricature, so that comes with the territory. Interestingly, most writings on Stevens have avoided extended engagement with his religiousness. As for Tikkun, being the "darling of big city critics" has nothing to do with suitability for the magazine except to the extent that I am writing for them and read big-city critics myself. I have a Jewsish summer camp sing-a-long record waiting for review right now, for example, so I think you err in presuming any connection whatsoever -- again, aside from me -- between the world of Tikkun and the world of Pitchfork. Anyway, thanks for taking the time to read and provide input, even though it is -- as I could have predicted sober or soused -- not exactly laudatory. It's refreshing to get slapped in the face from time to time. Maybe I should just send you a ream of my writings so that you can mete out regular doses of vitriol!
Re: hipsters & tikkun - (Anonymous) - Expand
From: (Anonymous) Date: November 29th, 2005 02:45 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Steven's Article

Came across this be accident, hope I’m not too late… This article is an eloquent and expansive take on Steven’s music and on hipster culture; I particularly enjoyed the critique of the latter. The hipster culture prides itself on ingenuity, yet its proponents so often display such a derisive attitude that the creative among them fear working outside the ultimately narrow schema of what the toxically circular culture cannibals deem tenable. The result is a homogenous mass of pathologically self-conscious, dark-rimmed-glasses clad fools who together create a sub-culture with nearly all the mediocre traits of those they mock… ironic. As you perceive, Steven’s refusal to rationalize away the spiritual aspect of life in favor of a descent into mockery and dilettantism is itself a powerful progressive force in indie-rock. More articles like this and maybe the hipsters will rationalize they were ingenuous spiritual people all along. I think that’s the only kind of transition that might actually work for their benefit. Keep it up.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: November 29th, 2005 03:30 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: Steven's Article

Never too late to hear such warming words. As I write this, I'm downloading the Sufjan Stevens Christmas album, thanks to a link provided by my friend tommix. And I'm excited to hear it without irony. Anyway, thanks for stopping by. It means a lot to hear from people one doesn't know (or at least ones one doesn't know one knows, if I know you!).
From: (Anonymous) Date: February 15th, 2006 11:50 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

So many good things

Wow! What can I say, this was completely unexpected. Who would've thought that reading about the religious left in the US from England, I would have hit upon an article on one my favourite singers. And not only that, but one which is incredibly well written and a pleasure to read.

The magazine looks great, really very interesting, especially if thoughtful music and the other arts are going to regularly discussed in their own right alongside the extended essays and features. There's nothing really like it in far more secular Britain although that may be changing. Witness the embarrassment of liberal parents at their religious children in "hipster" (!) novelist Zadie Smith's White Teeth and On Beauty.

The only thing that might come close is Prospect Magazine which is more concerned with our social and moral (= spiritual?) wellbeing. This reminds me that your editors might be interested in an article by Richard Leyard for the March 2005 issue titled "Happiness is Back" in the context of their New Bottom Line agenda. Unfortunately, a subscription is needed to see the article in full, but its probably also available on Lexis Nexis too.

The link's below if you want to have a look an this will allow me to post it. Thanks for a really pleasant surprise and if I find myself reading Tikkun again I'll be sure to donate.

cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: February 16th, 2006 12:57 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: So many good things

Thanks so much for writing! I've heard of Prospect, but look forward to checking it out further. The virtue of the internet is that it's easier to make connections of this sort, to sense the fleshing out of solidarities that span huge distances. Comments like yours excite me and give me hope.
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