If you are a reader of The Niche, a repressed small-town Midwesterner, a gay Christian, the sort of person who collects novelty stamps, or, really, a gay person in any capacity, chances are that you have a sense of Sufjan Stevens’ immense impact on our cultural landscape. But did you know that he’s become enough of a musical, cultural, iconographical figure to be casually referenced, completely devoid of any context, in completely unrelated artists’ songs?
Well, “songs” is an overstatement. To my immediate knowledge, he’s only referenced in two. But it’s going on 4:00 AM and I’m stuck in my childhood bedroom listening to all 74 seconds of “Love Yourself (1996 Demo)” on a constant, inescapable loop, so really, at this point, what do any of us have to do other than rank the references in question?
The Song: ‘Hands Open’
The Artist: Snow Patrol (yes, that Snow Patrol, of early 2000s ‘Chasing Cars’ YouTube AMV fame)
The Lyrics In Question: Put Sufjan Stevens on / And we’ll play your favourite song / Chicago bursts to life and your / Sweet smile remembers you
The Breakdown: There’s a lot to unpack in the song as a whole, which is an aching, bitter, and yet gloriously optimistic rendition of a romantic relationship on the verge of either beginning or ending. Mr. Snow Patrol has clearly been through the wringer, and my trembling homosexual heart goes out to him for it. The surges of affection I feel for this song can also be well-explained by the facts that:
- I spent the majority of my teenage years on the “enemies-to-lovers” tag of Archive of Our Own dot org
- The opening guitar riff absolutely goes for it
- This song had pride of place on my “you know what it is, bitch” playlist during my month-long It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia fugue state of 2017
- The absolute nightmarishness of the lines “Why would I sabotage? / The best thing that I have? / Well it makes it easier to know / exactly what I want” minced my complex personhood like a clove of garlic
- (not to mention the devastating emotional impact of “It’s not as easy as willing it all to be right / I gotta be more than hoping it’s right”, because, well, ouch.)
So am I glad that Sufjan is being namedropped on a song so simultaneously catchy and interpersonally heartwrenching? Absolutely. Am I glad that the songwriter(s) chose to put some respect on the name and reference the specific song they did? Absolutely. ‘Chicago’ is, amongst a plethora of readings much better-thought-out than mine, confidently about reconciliation and the place-based rediscovery of the fundamental goodness of the relationships you have held for a terribly long time. (See: “I fell in love again”, “I made a lot of mistakes / I made a lot of mistakes”, and “All things go, all things go / To recreate us / All things grow, all things grow” for more.)
Moreover, Mr. Patrol’s description “Chicago bursts to life”, while technically a tired cliche, is gloriously apt for the opening bars of ‘Chicago’. I’m no music journalist, and I’m not even going to try to name the triumphant coalescence of instruments which begin the song (is there a violin? I feel like there’s a violin in there somewhere), but they really do burst to life. There’s something glorious about the thought of a person whose favourite song is Chicago by Sufjan Stevens, so much so that it is entwined with their personhood, and, in the throes of a complicated interpersonal fight, their loved one implores the song to burst to life, prompting a “sweet smile” which “remembers” their very selfhood. Poetic cinema.
Still, I hesitate to suggest that the Sufjan Stevens reference works seamlessly. ‘Hands Open’ describes, on the whole, a distinctly non-Sufjanian love, one where people actually voice their discord and dissent (‘It’s hard to argue when / You won’t stop making sense / But my tongue still misbehaves and it / Keeps digging my own grave’) rather than, y’know, softly resigning oneself to the fact that ‘words are futile devices’. It seems at points a little hastily placed, as though Gary Lightbody was just jumping at the chance to namedrop his current interest and it just so happened to work.
Still, it’s a jam.
The Song: Fire Fly
The Artist: Childish Gambino (yes, that Childish Gambino, as in Donald Glover of unwittingly-acted-out-one-of-the-most-joyous-dynamic-and-tenderly-homosexual-relationships-of-modern-sitcom-television-on-NBC’s-Community-but-still-says-homophobic-slurs-in-his-songs fame)
The Lyrics In Question: No live shows ‘cause I can’t find sponsors / For the only black kid at a Sufjan concert
The Breakdown: On the one hand, Donald Glover’s lyrics aren’t so much a reference to Sufjan at all. If anything, they’re a reference to the specific kind of musical subgenre that Sufjan represents in our collective consciousness, the moody, self-reflective, here’s-a-woven-nest-of-twigs-I-made-earlier, inaudibly guitar-strumming, beanie-wearing indie white kid. And as a critique of moody, self-reflective, here’s-a-woven-nest-of-twigs-I-made-earlier, indie whiteness, it works wonderfully. The couplet paints a sharp picture of both exclusion from mainstream success owing to Glover’s engagement with what is culturally seen as “white music,” and exclusion from the fan spaces of this “white music” owing to his blackness. It’s bubbling with understandable frustration, as is most of his Camp album, but it’s also a nice little blink-and-you’ll-miss it musical Easter egg.
Still, it would be doing a fundamental disservice to the CGMU (Childish Gambino Musical Universe) to dismiss this as some passing, witty reference and not acknowledge his repeated engagement with Sufjan’s work. “At a Sufjan concert” isn’t some offhand reference — he’s a committed fan. In 2005, he released “Illin-Noise!: The Sufjan Stevens Remix Album”, under the name McDJ. More recently, he released a song called “The Palisades,” which Genius only notes as being a possible reference to Pacific Palisades, CA, where the album was recorded. Of course, as an English major chronically susceptible to over-interpretation, my analysis should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt. Still, I have trouble believing that there’s absolutely no connection between a song called “The Palisades” about a secret, half-spoken love, which contains the lyrics:
I know the secret we share
Look what this feeling has done to me
There’s something deep in the air
Just hope your hands lift me comfortably
I don’t know why, but every time I see you smiling
I’m tired of running, tired of playing, tired of hiding
If we could be together would that make you happy?
and a song called “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out To Get Us!” from Sufjan’s very same Illinois, which is a famous, achingly beautiful tribute to a sublimated love affair from childhood, a love which never opens its mouth to name itself, but only to kiss.
Not like I’ve been thinking about this for years, or anything.
Ultimately, Childish Gambino’s reference ekes out a narrow win for me, if only because of its duality. Glover simultaneously invokes the cultural and musical positionality of Sufjan’s fanbase, and (particularly when taken in the context of his whole discography) his profound admiration for, and engagement with, his work. On the most subjective level, the juxtaposition between the two Palisades songs drives me, to use a term from last year’s internet discourse, absolutely feral. Still, I’ll never pass up a song about quarreling lovers with a good reference to Chicago thrown in.
If there’s any conclusion here, it’s twofold. Firstly, Sufjan Stevens is a fickle cultural reference point, one which contains as many multitudes as a cryptic UQuiz questionnaire, and these rankings should be taken as arbitrary at best. And secondly, I would rather over-interpret literally any song lyric than complete the homework assignments given to me remotely over a glorified version of Google Hangouts. So for now, happy listening! And do with this information what you will.