The Artifice of Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens

We went to see Sufjan Stevens. On the way there, we argued about what time the show would start. Ridiculous. So maybe it was me, not him. I’d carried my life stresses into the concert hall with me, heaved them onto my lap and let them direct the tone of my night. My son’s illness, my sore foot, the moronic argument, all making it impossible to see beauty in the home movies screening behind the performers, to celebrate the poetry in Stevens’ love songs, to be moved by the profundity of his darker lyrics. While others nodded at the words ‘we’re all going to die’, I sighed. Come on, I thought. I tugged at my dress. My dress annoyed me.

I wanted to relax into the music, to feel good. I wanted to enjoy the Eurovision-style light show with its theatrical beams shining up, down, out, bringing home the point that we’re all in this together. I wanted to hear harmony in a group of musicians each singing in a slightly different key from the other. I wanted to understand what made Stevens think an interminable prog rock ‘piece’ was majestic rather than slog, a piece that lasted for so long it became funny. Not as funny as the jazz-hands electronica or the back-up singer crooning whale sounds over New Age music. But still…

The people around me seemed to enjoy the performance. A lot. I scanned the room with a clinical eye, as though I wasn’t one of the crowd, an anthropologist observing a rookery or hive.

I’ve seen enough live music to know that sometimes an audience wants so much for a performer to be impressive they do everything they can to make him so. But anxious laughter is very different from genuine cheer. Encouraging whistles for a musician tuning his guitar mid-show are awkward for everyone. And exuberant applause at the end of an incomprehensible monologue sounds desperate. Please make sense, Sufjan, we clapped. Please be better.

Several times, people started to titter, to assure the performer they’d heard his ironic musical gesture, then stopped when they realised what they’d actually heard was a heavy-handed stab at mysticism or hipness, or a mistake. Once, Stevens forgot his lyrics. He fessed up, we laughed, then he dove back into the song with the same teariness he’d shown in the first verse. Which I found unsettling. And though I could see he was wholly committed to his craft, his keyboard playing reminded me — in it’s assured seriousness — of Ross Gellar in an episode of Friends.

The mood of the crowd did shift throughout the night. It had an energy to it, it wasn’t static or simple. Anticipation at the start, a small slump at the end of the first song, head-tilting bewilderment at a mash-up of jarring sounds and jerky lights, a wide-eyed fear (something’s going wrong), then firm and rapid applause (we can fix this. How long can whale crooning last anyway?).

I think at some point the audience divided between those of us who decided the Emperor had no clothes/the Wizard was a fraud, those so invested in the performer being good they wouldn’t allow him to be otherwise, and those who were truly moved by Stevens’ declaration that he’d been meditating on the oneness and multitudinous of everyone in the room and world and life is about knowing your intention and…something something. People clapped purposefully at his half-baked epiphany. They would agree at the end of the evening that it had been enjoyable. Profound.

I wanted to be inspired, transported. I peered over my lump of troubles hoping for beauty, decided my dress wasn’t so bad. But my critical faculty won out. I heard only inanity, saw stock photography rather than art, looked for authenticity but couldn’t get past the slick artifice of the show, the tired faces of musicians who’ve been touring for more than a year. I heard loud, rapturous applause, followed by a standing ovation.

This nagged at me for days. Because even given my dark mood, Sufjan Stevens wasn’t good. My partner was right that it was mostly a young crowd, and I think this was key. They weren’t comfortable with not liking him. Somehow it’s become not okay to critique art, comedy, music, film. Criticism is trolling. Things are either described in a positive light, as hilarious or awesome or so good, or they aren’t commented upon at all. The audience had clapped and whooped because that’s what you do, and that’s how you can then describe your night. The ‘audience’ was, of course, made up of individuals, each of whom has personal opinions and agency, and I probably have no right to assume they thought the music, home movie, light show extravaganza was as manufactured as I did. But still, their approval felt as performative as what was happening on the stage. It seemed curiously, dangerously blank.

It’s always been the case that only a narrow range of responses are allowable in polite society. I’m not wishing for people to have shouted or thrown bottles at the stage. But when an artist of any kind puts their work out there, they’re not owed applause or even acceptance. Is it that there is so much in the world that demands genuine criticism and dismay that we dole it out sparingly? Or is it that we have so much entertainment to choose from, so much of everything online, that we don’t engage with any of it in anything but the most glancing, fleeting, thin way, that even hours in the presence of one entertainer doesn’t really get under our skin? We clap, thumbs up, move on to the next amusement. If one doesn’t work out, there’s another. Is it just easier to not care? The audience’s blankness hadn’t been the blankness of Richard Hell. It wasn’t a disenfranchised and uncompromising youth distancing themselves from the mainstream, feeling unmoved by advertising or commercial radio or groupthink. It was determinedly good-natured acceptance of mediocrity.

Now, unless you’re a workmanlike creator who’s happy to pump out mass volumes of work for quick perusal without scrutiny, blank approval or blank dismissal is disastrous for art, and terrible for us. Any art — writing, film, music — that doesn’t get under our skin, make us feel, think, respond, change, is just soma. Sufjan Stevens, that’s what you fed us. You showed videos of deep, mysterious oceans while delivering a performance that was as numbing and distracting and unchallenging as a fistful of brown sugar. And we applauded you.


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