I hate Sufjan Stevens, and I’m not afraid to admit it.
I realize that since I go to school in the state of Illinois, saying that could get me trampled by an angry horde of indie kids. Maybe they are members of the Facebook group “I Chose UChicago Because of Sufjan Stevens” or one of the hundreds of other groups dedicated to Sufjan. But whenever someone goes on a diatribe about how awesome Sufjan is, I have one question that has yet to be fully answered: “Why?”
You’d think that with all the inane comments, screaming female fans, and accolades, people would be able to explain why they like Sufjan. Instead, people seem surprised to be asked that question in the first place.
Some of the answers I’ve heard: “His music is pretty.” Beethoven’s music is pretty, but I don’t think anyone would choose the U of C because the CSO performs a rousing rendition of the Fifth. Another one is “he’s a multi-instrumentalist.” So is the guy playing the tuba and a cymbal on the Chicago street corner for change; I don’t see any 17-year-olds throwing their bras at that guy.
Let’s look at Illinois for a moment. Despite so many claims that the album “defined Illinois,” there is absolutely no musical trace of Illinois in the album. If you were going to make an album about Illinois, wouldn’t you want to include music made famous by Illinois, like, you know, Chicago blues? Instead, Sufjan made a chamber-pop album without any hint of Illinois-themed music and justified it by creating lyrics devoted to factoids about Illinois that can easily be found on Wikipedia.
Illinois is less about the state of Illinois and more about Sufjan Stevens. While the indie press has praised the album, it’s not really all that different from the praise they gave to Greetings from Michigan or Seven Swans, Sufjan’s past albums. So why is Illinois the first Sufjan album to chart, to cause hundreds of Facebook groups to start, and to propel Sufjan to the height of the indie world?
To find the answer, look to Sufjan’s film counterpart in overrated indie stars: Zach Braff. Like Sufjan, Braff has been called the voice of his generation, a title his flick Garden State doesn’t merit. The reason Braff is called that is not because he is the voice of his generation, but because he seems to be. Braff has called himself the voice of his generation, and since he tried to express that in a movie, who are we to question him?
Although I must confess my iTunes playlist is dominated by indie stars of the ’80s such as the Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, and Mudhoney, I would be an idiot if I joined the many who claimed that indie bands were so much better then and that the fame of Nirvana and the Internet killed indie rock. What I will claim, however, is that technological changes have dramatically altered standards in indie music. In the ’80s, even buying a guitar was a struggle. Now, anyone with a couple hundred bucks can buy a guitar and quality computer software and make a complete album.
While this change is amazing in that it democratizes the process of making music, it also serves to dramatically increase competition for gaining attention. As a result, gaining fame has become more based on asserting superiority over the rest of the pack and less based on letting the music speak for itself. People like Zach Braff have succeeded more for their claims of changing the world than for actually changing it.
While Sufjan has not made an overt claim of his superiority, his claim to fame is his absurdly pretentious and unmanageable 50 states project. While Greetings from Michigan characterized the state much better, Illinois was more famous simply because it meant that Sufjan was actually pursuing the project.
Let’s put Sufjan’s goal in perspective. He is 31 years old, and to accomplish his goal, he would have to release 48 more albums. Now let’s compare him to the most accomplished performer in rock and roll history—Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan is 65, and he has released a total of 37 original albums—11 of which he released before he turned 31. Considering the short life span of indie bands fame and the fact that Sufjan continues to release Christian albums and outtakes from other state albums, he’ll be lucky to release five state albums.
Of course, if Sufjan were to accomplish his goal, it would be the greatest accomplishment in pop music history. Yet as someone who grew up in Michigan and spent his entire musical career recording in Brooklyn, he’d have no connection to any of the states he wrote albums about. But at least the goal seems like it would be a big accomplishment; at this point in history, bark, not bite, is the key to artistic fame.