Viewpoints

Let’s be objective here: Sufjan Stevens sucks.

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.

  • Ivano

    I feel like most of the judgement here is based on the fans of Sufjan Stevens rather than his music. It might be better to say that Sufjan Stevens doesn’t in fact suck, but rather that a portion of his mindless fan-base of indie-wannabes suck. Of course Sufjan won’t be finishing his 50 states project, but it’s an interesting thing to follow and a challenge as a musician for him to learn more about the states. While defending the state of Illinois, it seems rather ignorant of you to be claiming Sufjan sucks simply because he didn’t spend half of his life in a state that one of his albums was about. I completely respect your opinion, I just wanted to get mine out there too.

  • Natalie

    I agree with Ivano. For an article titled “let’s be objective here” it seems to be lacking in objectivity. I’m not American, so I’m surprised at your comments on Sufjan’s fan base. In Australia he seems to have mixed base with a lot of older people. I wonder what the author of this article would think now after the release of the age of adz and his planets tour, which seem to demonstrate a move away from his more “beautiful” music.

  • Sam

    dude, you’re just fucking jealous…sufjan is more talented, has a large fan base and is more attractive than you!
    i’ve seen him live; and let me tell you his music is unique, beautiful and innovative; i’d like for you to name an artist that has the ability to sound more captivating live than recorded…go back to listening to your justin beiber or something that you value as ‘quality’
    you obviously don’t know the meaning of ‘objective’ as your little rant is more of a rant of sufjan’s fans…

  • Keith

    I have to commend Ivano and Natalie in their astute reactions to your article. Firstly, I must admit that I am from Ireland and do not know too much about Illinois as a State, or many other States for that matter. This article’s title was probably what has upset myself, and indeed, the other commentators on your piece. You have described someone that adopted a gimmick to propel his career. Of course, it is not probable for any artist to complete the task Sufjan Stevens undertook (I myself would have thought that an album with a song for each state, 69 Love Songs-esque, would have made much more sense). Now, you mention Bob Dylan, someone who has established a “Never-Ending Tour”. This is clearly not possible, and is just a gimmick, like Sufjan Stevens’ 50-States Project. And he will stop touring soon (Dylan that is) as his health deteriorates, and the Never Ending Tour will be outed as a gimmick.
    Look at Sufjan’s Music, the sheer volume of songs that this man has released is remarkable for the modern music industry. Maybe you should stop being so agitated by the facebook page that he has nothing to do with.
    Also, maybe “Come on feel the Illinoise” does not contain musical influence of Chicago, so what? The fact is that every song has some little piece of history coupled with a novelty relating to Sufjan’s background (his religion, childhood, relationships, friendships). And he makes every second of every song believable, which is the draw for me. His attentions to detail in his singing and instrumental harmonies are second-to-none. That is why I have come to listen to this man.

  • Mike T

    OK. I can answer your question, and unbiasedly I hope. Let me say this. I first heard of Sufjan by a Christian friend who knows I love music. I’m not dumb enough to believe in God/Bible for a second, so my first thought was not to even listen to this guy if he was a “bible thumper”. Plus, he was hyped way too much, so that was getting annoying. Then again, it’s very rare for a Christian to put out any decent music. To be fair, he says that he doesn’t want to be lopped in with those people, so good on him for that. :) Back to why he is so great. He isn’t. He can play a lot of instruments, write decent music, but he is no Neil Young, Nick Drake, Tom Waits, ect. you get the picture….. His voice is so pussylike, for lack of a better term, it is just annoying. Girls like him because he is one of the few “Christian” musicians that actually look normal and not goofy looking. So after my “dissing” of the guy, do I own anything that he has done? I do actually. Do I like it? Yes, I “like” it, I don’t love it. Illinoise is good, but Age of Adz is better. He dropped the “pretty” songs and the pussylike voice, and it’s a lot more experimental. I’ve got to give him credit, he is not a one trick pony. And to clear up the 50 states thing, he said it was all kind of a joke. And to the Sam commenter, he is very immature. Anyone that says “dude your just fukin jealous coz he is more attractive than you”(as if one’s attractiveness has any bearing on anything), is just being unnecessarily defensive. To sum this up, plenty of people are more talented than Sufjan, but his good looks, his faith, and being a somewhat “normal” Christian, makes his so over hyped. He is kind of a gimmick, though not his fault. Plus he even says FUCK a couple times on his new record…naughty…naughty. I can take this guy or leave him personally, but there are worse artists out there…and certainly MUCH better ones too.

  • greg

    Hipster pack out en force today. Ironic for a state where pitchfork conducts the main of its business. Author probably said to himself, “im going to get attacked by whiny hipsters without musical taste for this,” and he was right.

    People love what is popular and will defend that cack to the death.