Music can be anything. This may sound like a vague hyperbole; however, through the sound waves that our eardrums perceive, music can be an ode to a hometown, a reverence for a childhood memory, or even an embodiment of the planet Venus. As an artist, Sufjan Stevens is able to balance this fluidity deftly and with a profound musical touch.
Born on July 1st, 1975 in Detroit, Michigan, Sufjan Stevens was raised by his father, Rasjid, and his stepmother, Pat. Sufjan was less close with his biological mother, Carrie, who suffered from substance abuse issues and was diagnosed with both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, leading her to abandon Sufjan at various instances throughout his life. He was given the name “Sufjan,” which is Arabic for “comes with a sword,” by the founder of an interfaith spiritual community that Sufjan’s parents belonged to. This spiritual theme is one that frequently appears in Sufjan’s music – and although never claiming to produce “Christian music,” Sufjan does identify with the faith. It is through this theme of spirituality that Sufjan produces one of the most compelling themes present throughout his discography: the balance between Christianity and Queerness.
Sufjan is revered for his emotionally compelling lyricism, through which he is able to express the relationship between religion and queerness so eloquently, as well as his ability to layer multiple instruments to create a magnificent and magnetic backdrop for his songs. Firstly, however, it is important to note that Sufjan has never publicly come out as queer. This brings up valid concerns surrounding the subject of “queerbaiting” and profiting off of a queer public perception. However, Sufjan has explicitly discussed same-sex attraction in his songs.
The beauty of Sufjan’s lyricism is that it so gracefully captures both the sheer exuberance of young love whilst contrasting it with the refined restraint that many queer people from religious backgrounds have had to grapple with.
In “The Predatory Wasps of the Palisades Are Out to Get Us!” Sufjan recounts an experience of youth experimentation with a close friend. With the setting of a summer camp, Sufjan recounts “touching his back with my hand” and later kissing him. Sufjan is transparent about his feelings of same-sex attraction, and thus his refusal to label himself seems to be more in pursuit of privacy, rather than a want of the sexual ambiguity associated with artists who queerbait and profit off of being a queer commodity.
Further, as eloquently stated by a Vice article on Sufjan, “Not all love is declared or screamed. The softly spoken is just as valid, whether whispered in the tepid first steps of self-expression, codified for safety for only some to understand, or even wrapped within self-censorship.” This careful handling of expressions of queerness also speaks to the Christian setting Sufjan grew up around. The beauty of Sufjan’s lyricism is that it so gracefully captures both the sheer exuberance of young love whilst contrasting it with the refined restraint that many queer people from religious backgrounds have had to grapple with. The joy that comes from listening to “The Predatory Wasps” is encapsulated as the music crescendos into a joyous symphony, as Sufjan declares “We were in love. We were in love.”
Sufjan reflects on the constraints that religion has placed on his capability to love…
However, Sufjan does not just explore his sexuality through the frame of his experiences: he is also willing to explore it in relation to the divine itself. In “John, My Beloved,” Sufjan appears to embody Jesus, showing the intimacy Jesus shared with his apostle, John. Through the lurid lyrics, Sufjan describes the relationship between Jesus and John, through the perspective of Jesus, stating “I’m holding my breath, My tongue on your chest, What can be said of my heart?” Sufjan also outright refers to the apostle as “Beloved, my John,” while singing from the perspective of Jesus, showcasing the affection between the two men. Through the allusion and depiction of an intimate relationship between Jesus and John, Sufjan compares his own relationship to religious figures, conflating both his sense of piety and queerness.
From the isolated instrumentation that references Jesus’ sacrifice in “To Be Alone with You,” to the yearnful lyricism found in “Mystery of Love” (famous for its use in Call Me By Your Name), Sufjan has an extensive discography of songs that discuss both spirituality and sexuality. Sufjan reflects on the constraints that religion has placed on his capability to love and how integral spirituality is to his identity. This reflection allows Sufjan to craft complex compositions that articulate the dichotomy between these seemingly opposing forces.
The lyrical mastery he displays while discussing these themes is what makes Sufjan such a great artist to me. To anyone who is a fan of music, I would recommend checking out Sufjan’s work, as I am certain there will be a song that resonates with you.