We Can't Stop Wondering if Sufjan Stevens Sings About God or Being Gay
Can it be about both?
Some people - let's call them 'straight people on Reddit' - do not like the Facebook page "Is This Sufjan Stevens Song Gay Or Just About God?". According to them, the page's memes and feverous 22,000 fans are "a bit too much" and borderline offensive to Stevens, an openly Christian artist who prefers his personal life private.
Luckily, until very recently, there has been another Facebook page where these comments belong: "Heteros Desperately Trying To Interpret Sufjan Stevens Lyrics As Platonic". While a quick look at the "gay icon" Wikipedia page reveals a certain leniency with who the LGBTIQ community reveres - the Babadook, sure, but Channing Tatum? - making gay memes out of Stevens's music is less of a stretch.
There's even an off-shoot group for LGBTIQ Stevens fans, *Palisades Posting. In the words of member Darcey Mitchell, the group's "less shit-posting and more of a community": alongside the memes, there's earnest dissection of Stevens's music and, more generally, queer issues. It's named after one of Stevens's more obviously queer-leaning songs, "The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us!", about a childhood friend from camp:
"Touching his back with my hand I kiss him…
I can't explain the state that I'm in
The state of my heart, he was my best friend…"
Despite the autobiographical elements at play, the group largely avoids mining Stevens's personal history for clues.
"I don't really think it's about what sexual identity [Stevens] has," says Mitchell. "That's not the important part of it. It's that a lot of the things he sings about are really identifiable to LGBTI people, and particularly LGBTI people that have grown up religious and [dealing with] that resulting guilt."
Whether Stevens's songs are 'gay or about God' is a trick question. Inadvertently or not, Stevens's expression of Christianity mirrors the way many of his listeners experience their sexuality: in a confluence of joy, shame and renewal.
Stevens's relationship to Christianity is one of personal connection strained under institutional religion. While there's plenty of biblical metaphors and allusions in his music, Stevens prefers an ambiguous, esoteric expression of his beliefs, avoiding the didacticism that turns most non-believers off faith focused music. You can hear it loudest in the lack of distinction between Sufjans's use of "his": does he mean God, or someone else?
Take, for example, "To Be Alone With You" from 2004 album Seven Swans, one of Stevens's most well-known songs:
"You gave your body to the lonely
They took your clothes
You gave up a wife and a family
You gave your goals
To be alone with me…
I've never known a man who loved me"
Accompanied by just guitar, Steven's singing sounds more like bedroom pining than a devotional hymn. Divorcing the story of Jesus from any context, it at once demystifies biblical stories while heightening homosociality - the interactions between same-sex figures, here males - to a near religious importance.
"It's as if it's a quiet invitation for people like us," says Palisades Posting member Lane Heatherington, "to express ourselves within his lyrics without the danger involved in such an action."
The LGBTIQ community - most notably, gay males - have a history of appropriating music for sexual expression. By singing along to, say, Grace Jones's "I Need A Man", a gay male can express same-sex desire or 'feminine' expression in public, a sort of self-produced puppetry. There is something similar at play in Stevens's fanbase.
Where pronoun use in pop songs is a political statement for assertively queer musicians like Olly Alexander or Perfume Genius, there's something potent within Stevens's ambiguity. 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.
And while it may not boast the same appeal as outlandish pride, it's perhaps a more faithful everyday expression of sexuality: a private moment stolen in glee, away from watchful eyes.
"It's fun to joke about being gay for Jesus but it's a common thing for a lot of artists to cover romantic tones with religious metaphor," says Mitchell. "He's definitely not the first."
Mitchell is referencing Walt Whitman, among others. Leaves Of Grass, the nineteenth century poet's opus, is a transcendental epic written across a lifetime, born of a love of America and mankind. It's also a queer classic: it's known to linger on a love of male bodies, too.
When listening to Stevens's "All Of Me Wants All Of You", a highlight of 2015's Carrie & Lowell, it's hard to not hear an echo of Leave Of Grass's opening lines:
"I celebrate myself, and sing myself
And what I assume you shall assume
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."
Similarly, Stevens's song is a splinter of identities, though one created under the singer's devastation over his mother's recent death. The lyrics are confused. They bounce between his mother's cancer, an emotionally sparse relationship to Manelich (the naive lover of 1896 Catalan play Terra Baixa) to Oregon landmark Spencer's Butte:
"Shall we beat this or celebrate it?
You're not the one to talk things through
You checked your texts while I masturbated
Manelich, I feel so used
Saw myself on Spencer's Butte (All of me wants all of you)
Landscape changed my point of view (All of me wants all of you)
Revelation may come true (All of me wants all of you)
Now all of me thinks less of you (All of me wants all of you)"
Is this song gay or just about his dead mum? Oh, but also about finding God through nature? It's hard to say. Whether intended, there's room within that expansiveness for LGBTIQ audiences to imagine themselves within Stevens's landscape without contortion.
Of course, we could be reading something which is simply not there. But it's through against the grain readings where queer people, historically, have had to find themselves.
Soon, Stevens's music will be riper for reading, with the pending release of Call Me By Your Name, Luca Guadagnino's adaptation of André Aciman's queer coming-of-age novel. Stevens wrote two songs for the film, "Mysteries Of Love" and "Visions Of Gideon", as well as a re-arranged version of "Futile Devices", the Age Of Adz opener oft-referenced on Predatory Wasp Posting.
The song is set during an afternoon at a lover's apartment. Stevens's softly sings how he "feels mesmerised and proud" watching them go about every day life while he lingers. At just two minutes, it is a sharp stitching of domestic intimacy, affections which cannot be translated without being lost:
"And I would say I love you
But saying it out loud is hard
So I won't say it at all
And I won't stay very long
But you are the life I needed all along
I think of you as my brother
Although that sounds dumb
And words are futile devices"
Meanwhile, Stevens's guitar strumming runs steady like an aimless thought. It's up to you to follow it, whatever way you want.
But if you think this is all a "little too much", that's alright. The inevitable comments only give "Heteros Desperately Trying To Interpret Sufjan Stevens Lyrics As Platonic" more content.
Edit. * The Facebook group name was changed to protect member's identities.
Listen to this 'Is This Sufjan Stevens Song Gay or Just About God' playlist.
Jared Richards is a Sydney writer. Follow him on Twitter.