Saturday, February 05, 2011


On Thursday night I fulfilled a longtime dream and caught a concert by the man responsible for more music on my iPod than any other. It was a performance by Sufjan Stevens: musician, hipster Presbyterian (“Hipsterterian!”) and all-round groovy whackjob.

Sufjan made his name as a folk musician, crafting melodies so exquisite that he could play them on a banjo and still make them cool. But with two most recent albums he has taken a sharp turn into technology, replacing his banjo and piano with drum machines and synthesisers. The concert I attended was intended to showcase the latest album.

A Sufjan concert is not like a concert by any other group of musicians. For the audience, there's almost a sense of voyeurism. There's no banter between the members of the band, and every song is tightly choreographed. No solos, no improvisation. It's like watching a well-organised circus.

In this particular show, there is a certain child-like aesthetic. They play dress ups with feather boas, tinfoil hats and tinsel. They adorn themselves and their equipment with flashing lights, and plaster everything with day-glo tape. They're as self-involved as little kids putting on a show for the assembled adults.

Sufjan doesn't talk about himself, or even about his music, except in generalised terms. It's as if he's afraid of anyone knowing anything too definitive about him. Nor does he treat his fans to any new material. He doesn't even smile, except once or twice, in a self-deprecating manner as a dry witticism falls flat or he realises he's just said something flaky or pretentious.

Meanwhile his backing singers/dancers have a tightly structured routine, full of gestures as stark and stylised as soviet statuary. But there's no smirking irony in their dorky dancing. They're serious about their dorky dancing. They know that it's dorky, and they realise that its dorkiness is fundamental to its appeal. It's completely self-actualised; think of it as how Jung would want us to dance if he were in a position to insist on it.

All of this may give the impression that I didn't like the show, but that's not the case. I absolutely loved it. There's something very "New York" about the band's total devotion to the artifice of the program. They covered themselves in flashing lights and fluorescent tape because they completely bought into Sufjan's primitive-meets-science-fiction conceit.

I’ve often wished that more people could just throw themselves into creating art, without feeling the need to remind themselves and others that they still have one foot in reality. I think that Sufjan might agree with me on that point.


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