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Sufjan, Say It Ain’t So

October 17, 2009

Man, I thought I was bad off, but  I got nothing on this Sufjan Stevens cat.  The internet has been ablaze over the past couple of days due to some apparently inflammatory statements by one of independent music’s leading figures.  Just in case you’re not familiar with Mr. Stevens, allow me to share some brief experiences with you by way of introduction.

I found Stevens’ music in 2006, shortly after the release of his most popular album Illinoise. I was introduced via his appearance on Austin City Limits and I was instantly in love.  The songs Stevens and his band (which included future stars My Brightest Diamond and St. Vincent) played on that ACL episode spoke to my heart like no music had since the Cure’s Disintegration had almost twenty years earlier.  The songs were orchestral and epic, but at the same time fragile and almost childlike.  I was instantly in love.

The next day I purchased Illinoise and listened to it straight through with tears streaming down my eyes.  Folks, I know that I’m given to hyperbole from time to time on this site, and often the things I say are tongue-in-cheek, but doubt me not when I say that listening to Illinoise for the first time was a special experience for me.  I hadn’t seriously followed music for about seven years, so I didn’t have Sufjan’s other albums to use as a backdrop.  I hadn’t even heard of the Arcade Fire, still hated Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and didn’t even think of using the word “precious” as a descriptor of music.  What I heard in this album simply blew me away.  I can mark points in my musical progression by:  (1) Things I heard before Illinoise and (2) Things I heard after Illinoise.

This is not to say that I’m in complete man-crush mode over the guy.  While his other albums are good, none of them have touched me like Illinoise.  Some of his songs make me cringe and I think sometimes he could use a good editor.  But when the guy is on top of his game, there’s no one else I’d rather listen to.

So you can imagine my surprise when I read this interview with Stevens, in which he questions his own desire to continue making music.  Through the course of the interview, Stevens states that he’s growing tired of the music industry and even asks the question:  “What’s the point of making music anymore?”

Stevens goes on to point out that much of his work is done within the framework of large conceptual themes (Illinoise was made as an ode to the history of the state of Illinois, Enjoy Your Rabbit was a collection of meditations on each sign of the Chinese zodiac).  With the decline of the long-play album and an increased focus on single songs, driven primarily by music downloading, Stevens questions whether there continues to be a public place for his music.

His plight looms large over the music industry as a whole.  In the 50’s and early 60’s, popular music was dominated by the single song and it wasn’t until the middle of the sixties that the long-play (LP) album as a concept came to the forefront.  As long as the record, tape and CD were the dominant formats for obtaining music, the LP maintained hegemony in the field.  But with the advent of $.99 music downloads, the LP began losing ground.  The consumer saw no need to suffer through the songs they didn’t like on an album when they could get their favorites for less than the cost of the entire thing.

Enter Stevens’ dilemma.  Perhaps more than any other popular musician of the 2000’s (only John Darnielle and Colin Meloy come close), he has relied on this form to develop and communicate his musical visions.  Perhaps he feels like the man who invested heavily in Betamax only to watch VHS dominate the videotape industry.

I don’t think that things are as bleak as Stevens’ believes, though.  Hip hop artists as a whole are on the cutting edge of societal trends, and they keep making albums left and right.  See all the hoopla surrounding Jay-Z’s latest The Blueprint release and the anticipation for Dr. Dre’s newest joint.  The Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love has seen its share of success this year and it’s as hard-core a concept album as you’ll find.

Although album sales are certainly down, I think the idea of the LP is far from dead.  Quite the contrary, it seems to me that really it’s the market for non-conceptual LP’s that is drying up.  Think about it, if your favorite band puts out an album of completely random and unrelated songs, it only makes sense to just get your favorites and leave the rest–you’re not missing anything in that transaction.  But as my examples above show, when the album itself is a cohesive whole, music lovers snatch it up in droves (assuming the music is good, of course).

This type of market segmentation can be likened to what people face when consuming television.  If you happen to be a fan of non-serialized shows, you can watch any episode at any time you want, without a thought to the cohesiveness (or lack thereof) of the entire season.  But for fans of genre or serialized programs like  Lost or The Shield, it doesn’t make sense to watch one episode outside the context of the whole–in fact it’s detrimental to the enjoyment of the individual episode because you can’t get your bearings.  For these fans, it’s about the entire season, not one isolated show.

Likewise, there are plenty of fans out there looking for a long-play musical experience.  And guess what, Mr. Stevens?  They’re the same folks who’ve been sucking up all your albums!  And they’re the same people who’ll rush out to purchase your latest effort celebrating the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway when it’s released next week.  Your angst over the undisputed decline of the album is misplaced because the folks forsaking the LP are, by and large, not your fans.

So please, Mr. Stevens, do all of us who adore your music a favor and go make an album that celebrates the history of Kentucky or that serves as a study on Masonic temples.  Do whatever suits your fancy and be sure to enjoy it.  Don’t worry, we’ll come along for the ride, I promise.  Yes, the press will judge you and will probably write a negative review or two, but for each one of those you’ll have twenty other people who listen to your record and weep over its beauty.  Let’s face it, you had us at “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois.”

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