We regard Sufjan Stevens as one of the poster children for metamodernism, and no discussion of metamodernism in popular music is complete without taking a look at his work. Notable for weaving together Christian symbology with storytelling that is equally compelling in a secular context, Sufjan’s style and its evolution offer a view into one slice of the epistemic transition from postmodernism to metamodernism.
In 1975, Sufjan Stevens was born in Michigan to hippie parents who exposed him and his five siblings to a wide variety of religious traditions, with Sufjan himself eventually settling on Christianity. He explored his musicality in high school at the Interlochen Academy of the Arts, then at Hope College, and later his talent for creative writing in a graduate program at the New School in NYC. Somewhere in there, he crossed paths with Daniel Smith and his band The Danielson Famile, which was an arguably rare example of a truly postmodern Christian indie rock band.
Digression about the Danielsons: As documented in the film, Danielson: A Family Movie, in 1993, while a senior at Rutgers University, Daniel Smith had a spiritual awakening and determined that his purpose was to spread the gospel of Christ through music. He formed The Danielson Famile with his brothers and sisters and some friends. With lyrics that were a mixture of quirky and unabashedly Christian, plus bizarre, musically unconventional arrangements, shrill, squeaky vocals, and goofy stage props, dance moves and costumes (as an example, for many years the band performed in matching nurse uniforms), the Danielson Famile shocked Christian rock and Indie rock audiences alike, but charmed a select few from both groups, earning themselves a cult following. We consider the Danielson Famile to be a rare example of a truly postmodern Christian band because they never let up on the project of disrupting musical and/or thematic expectations. Most of the time when a Christian impulse is run through a pomo filter, it comes out metamodern on the other end, because Christianity, by its very nature, insists on a core of certainty, which would be incongrous with postmodernism. There is certainty in Daniel Smith’s lyrics, for sure, but sonically and emotionally, the songs maintain their postmodern stance by never letting the listener relax into a state of earnest appreciation.
OK, back to our main subject. One of the friends of the Danielsons who participated in their band from time to time was Sufjan, who learned to play drums on the fly in order to support them. From the Danielson Famile, we can conjecture, Sufjan inherited an aesthetic of wacky, over-the-top showmanship, which he brought into his visual presentation, both in live performance and album-cover art, once he evolved into a musical force in his own right.
However, where the Danielson Famile’s outlandish pageantry could be quite impenetrable (they never let you get inside the joke with them), Sufjan Stevens’ version of it was inviting. If you watch and listen to the videos included here from each act, you will probably feel the difference. (Sufjan at the top of the article, Danielson’s at the bottom.)
Some more metamodern details that are exemplified in the video of Sufjan and his band performing “Casimir Pulaski Day”: A metamodern embrace of both minimalist fragility and maximalist grandeur is evident in the arrangement. The song begins with Sufjan quietly strumming the chords on a banjo, while bandmate, Shara Worden, plinks out a childlike supporting melody on a toy piano. Sufjan’s voice is contained and delicate. Meanwhile, a small army of brass and string instruments lurks in wait, finally pouncing into the mix at 2:28, backed by anthemic drums. The song oscillates between tiny and epic, even while Sufjan avoids relying on conventional loud rock electric guitars to command attention.
The song lyric tells the story of a tentative, tender love affair between the narrator and a young woman who is dying of cancer. Their intimacy is limited by her condition and also by the cultural constraints of her religious family. At one point, the narrator and his friends pray over her body for healing, but “nothing ever happens.” This is a song that relates the experience of being Christian (including both faith and skepticism), without pushing a message of unequivocal spiritual certainty. It concludes by extolling the “glory that the Lord has made” while wrestling with the mystery, and the human helplessness around the fact that “He takes and He takes and He takes.” The tender delivery gives you the sense of an exquisite ambivalence.
So, what does the story of the song have to do with its title? Well, we know at least this: March 1, the day the girl in the song dies, is Casimir Pulaski Day, a regional Illinois holiday honoring a Polish Revolutionary War hero. And why that? Probably mainly because the song is part of a concept album, Illinois, built around the history and folklore of that Midwestern state. Previously, Sufjan had made a concept album called Michigan, and at the time he announced that he was going to eventually make one for every single state. He never did make another state album after those first two, and eventually admitted that he had never intended to, and the “50-state project” was a hoax.
Here’s why all of that reflects a metamodern sensibility: making an album full of songs inspired by the folklore of a Midwestern state is rather quaint, and could be thought of as traditionalist, epistemically speaking. Committing to a project of making one for every single state is a grand, epic gesture and thus rather modernist. Claiming to have plans do that but it actually being a gimmick is a sort of ironic, postmodernconceptual art move. Braiding all of those epistemic sensibilities together, while delivering songs that actually are emotionally meaningful, about real, small but potent situations that are personal and that anyone could relate to, moves the whole thing into the metamodern category.
NOTE: Our parent publication, Artocratic, featured a close reading by WiM editor Greg Dember of Sufjan Stevens’ “All Delighted People” (2010), in which he explores his personal experience of encountering the song, and the trickiness of bridging secular and spiritual interpretations.