There is a specific queer loneliness in the music of Sufjan Stevens that has made him a central cultural figure to a generation of queer people—cis gay men, especially—with an affinity for melancholy. Though his songs of regret, tortured silences, and loves lost to time and circumstance are universal in their explorations of sadness, something about his vague, almost nervous references to men he’s loved and unconsummated near-flings make his music especially evocative to gay men.
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We can relate to these traumas of the mind—private reckonings we deem unworthy of attention or pity—and have used his music as the soundtrack to years of private wallowing. There are songs that can be interpreted as laments over unrequited gay love (“All of Me Wants All of You”), self-loathing (“Dumb I Sound”), and struggles with one’s sexuality (“Futile Devices”).
Even still, fans don’t know how he identifies, since he’s made the decision to keep that part of his life private. Though I understand the impulse to separate music from musician and let a listener’s interpretation trump an artist’s intent (all that matters, I’m often told, is that I think it’s sad gay music), I also understand why someone would listen to a song by Sufjan Stevens and speculate about his sexuality, particularly if they’re yearning—perhaps desperately—to see something of themselves within him.
One of the few knowable things about Stevens, as both a person and artist, is his faith. He is Christian, and has spoken openly about his religion—or, as openly as he is comfortable speaking—since the mid-aughts. In an interview with the blog Delusions of Adequacy in 2006, Stevens was asked about separating his art from his faith. He said, “you cannot separate art from faith, because it is our persuasions which drive us to create,” adding:
As for our intentions, well, that’s all bunk. We may intend our music for one person or another, but who’s to say? I can’t decide who reads my novel or buys my record... It’s an arrogant, imperialist motive to try to determine who will receive you and who won’t.
As recently as 2015, in an interview with Pitchfork, Stevens said, “I still describe myself as a Christian, and my love of God and my relationship with God is fundamental, but its manifestations in my life and the practices of it are constantly changing. I find incredible freedom in my faith.” In the same interview, Stevens also explained that “some of my most profound spiritual and sexual experiences were at a Methodist summer camp.” But the conversation ends there, creating the sort of ambiguity that leads to questions like “Is this Sufjan Stevens song gay or just about God,” which happens to be the name of a popular Facebook group created to explore the interwoven themes of romantic and spiritual love found in his lyrics.
While more frequently examined songs like “To Be Alone With You” and “John My Beloved” contain both vague pronoun usage and explicit references to Jesus Christ and other biblical figures, few are as intimate as “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!” from his most famous album, Illinois. The track tells the story about a young boy who watched his best friend get bit by a wasp as they swam together in Mississippi Palisades State Park.
There on the wall in the bedroom creeping
I see a wasp with her wings outstretched
North of Savanna we swim in the Palisades
I come out wearing my brother’s red hat
There on his shoulder my best friend is bit seven times
He runs washing his face in his hands
Oh how I meant to tease him
Oh how I meant no harm
Touching his back with my hand I kiss him
I see the wasp on the length of my arm
Oh great sights upon this state! Hallelujah!
Wonders bright, and rivers, lake. Hallelujah!
We were in love. We were in love
Sung with his trademark trembling falsetto, the one that frames every lyric as some kind of shameful memory, “The Predatory Wasp...” is as close to explicitly gay as Stevens has ever gotten, but (there’s always a but) it exists inside a concept album about a state in which he never lived, and is named after a state park where he never swam.
His albums are equally unpinnable. Seven Swans is filled with enough acoustic guitars and references to Jesus Christ to make it sound like a straight-up Christian album a Methodist minister might happily recommend to his congregation. Michigan and Illinois, meanwhile, are collections of folky, state-themed short stories, whose subjects aren’t necessarily based on Stevens at all. Age of Adz, his thrilling and mostly successful attempt at combining his favorite disparate musical aesthetics into one, is another that’s lyrically ambiguous. “Now that I’m older, so be it so of love,” he sings in “Now That I’m Older,” a triumphant and wistful song about the often dreadfully slow process of learning to know oneself—whomever that self may be. Even on his saddest album, 2015's gorgeous and delicate Carrie & Lowell, the subjects of sexuality and religion dance arm in arm, rendering it impossible to tell which is taking the lead.
But unlike the frustrating vagueness found in openly gay pop star Sam Smith’s lyrics—whose lack of gender-specific pronouns often read as business decisions—Stevens’s lyrics are far too earnest and wrenching to feel like a dodge. Though it might frustrate gay audiences who have a hard time not projecting our own lives onto the music of their favorite artists, more forgiving listeners could interpret Stevens’s lyrics as thoughtful, progressive commentary on the fluidity of desire. It is a thrilling ambiguity that calls to mind the nervous early stages of a crush, when anything could happen, and the potential for love feels simultaneously infinite and suffocating. These themes are universal, so why must they be explicitly labeled to any single sexual orientation?
But many listeners (like myself) have a pathetic desire for a more straightforward interpretation and visibility—an ability to see ourselves explicitly represented in his music. When Stevens sings about a boy he swam with in the “The Predatory Wasp...” we don’t merely wonder if he was a boy he’d felt romantic love. We want to find him and ask him in person. We want validation. Coming from a community that has been historically structured around the successful interpretation of coded—or even wordless—messages, we want so desperately to believe we’re reading his clearly. And most recently, two haunting little songs from the soundtrack to this year’s big awards season gay film, Call Me By Your Name, add fuel to this mystery.
Luca Guagadino’s film, based on the André Aciman novel of the same name, chronicles one mid-’80s summer in the life of a 17-year-old named Elio, who comes to terms with his burgeoning sexuality as he slowly falls in love with an older man named Oliver. It is a sumptuous and heart-aching film, and features the themes of clumsy, confused love and longing that make original music by Sufjan Stevens feel like an obvious choice.
In an interview during the New York Film Festival, Gudagnino (who is openly gay) said he reached out to Stevens, whom he described as “very private and reserved,” and asked him to write a song that acted as a kind of narration for the film. “I felt that Sufjan’s lyricism—both in the music and in the voice and the lyrics—had some beautiful elusiveness on one hand, and on the other hand, poignancy, that were really resonant,” he said. “I wanted one song and he gave us two.”
“Mystery of Love” and “Visions of Gideon,” with their whispered vocals and gentle instrumentation, are classic Sufjan, and would feel right at home on Seven Swans or Carrie & Lowell. But they not only exist in a specifically gay context, where his music has never lived before, they were written specifically for one. “I have loved you for the last time... I have kissed you for the last time,” he sings. “Visions of Gideon, visions of Gideon.” Here is a gay movie, and here is Sufjan, writing about gay love.
I reached out to Stevens’s publicists for comment about this piece, but my emails went unanswered. No matter. Queer audiences are used to taking what they can get, and often grasping at things that may not actually be there. We suffer through even the worst gay films, from abysmal comedies like the Eating Out franchise to embarrassing attempts at art-house dramas like Shelter, all out of our collective desperation for representation. We become obsessed with even the smallest gay characters in major works—developing shared informal fandoms for Kimmy Schmidt’s Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess) and Best In Show’s Scott Donlan (John Michael Higgens). We immortalize the ambiguously gay murderers in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and the imprisoned Willie O’Keefe (Kevin Bacon) in Oliver Stone’s JFK, whose handful of lines includes, “You don’t know shit ‘cause you never been fucked in the ass!” We take a critically acclaimed, Oscar-hopeful gay movie with gay protagonists, Call Me By Your Name, and hunt for even more that we can relate to within the equivocal confines of its music.
In 2006, I saw Sufjan Stevens perform at Austin’s Paramount Theater. It’s a beautiful venue, one of those grand, early 20th century performance halls with fantastic acoustics, ample seating, and postcard-worthy marquees that cities love to throw money at. He performed “To Be Alone With You,” “The Predatory Wasp...,” “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” and an astounding 10-minute long track called “Majesty Snowbird”—one he’s still never recorded. I remember crying more than once, and deciding to linger by the stage door after the show in the hope of nabbing an autograph or handshake—a rare move for me at the time.
So I left my friends behind and wandered to the entrance of a dark alley behind the theater, under the dim orange lights of 8th Street. A fairly large group of fans had already gathered with their tickets, albums, and Sharpies, but as we watched the stage door open and close repeatedly with no sign of Sufjan, more than half of us decided to give up. But some time later, when just a handful of us remained, I saw a handsome man in a baseball cap emerge from the open door. He looked our direction and met my gaze for a few seconds, then turned and walked the opposite direction, into the shadows. It wasn’t a meeting, but it was enough.