(Cross posted on Bycommonconsent.com)
We should have known that anyone who could write a melodic, lyrical ballad about a serial killer (John Wayne Gacy) still had some secrets and mysteries to explore. In fact, he announced just that in the final lines of the John Wayne Gacy song:
And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floorboards
For the secrets I have hid.
In his Salt Lake City concert, Sufjan Stevens talked about a dream he had had the night before. He had attended a “by invitation only” Prince concert—featuring all of the original band members. Except it wasn’t quite a concert. It was in a trailer, not a theater. And it was somebody dressed up to look like Prince, but not actually Prince. And he was doing karaoke. Badly. Nonetheless, in the dream, Sufjan and his friends were enthralled, raving about how good the performance was, deceived by their own expectations and convincing themselves that they really had seen Prince.
The dream says something about any creative artist’s fears: that we’ll produce ersatz art, imitations of imitations; that we’ll do bad karaoke instead of good, original music; that our audiences, blinded by their easily satisfied needs and wants, will tell us we’re brilliant; that they won’t know the difference between what we’ve done and what we had hoped we’d do—that our audience will be worse than we are, duped by a suggestion rather than the real thing. (Sufjan, or his set designer, played with this idea a bit, having the singers perform the first song behind a nearly transparent curtain—but we in the audience didn’t realize we were seeing through a veil until it was lifted.)
Artists risk. It’s part of the game. We risk offending people as we explore our musical/literary/what-have-you/intimate possibilities; we risk disappointing ourselves as we attempt something new, lifting not just a sheer veil but a few floorboards, and revealing secrets we might not want to show, though we realize we probably must. We gaze into the mirror like Blake before the tiger, asking, “Did he who made the lamb make thee?”
Sufjan’s new “Get Real, Get Right” asks straight out: Have you forsaken, have you mistaken me for someone else?
I have been listening to Sufjan for the past couple of years, introduced to him by a friend who thought I needed to expand my musical horizons. I came to love the ballads, the unpretentious, deceptively simple songs, many of them Christian—“Come Thou Font” and “Abraham,” for example. One youtube video shows Sufjan sitting on a stool, wearing a straw hat and holding a banjo. He says, “Is it far enough away yet?” as a sound check, and then strokes his banjo strings and sings “For the Widows in Paradise” like a serenade to angels.
That particular line—“Is it far enough away yet?” could be the offset to what he is doing now, as he performs long, autobiographical songs that are anything but far away from the artist himself. The banjo still comes out—but only once or twice, a sort of assurance that he really is the artist we came to see, not somebody pretending to be Sufjan. But he is a new version of himself, changing, testing his boundaries, daring to try new sounds, thanking his audience for listening to his raw experiments in interiority, approaching his artistry like a bold lover—but indeed a lover, not a rapist. He explores his life and thoughts and draws inspiration from a schizophrenic prophet—Royal Robertson, a sign maker who cavorted with space aliens and had various visions, all recorded in peculiar art—which Sujan uses throughout the show. The music comprises unrestrained, sometimes unearthly expressions of intimate thoughts—with back-up singers and dancers, lights, some heavy metal, and unexpected harmonies. It’s brave and unsettling. Definitely not easy or familiar.
In Mormon art, and even in Mormon culture, I suspect we perpetually and unconsciously do metaphorical sound checks, asking, “Is it far enough away yet?” as we create something our parents wouldn’t be embarrassed to read, see, or hear. We tend to keep our floorboards pretty firmly nailed down—though, as my bishop/husband knows, the boards are lifted in some private settings. Which is part of the point. Though our secrets and pain may be devouring us, we do not tend to make public confession.
Well, some of us don’t. Artists DO reveal personal things through their various media. It’s part of their job. They strip away veneers and masks, they raise veils, so that we aren’t deceived by a pretense. Somewhere in their art, we should recognize something about ourselves and our connection to them or to the drumbeat or the guitar chords. We might hear a character pose a question we’ve been thinking about, too, or—even better—one we haven’t thought about at all yet, but which suddenly becomes hugely important. The art may seem self-indulgent, even narcissistic, but even such exhibitionism can be revelatory. How many self-portraits did Rembrandt leave us, and how many aspects of his personality and character did they suggest? Artists might paint their parents on crosses (My Name is Asher Lev), talk about their affairs (Updike—in just about everything he wrote), or reveal their doubts (A Grief Observed), etc.
I remember someone telling me she was surprised by a story I had written. (Oh yes, I hit controversy in my fiction, and much of it is painfully autobiographical.) The reason it surprised and actually bothered her was, as she put it, “because I know you.”
Excuse me? You know me? Look beneath the floorboards. You know what I choose to reveal. And all I know of you is what you choose to reveal. None of us will ever completely know another—not in this life, and probably not in eternity. We will have expectations of each other, and be guided by our own sign making—the semiotics of conformity (exactly the opposite of what Sufjan’s sign maker sought). How do we dress? How do we speak? How do we sermonize? How and what do we sing? We yearn for the familiar, but the familiar will merely keep us pleasantly comfortable, not urge us to press on towards new frontiers or to plumb new depths or take on new challenges, even in our most important relationships. And if our art is to be a reflection of who we are and are becoming, individually or communally, we must be primed to get uncomfortable, to allow ourselves and others to “sing a new song.”
I had expected a much different concert than what Sufjan Stevens presented. I believe his artistic evolution is continuing. I suspect that his new album, The Age of Adz, hints at a synthesis just around the corner, when “The Dress Looks Nice on You” will merge with “Vesuvius” and form something both familiar and surprising—a virgin bride walking delicately on the edge of a volcano. The volcano, with its unpredictable steam and bursts of magma, and the innocent bride will both be creations of the same mind.
But I could be dead wrong in my hopeful suspicion. I have learned not only that my expectations might be unfulfilled, but that they might be dangerous—even lethal. If I try to shackle a dynamic soul within the confines of what I expect or want them to be, my efforts to control will become a threat, not a support. And I will cease to grow if I refuse to adjust to some new bend in the plan, or at least acknowledge it, even if I “grieve it on its way.”* I have learned this as missionaries I got to know in their very structured contexts have come home and started living beyond the frameworks I had held them in; as my children have grown into teenagers and adults with the inevitable angst and rebellion such growth includes; as my marriage has matured and my husband and I have moved beyond the sludge of resentment or resistance and into something more unpredictable and interesting than our earlier dreams might have granted. Even as we settle into routines and companionships, life still gets uncomfortable and messy, and growth can be dissonant, cacophonous. But what a magnificent mess! The cacophony itself suggests possibilities we haven’t considered before.
One of the great doctrines of Mormonism is the dynamic nature of all humans and even of godliness. I believe that the knowledge and power of God are expanding as the Church itself expands globally and into the incomprehensible Heavens. I believe that eventually, we will not only sing but shout as we join with past generations in repeating “Hosanna!” We will do it in every way available to us, clapping hands, ringing bells, flashing lights, dancing, painting, jangling tambourines. In ALL our ways (including ways we have not yet considered or discovered), we will acknowledge Him, the Creator and author of creativity, moving beyond our habits and expectations, and allowing others to do the same.
(Note: There is a whole different discussion on when the violation of expectation also violates personal ethics, but I won’t go there for now.)
* “Grieve it on its way” is from Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.”