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YMMV / Sufjan Stevens

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  • Applicability: He prefers to leave the interpretation of his songs to the listener.
    Intention finishes its work once a piece is created. I believe in a very democratic reader-response to art, that everyone has a unique experience and, though they may not always be valuable, or believable, or accurate, they’re all viable.
  • Award Snub: Many were unhappy when his song "Mystery of Love" (from Call Me by Your Name) lost the Oscar for Best Original Song to Coco's "Remember Me".
  • Breakthrough Hit:
    • "Chicago", which has remained his Signature Song.
    • Though he'd long been a critical favorite with a devoted fanbase, "Mystery of Love"—one of his contributions to the Call Me by Your Name soundtrack—was his first true mainstream success. The song earned him an army of new fans, his highest charting single to date, and an Academy Award nomination with an accompanying Oscars night performance.
  • Broken Base:
    • "Which Sufjan album is his best", with absolutely every single one of his main releases in between Michigan and Carrie & Lowell inspiring a near equal number of fervent arguments from fans. With critics the competition is mainly between Illinois and Carrie & Lowell, which are currently tied on Metacritic (with the C&L Live Album actually beating them both by a single point).
    • There's increasingly a divide between fans who love Sufjan primarily for his melancholy Folk and Baroque Pop songs, and those who either don't mind or actively prefer his experimental forays into Electronica, Synth-Pop, Ambient, and other genres (jokingly referred to as "bleep bloop" music). Synth-heavy releases like The Age of Adz and The Ascension are consistently his most controversial among both fans and critics.
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  • Catharsis Factor: His songs are a good way to work through loss, grief, melancholy, et al. Special mention goes to Carrie & Lowell: performing the music reportedly helped Stevens get over the self-destructive ways he fell into after his mother's death.
  • Creator Backlash: Sufjan has been very critical of his performance at the 2018 Oscars, describing feeling "traumatized" and completely out of place in the Hollywood awards world.
  • Creator Breakdown:
    • The Age of Adz happened as a result of a depression / neural illness that Stevens suffered from, which explains the album's atmosphere of what Stevens described as "hysterical melodrama".
    • Carrie & Lowell was a means for Stevens to cope with his mother's death.
    • Convocations was inspired by Stevens' father Rasjid's passing in September 2020, as well as the anxiety and isolation felt during the COVID-19 quarantine.
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  • Even Better Sequel: While Michigan was well-received when it came out, Illinois, with its more grandiose and maximalist sound and its more complex lyrical content, absolutely outdid the earlier album critically, and is in fact the highest-rated album of 2005 on Metacritic.
  • Everyone Is Jesus in Purgatory: His songs are rife with religious or spiritual undertones, and some are definitely about faith (e.g. everything on Seven Swans); however, there are listeners who will try to put a religious spin on lyrics that are quite clearly about relationships or mental health.
  • Fridge Horror:
    • Listeners who aren't familiar with Illinois history and/or don't pay close enough attention to the lyrics may have this kind of reaction when they realize that "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." is a song about a serial killer.
    • On first listen, it's easy to miss that "Drawn to the Blood" is about Domestic Abuse.
  • Genius Bonus: Knowledge of American geography, history and literature, and of Greek mythology and Christianity, really enhances the listening experience. Some examples:
    • In "Come on Feel the Illinoise!", "Columbia" refers to the United States (as in, land of Columbus) and to the Chicago World Expo, which was called the Columbia World Fair. "Ancient hieroglyphic" and "South Pacific" refer to Cairo Street and the Japan Pavillion at the Fair, and the song also references many inventions unveiled at the event, from the Ferris Wheel to Cream of Wheat.
    • The "demogorgon" referenced in "Wallowa Lake Monster" is the two-headed prince of darkness — an apt metaphor for someone suffering from bipolar disorder.
    • Off Carrie & Lowell:
      • "Death with Dignity" is titled after the Oregon Death with Dignity Act on physician-assisted suicide.
      • "Blue Bucket of Gold" is titled after a legendary lost gold mine, as a metaphor for a mythical promise of an unattainble treasure (in this case, a mother's love).
      • In "Should Have Known Better", "Rose of Aaron's beard" refers simultaneously to the Oregon town of Roseburg, founded by one Aaron Rose, and to Aaron's Beard, a flower containing chemicals used to manufacture antidepressants. "The breakers in the bar" refers to the waves at the Columbia River Bar.
      • "Tillamook Burn" was a series of forest fires in the first half of the 20th century.
    • There are a number of references to the work of Flannery O’Connor sprinkled throughout the Seven Swans album. "A Good Man is Hard to Find" is titled after and based on an O'Connor short story, "In the Devil's Territory" takes its title from a line in Mystery and Manners, "Size Too Small" contains the phrase "everything rises, going at it all," which could be read as a reference to O'Connor's story "Everything That Rises Must Converge," and the title track has a lot in common thematically with her two novels, The Violent Bear it Away and Wise Blood.
  • Growing the Beard: His first two albums — A Sun Came (indie rock) and Enjoy Your Rabbit (electronica) - didn't make much of a splash with either critics or audiences, but his third album, Michigan, finally put him on the map, thanks to its narrative-driven songs, more overt folk influences, and a geographical concept worn proudly on its (album) sleeve.
  • Harsher in Hindsight:
    • The autobiographical Carrie & Lowell adds context to some of Stevens's earlier songs; e.g. "Romulus", about a child ashamed of his Missing Mom, can now be assumed to have a Reality Subtext.
    • In "Fourth of July" Sufjan references the "Tillamook burn", a real-life series of Oregon wildfires in the early and mid-20th century. In 2020 the Tillamook forest was once again ravaged by forest fires.
  • Ho Yay: Has its own page.
  • LGBT Fanbase: He has a rather sizeable one, thanks to the homoerotic content of some of his songs and his own ambiguous sexuality. (Him scoring Call Me by Your Name in 2017 didn't hurt, either.) As an article on Jezebel put it:
    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.
    • Suf released the "Love Yourself" single—complete with rainbow album art!—explicitly to coincide with Pride Month 2019 (and donated a portion of the proceeds to organizations that assist LGBTQ youth).
  • Memetic Mutation: Just about every aspect of Sufjan's music and persona have been subject to affectionate meme-ing from the fanbase. Popular targets include his uncommon first name, his lengthy Michigan and Illinois-era song titles, his frequent use of the banjo, and his unique blending of Christian spirituality with frank explorations of grief and sexual identity.
    • "a sad song on the world's saddest banjo by sadjan stevens"
    • "Is this song gay or just about God?" (The typical answer: yes.)
    • "Is it a video?" has become a popular refrain following the release of the Call Me by Your Name track "Visions of Gideon."
      • Ditto "Oh to see without my eyes" from "Mystery of Love", which became a bonafide meme even outside the Sufjan fandom due to the song's association with the film.
    • "Sufjan Stevens Invites You to Come Feel Me Nose" (Only one of many reworkings of the Illinois cover.)
    • There are a lot of photos of Suf wearing several hats at once, which have in turn inspired a lot of memes about him not knowing how to wear a hat or about any person who wears multiple hats being Sufjan.
    • A whole subgenre of Sufjan memes concerns his failure to finish the Fifty States project, to the point that there are even t-shirts for sale demanding he release the remaining 48. Many fans have decided to fill in the gaps by making up their own parody tracklists or even recording new state-based songs.
    • The uncharacteristically danceable "Video Game" inspired a wave of mashup videos featuring various real-life people or characters from other media dancing to the song.
  • More Popular Spin Off: Sufjan started his music career playing various instruments for the folk rock band Marzuki (named after his brother, who was not in the band) in The '90s. The group released two albums and garnered a decent local following in Michigan, with their last release in '98. Sufjan put out his first solo album two years later, and within five years had become a major name in indie music. Meanwhile few people nowadays have ever heard of Marzuki, and those who have tend to find the band via the Sufjan connection anyway.
  • Narm:
    • Despite the song's overall tenderness, the couple of lines "Well, this world is a bitch, girl / Don't end up in a ditch, girl" from "Tonya Harding" sound pretty narmy, thanks to Rhyming with Itself, the Precision F-Strike and the uncharacteristic bluntness of the lyrics.
    • The line "You checked your texts while I masturbated" from "All of Me Wants All of You" comes off this way to some listeners, while others like the way it succinctly evokes a relationship with intimacy issues.
    • Even Sufjan can't quite make "Embrace the epic fail / of my exploding whale" sound not-silly as the chorus of an otherwise heartfelt and moving song about life's regrets. (All the more so considering "epic fail" was already pretty dated internet slang by the time the song was released.)
    • Some find the phrase "like a Judas in heat", used twice in "America", to be rather... unusual.
    • While intended to describe actual side effects of the eponymous anxiety medication, it's hard not to chuckle at the verse in "Ativan" when Suf sings "I shit my pants and wet the bed".
  • Narm Charm: Sufjan has made an art of combining deliberately narm-y elements (baroque musical compositions, odd instruments, obsessively rigorous album concepts, intentionally ridiculous song and album titles, elaborate stage costumes...) with his disarmingly sincere—and just plain brilliant—songwriting. The juxtaposition is a big part of his appeal for many fans.
  • Never Live It Down: The last official installment of the Fifty States Project was released in 2005, and Sufjan admitted four years later that it was only ever a promotional gimmick. Nevertheless, it's rare that a new Sufjan profile or review doesn't start with a paragraph about the abandoned project, and many non-fans know him primarily as the guy who said he was going to write an album for every state. (As of 2020, Sufjan's publicist actually requests in advance that interviewers don't ask about this.)
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: See Creator Breakdown, above.
  • Signature Song: "Chicago" and "Mystery of Love" are easily his best-known songs among the general public. Among fans... well, take your pick:
    • From Michigan:
      • "For the Widows in Paradise, for the Fatherless in Ypsilanti"
      • "Romulus"
    • From Seven Swans:
      • "To Be Alone With You"
    • From Illinois:
      • "John Wayne Gacy, Jr."
      • "Chicago"
      • "Casimir Pulaski Day"
      • "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us!"
    • From The Age of Adz:
      • "Futile Devices"
      • "Vesuvius"
      • "Impossible Soul"
    • From Carrie & Lowell:
      • "Fourth of July"
    • From The Ascension:
      • "The Ascension"
    • From his non-album releases:
      • "Mystery of Love"
      • "Visions of Gideon"
      • "My Rajneesh"
  • Song Association: "Chicago" was used in Little Miss Sunshine and was included on the soundtrack.
  • Special Effects Failure: In the otherwise well-crafted video for "Sugar", the smoke and fire emanating from the oven are pretty clearly CGI.
  • They Changed It, Now It Sucks!: Some have not been receptive towards the drastic sound change exhibited on The Age of Adz and, now, The Ascension. In general, his synth-heavy endeavors inspire a lot of backlash from those who either don't know he's been releasing electronic music since before most of his folksy albums came out or do know but would prefer he stick to the acoustic stuff.
  • Throw It In!: Ambient noises (like the sound of the air conditioning) can be heard in the background of many of his recordings.


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