The homoromanticism of Sufjan Stevens' little ditties
Is Sufjan Stevens gay? There seems to be quite a debate on the internet about whether he is or not. Of course, there are always these questions about celebrities. All I know is that some of his lyrics can be taken as celebrating the joys of male-male love, with remarkably few, or none at all, about loving women.
What I admire a great deal about Sufjan Stevens is that he is one of the very few songwriters that doesn't write about love (particularly romantic love) in the majority of his songs, like almost every songwriter does.
The first song that made me wonder about his sexuality was "To Be Alone With You" from Seven Swans. The lyrics appear to be about about Jesus Christ, but they can also be taken on a literal level of an affair with married man: "You gave up your wife and family ... to be alone with me ... I've never met a man who loved me." (However, the lyrics could be assuming a female perspective as well.)
The only song from the same album that hints that he is straight is "The Dress Looks Nice on You" in which he sings about a woman wearing a dress ("And I think the dress looks nice on you").
There's also "Springfield" from the album Avalanche in which the narrator is married. It includes the lines "I took off my clothes, and she took it for a holiday" and later says that "Running out of Springfield, she left me a note saying: 'Bobby, don't look back.'" He follows that up with "If my wife took a bicycle ride with a knife in her hand, I saw it coming ..." and relates this to the fact that he has aftershave on ("give a minute, lady, I can explain the aftershave"). I presume that implies she was angry at him for cheating or flirting with someone else? This one's a pretty straight song, or well it seems to be .... (Rats.)
But then there's the album Come On Feel the Illinoise to consider.
"Chicago" is one of his few love songs, yet his object of love remains vague and unidentified. He talks about a friend whose gender he doesn't identify that he takes a trip with ("In a van with my friend. We slept in parking lots ... If I was crying in the van with my friend ...") and though he first says "I fell in love again", he later says "I was in love with a place ...." Very vague.
The one song that seems to be about a girlfriend is "Casimir Pulaski Day". But it's also quite a tragic story ("when I found out you had cancer of the bone/Your father cried on the telephone ...."). But an intimate relationship blooms: "And the complications you could do without / when I kissed you on the mouth" and "in the living room, when you kissed my neck / and I almost touched your blouse". The blouse is the only indication that the other person is female.
Yet in spite of the gravity of the situation and the intimacy, the tone of the songs is sung a in straight-forward even keel. It's also possible the story is of someone else that he's telling, or imagining. It's sung as a matter-of-fact folk tune, which contrasts with the billowing romanticism of both the music and the lyrics in "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us!"
In his concert in Vancouver, he said that this song was about an incident from summer camp with his friend. The narrative line in the song is surreal and follows dream logic, but he sings about how his friend is bitten by the vicious wasp (notably, he calls the wasp "she"—which could be symbolic of or interpreted as a woman threatening the intimacy of his friendship with his male friend perhaps?), and then he later says that he goes over to his male friend and is "touching his back with my hand, I kiss him ...." Later, he sings "We were in love, we were in love" and "I can't explain the state that I'm in, the state of my heart, he was my best friend...." Hmm, you can't get more literal than that!
His later lines "My friend is gone, he ran away. I can tell you, I love him each day" could have been taken as chuminess, were it not for the kissing reference earlier. And the "we were in love" refrain.
And homoeroticism (not just romanticism) seems to rise in the song "The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts" in which features the lines: ""Only a real man can be a lover / if he had hands to lend us all over / we celebrate our sense of each other / we have a lot to give one another". Hmmm ... Freud would probably have a lot to say about this.
What is also intriguing is that he writes a song about the closeted gay serial killer John Wayne Gacy. He also compares himself to Gacy metaphorically ("Look beneath the floorboards, for the secrets I have hid").
In the end, however, there's no way to really know whether he is gay or not unless he states it (and even then, he could still claim to be straight but hide in the closet).
The other thing is that he is a folk singer and tells stories that aren't necessarily his own, or even real.
But ... on the other hand, his choice of subject matter does reflect something about his psyche. If he is in fact truly straight, then it's quite commendable and admirable that he feels comfortable enough to sing songs that are open to interpretations of same-sex love and affection. How many other singers can you say that of?
The only thing we can know for certain is that there are plenty of lyrics he writes that gay men can draw romantic inspiration from.I don't know about you but I think I'm in love, I think I'm in love...