Saturday, March 21, 2009
#6 Song of the Decade- "John Wayne Gacy, Jr."
Sufjan Stevens- "John Wayne Gacy, Jr."
With Illinois, Sufjan Stevens proved he was one of the most accomplished, ambitious songwriters of recent memory. During the year-end lists season, his third album crossed over from indie darling to modest hit, helped certainly by Amazon.com's decision to make it their number one recommendation of the year.
The dour "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." was never released as a single, but it calls attention to itself as the fifth track, letting us know that this social history of the Prairie State has its downtempo, lachrymose side as well. It profiles the titular serial killer, one of the more feared and hated figures in Illinois history (other than Steve Bartman). While the fingerpicking guitar and somber minor chords are memorable, the chilling song sticks with us because it refuses to conform to our expectations about what it is trying to say.
Songwriters are often described as "novelistic," and they are too often praised for detail--not detail that advances a narrative or provides characterization, but any detail at all. Why mention that something happened on a Thursday if that has no relevance? Why mention the color of someone's shoes if that tells us nothing about them? Stevens reveals his first life as a, well, novelist by providing economic details that seem completely necessary after the fact. The first couplet of this track is "His father was a drinker, and his mother cried in bed/Folding John Wayne's t-shirts when the swingset hit his head." It reveals a tense childhood, an unhappy but still doting parental unit, and a trauma that might explain or even excuse what happened later. In two lines. It is because of that first verse, which sounds almost charitable toward Gacy, that we don't quite understand the tone of the song. If Stevens is apologizing for what Gacy did as a man by explaining how he became that man, it would be pretty novel indeed. By stressing the "Jr.," even the title seems to nail down that Gacy was not a monster but, quite literally, someone's son.
In the second verse that tone is affirmed by the generous "he took off all their clothes for them," as if Gacy was doing these young victims a favor by undressing them. But it's also contrasted with lines of hyperbole like, "He killed ten thousand people." Why is the speaker making the tone harsher if we're supposed to sympathize with the killer? What are we supposed to be getting out of this?
With the final two heart-breaking lines, Stevens masterfully resolves these contradictions. Trailing off, echoing an earlier construction, he sings, "And on my best behavior, I am really just like him/Look underneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid." He has just finished humanizing what some people saw as evil incarnate, and then he puts himself in that same company. The point isn't, of course, that Sufjan Stevens is a murderer. The point is that we can't put an empirical value on sin.
It's tempting to look at the dark side of human nature to rationalize the way we behave, as if God is grading on a curve. What's more difficult--and all too often devastating--is interpreting our morality on its own plane. What if my skipping mass on Sunday has the same consequences as John Wayne Gacy killing a young boy? That may strike some as silly, but it's also silly to assume that our system of logic is the exact same as God's. Furthermore, if someone has the same guilt for skipping mass as Gacy does for murder, does that change God's judgment? In the ultimate case of "Let he without sin cast the first stone," Stevens presents these issues and leaves it to us to interpret them. It's not every day that a song teaches us about the Problem of Evil and moral relativism, but that thoughtfulness is something Sufjan Stevens always brings to the table.