For the past decade Sufjan Stevens has maintained a unique place in the consciousness of millennials of a certain inclination. While many of his indie folk contemporaries have broken through to wider notice with Kanye West collaborations (Bon Iver), Natalie Portman relationships (Devendra Banhart), surprise major Grammy nominations or key placement on the Gossip Girl or Grey’s Anatomy soundtracks (so many), Stevens has remained decidedly uninterested in fame. He’s been content to find his home in our Spotify playlist labeled with names like “Pitchfork Best of 2010” and “Indie Feels.” He’s built up a pretty sizable and lasting fanbase that way, and yet Stevens remains in part somewhat unknowable and mysterious to even his most devoted fans. Some can’t even explain, exactly, what it is that even draws them to him in the first place.
Yet, after 18 years flying just under the mainstream, Stevens is set to perform this weekend at the Oscars, a telecast that attracts viewers in the tens of millions and usually finds itself as one of the top five most watched programs of the entire year. He’s nominated for his song “Mystery of Love,” a surprising turn of events for an artist who, despite widespread and long lasting critical acclaim, has never even received a Grammy nomination. This also means that, for a few minutes at least, millions of Americans of all ages and inclinations will have to consider the mystery of Sufjan Stevens. They may very well come to you for questions, and it may very well be more difficult to answer those questions than that time Arcade Fire pulled off that Grammy upset over Lady Gaga and Eminem, or that time a pregnant M.I.A. performed with Jay-Z and Kanye (a conversation you had to repeat again a few years later when she flipped everyone off during Madonna’s Super Bowl set).
So, to get you through this, we’ve drawn up a primer of what to expect should the person in your life who is probably the most unafraid to ask you dumb questions about the culture you enjoy—your mother, perhaps (sorry, moms!)—decides to inquire: “Who is that Sufjan Stevens?”
Hey honey, did you see the Oscars last night? There was that nice little man who sang that song with the banjo. I had never heard of him before, so I asked Debra and she didn’t know either, and I thought you would. What was his name? I thought they said “Surfin’ Steve” but that just couldn’t be right. Mom, you’re talking about Sufjan Stevens.
You’re always so smart. Everyone between the ages of 25 or 35 who had a phase where they shopped at Urban Outfitters too much knows who Sufjan Stevens is.
Did he just come out? There’s so many new singers these day. You can’t expect me to keep up! You know I love that Meghan Trainer, but I don’t know who half these people are anymore! No, mom, he put out his first music 18 years ago, and has been pretty prolific ever sense. I think his last few albums made the Billboard top 10.
Oh, and you never played any of his songs for me? To be fair, most of the time I listen to Sufjan Stevens it’s only in my room alone while gently crying at night.
Is he one of those emos? No, mom. I’m not in middle school anymore. He’s more indie folk with some electronica. He sings about love, loss, his parents, old friendships, Jesus…
Jesus? Yeah, he’s a Christian. It’s a whole thing.
So you mean to tell me you and all your hipster little friends with all your “Feel The Bern,” and “Please Respect My Pronouns” and “Legalize Pot” this and that, have all been secretly crying in your rooms alone at night listening to an earnest Christian folk musician with a banjo? Yet, you wouldn’t even go to church with your Aunt Karen that time! Technically that is true, but, honestly, most of us didn’t even realize he was singing about Jesus until we were already in too deep. For a while, we just thought he was the guy who sang about states. Plus, despite what Uncle Arnold says on Facebook, I do not hate religion! Sufjan has deeply held personal convictions, which we all respect, plus he doesn’t really explain it all that much. It’s not like they’re playing him in youth groups or anything, you know? He does a lot of other stuff, too, like collaborations with ballets, song cycles about the Chinese Zodiac, Christmas albums, audio-visual odes to Brooklyn overpasses. He’s part of a supergroup that sings about astrology. He does a lot. A whole lot. I’m not even sure if I’ve kept up with everything. Maybe I’m making this up, but I think he did an indie-folk/hip-hop album with some friends?
Ok for the last time, you need to stop antagonizing your Uncle Arnold. He does love you, you know? But was was this with singing about states? Sufjan was going to make an album for every single American state, but he did two and was like, “Just kidding.”
So he’s a nice Christian man with an interest in states’ rights and holiday traditions, yet he did the music for that film where the little European boy falls in love with the middle-aged insurance salesman? Mom, for the last time, that’s not what Call Me By Your Name is about.
Well, I saw the trailer, and that’s what it seemed like to me. I don’t have the emotional bandwidth to slowly explain both Sufjan Stevens and Call Me By Your Name to you right now.
Is he what…………..?
Anyway, Sufjan Stevens is cute and he’s your new imaginary stepfather, bye! Mom!