Sunday, January 08, 2006

The Secrets I Have Hid

My obsession with Sufjan Stevens' "Casimir Pulaski Day" at long last led me to acquire his Michigan and Illinois albums. I was particularly eager to hear the much-discussed song on "Come On Feel the Illinoise" (do album titles go in quotation marks, or get italicized? I'm not sure) entitled "John Wayne Gacy, Jr."

John Wayne Gacy, Jr., for those who do not know (I didn't until I heard about the song) was a notorious Chicagoland serial killer. He raped and murdered 32 young men between 1972 and 1978, twenty-seven of whom he buried in the crawlspace below his house. Neighbors visiting his home would comment on the smell, which he claimed was a broken sewer that he'd already sprinkled lime on. He was tried for the murders in 1980 and executed in 1994. He's particularly notorious as a "clown killer"; he was known to dress as "Pogo the Clown" for neighborhood parties, and Stevens' song speculates that he also dressed like a clown while suffocating his victims (I've yet to do enough research to know whether this is more than speculation). Prior to his murder spree, he'd spent a year in prison for raping a fifteen-year-old boy (sentenced to ten years, but paroled after eighteen months for good behavior).

In terms of pure musical and lyrical mastery, I was not nearly as impressed with "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." as my friends had been and as I anticipated being. It's melodically simple, with the same impressive arrangements that define all of Stevens' songs. But the lyrics are not nearly as skillful or moving as most of his other songs, and really I find them dishonest and difficult to deal with. I refer in particular to the ending "In my best behavior/I am really just like him/Look beneath the floorboards/For the secrets I have hid," but there are other moments in the song that veer in the same direction.

First, let me refer you to Textaisle's post on the subject. Textaisle clearly and skillfully articulates some of the problems within the song. Rather than pin it solely on Sufjan, though, I'd say it also stands as evidence of the weird, misguided, poorly thought-out backlash against the culture of aggressive individualism, the kneejerk liberal notion that we must sympathize with everyone because we're all the same inside.

And it's just not true. I assume that Stevens intends to convey not only that he himself is just like Gacy beneath his floorboards, but all of us: if we were to take an honest and deep enough look at ourselves, each of us would find corpses hidden beneath his floorboards. Perhaps I'm too much of a literalist, but using a serial killer as a metaphor for buried romantic injury seems a bit beyond the pale. And if it is not a symbol, then Stevens is just wrong. No matter how deep inside myself I look, I will not find that I have the same impulses as a serial killer, and I'm comfortable asserting that the same holds true for most of my readers. In describing the victims, Stevens also asks "Are you one of them?" Ultimately the only two options the song offers are to be a victim ("boys with their cars, summer jobs") or to be "really just like [Gacy]." Which strikes me, coming from a songwriter who can combine raw emotion with artistic skill like few others, as painfully dishonest, socially as much as anything else. It's awfully . . . well . . . it's awfully if-you're-not-with-us-you're-against-us.

Obviously Gacy exists in a context, as does anyone, and obviously the context contributes to his crimes. Stevens nicely (though not, in my view, beautifully) limns some of this context in his lyrics, and there's also the context of the society in which Gacy lived, beyond his family and community life. But individuals also exist. Seriously, they do. All of us are certainly poisoned to some degree by the ills of society, which may be what Stevens is trying to say, but again I don't think a serial murderer is a justifiable symbol for us all. Gacy was seriously ill, seriously damaged and seriously sadistic. Most of us are none of those things. I admit, as everyone should, that there is plenty to be found beneath my floorboards, but no corpses. That was Gacy. Contrary to Stevens' lyrics, I think that is a perfectly fair distinction.

Additionally, in Googling Gacy after hearing the song a few times, I found another small source of righteous indignation: articles that referred to Gacy as a notorious/prolific/insert dramatic adjective here "homosexual serial killer," or, if not in such explicit words, discussed his repressed homosexuality as if it obviously foreshadowed his crimes. Now, forgive me, but I can't say I see the qualitative difference between a homosexual serial killer and a straight one. Certainly the fact that Gacy raped and killed boys adds an even greater element of sensationalism than the average serial killer has (indeed, one biography of Gacy is entitled The Man Who Killed Boys), but the implication that "homosexual" somehow belongs with "serial killer" in the titles that encapsulate his fame is REPUGNANT. Millions of homosexuals, even hundreds of thousands of closeted homosexuals, do not become serial killers. Certainly I've read enough Thomas Harris to know that repressed homosexuality is part of the psychological profile of serial killers who rape their victims, and the details of Gacy's repressed homosexuality tell us something about his crimes, but does it not strike writers that something having nothing whatsoever to do with homosexuality must first be tremendously off? Do these people not recognize how irresponsible their writing is, or do they not care, or do they do it on purpose?

So far, everyone I've read or heard writing about John Wayne Gacy, Jr., has felt somewhat irresponsible. Someday I'll be able to take one of those biographies, and I'll see what I think.


At 1:19 PM, Blogger Connor said...

I'm glad you posted on this, and the song has been on my mind a lot lately as well. I've wanted to write about Sufjan Stevens for awhile, actually, but every time I get close, I feel like there's more to parse.

With regards to the Gacy song, I annot decide how I feel about it as a whole. I do know that it seriously creeps me out, which is a strange quality for the kind of song that gets stuck in my head. And I don't know that I follow the extension of your critique of the song to a critique of categorizing Gacy as a "homosexual serial killer" (I agree that it's repugnance, but I don't see what the song and the classification have to do with each other).

The most I can venture right now is that you're onto something with this "it's not about him." That is, what Gacy did and what his victims experienced is presumably beyond anything Stevens is expressing. If he wants to go there, fine, my hat off to him, but then I expect a rigorous and nuanced treatment. "I'm just like him" is a copout... it's drawing dire comparisons while neither backing them up with worthwhile support, giving them specific dimensions worth contemplating, or allowing the listener to draw meaningful conclusions.

I don't find the comparison offensive in and of itself, but lazy, and I think laziness when talking about serial killers *is* somewhat offensive.

At 1:31 PM, Blogger Ammegg said...

For the record, the two have nothing to do with each other--the "homosexual serial killer" problem is an entirely separate problem, it's just one that I discovered while parsing my reactions to the song and its problems. Sorry for not making that clearer.

I can't take credit for the "not about him" comment; that was Textaisle. But I agree that laziness with regard to serial killers is offensive. I'd be interested to hear what you write about Stevens; from the way you research your places of residence, I think you'd have a great deal to offer.

At 2:04 PM, Blogger Connor said...

You're right. What I meant was that Textaisle's comments about Stevens thinking it was "about him" and your extension to listeners thinking it was "about them" are both correct. Then my own two cents might be paraphrased to say that it *can* be about us, but if it is, then it'd better be hard and icky, and the end of the song wasn't really either.

I respect Stevens a lot for his efforts, and going off the amount of hate mail I got for writing a play nobody even read (Canaryville Blues -- it was crap), I think he's going to either create interesting music and make a lot of enemies, or make insipid music that a lot of states will want to coopt for promotional purposes). I'm glad to see that he's going the former route so far, but Gacy may be a significant first major failure, and I expect that there will probably be many more.

At 10:58 AM, Blogger chloegoth said...

I think that the whole project is an excellent marketing decision on Stevens' part.

He has guaranteed that at least one person, if not thousands, will buy at least one of the albums, if nothing more than to have an album commemorating the state in which they were born/grew up/etc. So he's guaranteed to sell at least 5 copies. If 1000 people in each state buy the album, then we have 50,000 copies. I expect he will sell many more than that.

So, yeah. Brilliant marketing decision.

At 6:54 PM, Anonymous Johnny said...

Hi there, I just stumbled across your blog but couldn't help myself when I read what you said about "John Wayne Gacy Jr." I think that the song is far from a failure, and I believe it is much less of a literal interpretation and more of a hyperbole used for emphasis. I suppose my Christian background helps me see this point, for I have been told over and over again "all have sinned...there is not one righteous..." and things like that. So when Sufjan says "I am really just like him," I felt it was just a way of saying "I'm a sinner too, and I've tried to hide the things I've done too." Figurative floorboards and such. Sorry if I come off angry or like I'm trying to set you straight... just the way I see it.


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