Is this Sufjan Stevens song gay or just about God?

Kevin Leon

Over the past few years meme pages on social media sites have become increasingly popular. One particular music-themed meme page, “Is This Sufjan Stevens Song Gay or Just About God?” is one of the latest on that trend. The title is coined as a playful joke, but it brings up a valid question. Sufjan Stevens is a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist originating from Detroit, Michigan. His genres range from lo-fi folk and indie rock to electronica. He has released seven full studio albums since the year 2000.

Stevens has been explicit about his religious beliefs in the past; he is known for incorporating references to Christianity in his music. He often writes about a “He” in his music. Due to the religious imagery that permeates his music, many people believe this “He” refers to God. However, as many fans have pointed out, there is definitely a homosexual vibe in many of his lyrics. Stevens himself has never hinted at being personally gay. He has managed to keep much of his personal life separate from his life as a musician, but that doesn’t completely rule out the possibility of homoerotic undertones in his music.

For example, take the song “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is out to Get Us!” from his most well-known record, Illinois. In it, he sings of being at a summer camp with a boy. The first intimate lines are, “Oh how I meant to tease him/Oh how I meant no harm/Touching his back with my hand I kiss him.” He then repeatedly chants “We were in love” before ultimately closing the song with the internal conflict he faces when confronting his feelings for his best friend, “I can’t explain the state that I’m in/The state of my heart.” The song is clearly about a love he felt for his male best friend. Some have interpreted the kiss and the love as strong feelings of friendship, but that stance seems too conservative. The song presents these emotions in a romantic setting. If he were singing of a woman, these claims would appear significantly less because of greater acceptance of a heteronormative narrative.

“All for Myself” off Stevens’ electronica album, The Age of Adz, has some of the most blatant homoerotic lyrics of any Sufjan Stevens song. It also fails to make any clear reference to God that could be used to disguise them. The song focuses on what is clearly a date between two men: “We set out once with folded shirt/With hairy chests and well-rehearsed.” The song continues to express the speaker’s desire for their partner by repeating, “I want it all/I want it all for myself,” and finally culminating with, “Out in the Earth I smell of you/Of bathing boy, amazing you.” The speaker is talking about a male partner, with no other references that would allow the lyrics to take on a different meaning.

Another song that features debatable lyrics is “To Be Alone With You.” In this song, Stevens spends the entire first half singing about what he would do to be alone with this one person. In the last line, he states, “I’ve never known a man who loved me.” This clarifies that the song is dedicated to a masculine figure. The lines, “You gave up a wife and a family/you gave your ghost/ To be alone with me” can be read in two ways. Seven Swans is a very religious album, so it can be a reference to Jesus and his crucifixion, but it can just as easily be about a man who chose to be with the narrator.

Some contributors on the music lyric site Genius go to great lengths to avoid admitting that there are homosexual undertones in Stevens’ music. One contributor claimed that Stevens was singing about a murder in “All for Myself.” Of course, it is never explicitly stated that the speaker is Sufjan Stevens himself, but it is easy to assume that the narrator is at least male, since that’s the perspective Stevens is familiar with. His songs are often autobiographical, most notably Carrie & Lowell, an album dedicated to his late mother.

Sufjan Stevens has put out seven albums and numerous EPs with varying sounds that are all worth a listen. His expansive discography features more songs that could be analyzed under this microscope. It would be limiting to say that all the songs are just about being gay. However, it would be equally restricting to completely dismiss that idea in favor of a completely Christian interpretation. Stevens’ music is full of references to God, but his writing ability allows for his words to take on multiple meanings.

His lyrics provide evidence that homosexuality and Christianity can coexist, even though they are often seen as mutually exclusive. People who find themselves torn between the two find comfort in knowing that they can be paired together. More openly gay musicians would give people struggling with their sexual orientation someone to look up to, but to demand any musician take on that role is unreasonable. Artists, just like any other person, have a right to privacy. The ambiguous songs Stevens crafted matter because they show that there is no pressure to pick between the two; one can both love God and someone of the same sex.

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