Sufjan Stevens: Illinois
Illinois was not only the most acclaimed album of 2005, it’s also the second installment in what may be one of the crazily ambitious musical projects ever hatched. Grandly title The Fifty States Project, it refers to Stevens intent to record an album about each of the US States. So far, he’s managed Illinois and the 2003’s Michigan.
To be fair, it’s widely assumed that the Fifty State Project is more than a little tongue-in-cheek, a good example of Stevens’ gift for self-promotion and media coverage. The cover for Illinois got a fair amount of press for all the wrong reasons, however, when its launch was delayed due to legal action from DC comics.
As rapturous reviews filled newspapers and sites across the country, fans became frustrated to learn that label Asthmatic Kitty Records had been forced to halt all retail sales. A détente was negotiated in a fairly swift fashion, with a balloon sticker employed to cover the copyright infringing superhero. Subsequent copies removed him all together.
A blogger named John, writing on beelerspace, best captured the sense of disappointment we inevitably experience when we discover just how little popular culture actually belongs to us. Writing as the news broke, he argued: “Including Superman on the cover of Illinoise was a mistake made in ignorance but also in innocence. Sufjan assumed that we owned Superman; that the man of steel was an icon that belonged to us. Sufjan’s Superman is the one of the classical heroism, the one driven by the public good, by honor and nobility, by that which is good…
“In DC’s legal universe, Superman is more like the one Frank Miller portrayed in the Dark Knight: a pawn controlled by an opportunistic, media-driven, shadow-government-cum-corporation. He’s not a hero, he’s a property…
“Sufjan’s intent – and that is the heart of what we’re talking about: intent – was to merely acknowledge the existence of Superman as an icon of America and Illinois.”
It’s a passionate case that he puts forward and one that is particularly refreshing in an age of cynical defeatism. The people at Asthmatic Kitty were a little less argumentative, merely conceding that they’d “forgotten” to check with DC. They were doubly unfortunate that DC were just wrapping up lucrative deals around the Superman Returns movie and that the album ended up becoming such a hot item so soon after release.
The cover art has also been blamed for inciting waves of mispronunciation, as the headline’s infectious call to arms has lead the album to be known as “Illinoise”.
But even without the controversy, the cover still stands as a very charming tribute to the state of Illinois. It’s a state that’s notable not only for its major city Chicago but also for being the “average state”. Widely considered a political bellwether, it is demographically diverse and culturally rich. Stevens’ cover pays tribute to icons that include the Chicago skyline, gangster Al Capone and the agricultural industry.
Superman has long been a proud part of Illinois’ history since DC decided to place the fictional Metropolis there. Life went on to imitate art, when a small town of less than 7,000 people changed its name to Metropolis and in June 9, 1972 the Illinois State Legislature passed Resolution 572 that declared Metropolis the “Hometown of Superman”. I strongly recommend a visit to the online Metropolis Chamber of Commerce.
In a subsequent release of outtakes from the album, The Avalanche, Stevens recasts himself as the superhero, pulling free of the strings that hold him up.
Should he ever release a commemorative edition of this contemporary classic, he may well choose to add an Illinois icon whose story is as impropable as you’ll find in any comic book. Obama’s unlikely to sue.