A day before our nation marked its independence from Great Britain for the 244th time, indie folk/rock artist Sufjan Stevens released “America,” the first single off his upcoming album, The Ascension.
While listening under the collective mental cloud of a global pandemic and national protests for racial and social justice, it’s impossible to overlook the song’s visceral message. But “America” wasn’t written in the present milieu. Sufjan penned the words to the song six years ago while making Carrie & Lowell. He said in a statement released by his label:
I was dumbfounded by the song when I first wrote it, because it felt vaguely mean-spirited and miles away from everything else on Carrie & Lowell. So, I shelved it.
But when I dug up the demo a few years later I was shocked by its prescience. I could no longer dismiss it as angry and glib. The song was clearly articulating something prophetic and true, even if I hadn’t been able to identify it at the time. That’s when I saw a clear path toward what I had to do next.
What Sufjan does next, in refining, re-recording, and releasing this single, is raise a lament over an America that has far too often fallen short of the ideals she claims to espouse. “America” is a funeral dirge and a call-to-action.
“I have loved you,” Sufjan croons. And haven’t we all? We wear our patriotism on our sleeve. We are first, best, “the greatest country on God’s green earth.” Our head of state is taken for granted as “the leader of the free world.”
But somewhere along the way, we forgot that greatness earned must be greatness maintained. We forgot that with great power comes great responsibility. The American dream became our god, a lullaby deity who’d rock us to sleep with whispers of a supremacy that we increasingly had no right to assert. And even as the dream slipped through the fingers of a growing number of our population, melting away into the national nightmare laid bare today, we refused to wake up. We refused to admit to our own sins.
And it is for this reason that Sufjan sings, “I have grieved / I’m ashamed to admit I no longer believe.” Should there be shame in admitting that we no longer cling to a vision of America that has harmed so many? No. But some would have it so. For these, it is a crime — unpatriotic and heretical — to critique America, to name her sins, to say that the trappings of greatness no longer befit her.
Every positive emotion Sufjan expresses toward America is traded in for one of grief and treachery. He has “loved” her, and he has “grieved.” He “received” of her gifts not knowing that he’d “trade” his “life” for just a “picture” of the dream. He “worshipped,” he “believed,” he “broke bread,” fully partaking in the American sacraments only to find himself “broken” and ‘beaten.’
Like Thomas, he reached out and touched the body of his god, but when he drew back his hand it was covered in “blood.” Reeling, he “choked on the waters” amid a flood of realization that America was not as he thought her to be.
Speaking as those who have been most wounded by the systemic injustices in this country, Sufjan realizes that he can no longer hold allegiance to America as she is. He can no longer bow down to the idol that many, including many who share his Christian faith, have made out of the country. Americana is a failed religion, one that no longer deserves his loyalty, one that he can no longer believe in. Thus, Sufjan is comfortable being a traitor.
I will find my way like a Judas in heat
I am fortune, I am free
I’m like a fever of light in the land of opportunity
To those who might push back, to those who might call him unpatriotic, he declares:
Don’t look at me like I’m acting hysterical
Don’t do to me what you did to America
Don’t do to me what you do to yourself
With these lines Sufjan sets up a dichotomy between those who support America-As-She-Is and those who have been harmed by the systemic flaws in our democracy. In a way, America has been overtaken and held hostage by its “Other Mother” (the villain of Nail Gaiman’s bestselling children’s story). Like Coraline, Sufjan and those who join him seek to wrest control from a false identity and return the nation to the hands of its “real parents,” its better angels.
“America” is a call for us to take part in a necessary betrayal. We must kiss the America that we know goodbye. If we are to save her, she needs to be crucified; she needs to die; she needs to be buried. For only once the old America is laid to rest can a new and better America rise.
In 2017, Sufjan wrote: “America, we will pay for our sins and the sins of our forefathers. Wait for it and embrace it — it will be a beautiful reckoning, a born-again experience.” Like his prescient, prophetic song, I hope he was right when he said, “The fire next time is happening now.”