Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Sufjan and Vegas Nightclubs

I can't say I'm happy to be back in Cleveland, but I can't say I'm unhappy. I feel like I've had months worth of experiences in the past week. Things are moving at breakneck speed, and I mean that in more serious terms than Tokyo Police Club on their last album. I'm floating in and out of my own understanding of myself. What is my identity? Who in the world am I? Do any other 23 year olds feel so puzzled by the constantly changing nature of their lives?

I don't know whether to write about Sufjan Stevens and his new incomprehensible album, or about the nightclub scene in Las Vegas. For some reason, neither of them feels real to me.


We stepped into Tao, a club in the Venitian. We went through the red ropes, insisting that Javier at the Red Rock put us on the VIP list.

When we stepped inside, what we saw looked a lot like what some dude captured on his blog. Nearly nude Asians washing each other in a bathtub. Glasses of $1100 champagne, passed into our hands without questions asked or money exchanged. Girls in thongs that glimmered with the same kind of string lights you might hang up in an overly cheesy dorm room. Men in loose ties. Waitresses with four pens in their cutoff jean short pockets.

Sitting on the couch, this Ohio girl repeatedly tried to shut her jaw, which seemed to drop open at the slightest happening.

But who am I kidding? This was ridiculous, but the reason I write about Tao is the music. The DJ was changing songs at 30 second intervals - not in a manner that he messed up or picked the wrong song - rather, it was a dance party for the perennially ADD tourists and Vegas regulars. Songs melded together, from LL Cool J's "Phenomenon" to Katy Perry's "California Gurls." Pinging between rap songs that I'll never know the titles to but will always know the words to and pop hits that were somehow turned trendier and skankier in the surroundings, it was an absolutely immersive experience.

The speakers were glowing. We were yelling to understand each other, or whispering in one another's ears. It was living a dream in the sense that this wasn't real - or was it real? Vegas runs on appearances, on the image, on making something into something that it's not. The glamour and the talent and the beauty and the richness and the grandeur are what meets the eye, yet not what you go to sleep understanding.


What can we go to sleep understanding about Sufjan Stevens' The Age of Adz? Reality and surreality flutter in and out of these songs, colored by a mechanical, technical chamber choir. The songs are real, but much like Vegas, they feel strangely out of place in my life, and they reek of that same sort of overwhelming expansiveness. It is difficult to see myself in this music; the difficulty lies in finding a point of reference that I can relate to myself.

Listenability. I don't think it was a factor in Stevens' writing or recording process. If he is making art for the sake of being artistic, that's fine. However, as of my 3rd listen, I don't have anything to grasp onto. It's like providing me with an obstacle course that involves full body strength and skill, then taking away my legs and refusing me prosthetic ones. How can I appreciate it if the tools are not provided? I can try to cultivate those tools on my own, but by the end of my experience, will it be gratifying? Will I enjoy the very difficult ride?

Individual songs are beautiful. I step inside "Futile Devices" like I step inside layers of plush blankets on the first cold day of winter. The sparse quality, hushed vocals, and stomach-pit-creating acoustic guitar plucking is the stuff of dreams.

"Get Real Get Right" stands in the middle of the album, a totem pole of impossibly confusing faces and symbols that don't make sense if you don't have an oral history of the tribe who carved it. Noises, effects, new ideas, multimedia, digital sound, haunting choirs, grating synthesizers, beeps, uneven percussion that replicates the unstable innerworkings of an MRI machine. All of these ideas and more are layered and layered into a musical piece that takes some real determination to appreciate. It's not impossible to enjoy, but Stevens is really making it a challenge.

My friend Will said that many of the songs, upon further listen, seem to be nearly impossible to recall, or, rather, he doesn't remember which ones he wants to hear again. That might be the worst thing a real music fan can say about an album. What is an album that initially sounds good but holds no place in your memory? Not all music has to be sticky. But I think it should draw you in and keep you there on its own merits.


I guess I go to sleep wondering about merits. What is real, and what can we believe in? If our music changes in rapid succession, and our focus isn't held on any one thing long enough, and we are overridden in life by distraction, how can we develop deeper connections? And what makes it all worth it?

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