“We’re all gonna die,” whispered a sullen Sufjan Stevens at the climax to his song “Fourth of July” at Coachella this summer. The concert had been a fairly predictable Sufjan concert: feathery wings were present for his performance of Seven Swans and he had already smashed a banjo.
People who attended his Carrie & Lowell tour are familiar with the “Fourth of July” crescendo: a big cacophonic and cathartic synth-step emotional release. But Sufjan decided to take the extra step at Coachella this year and confront people head on with their mortality. As the music reached its peak, Sufjan took to the microphone, stopped singing, and spoke very clearly and deeply:
“We’re all gonna die.”
“You’re all gonna die,” he continued, “Your cousins, and aunts and uncles are going to die. The person standing next to you is going to die.” I was already a few beers deep, which helped take the edge off, but I could hardly handle what I was witnessing: Sufjan staring down thousands of eager fans, carefully and boldly confronting them with their mortality. It felt simultaneously like a deeply scary and deeply sacred moment.
The rest of the concert did not mellow out. If anything, it got even wilder. Playing all 25 minutes of “Impossible Soul”, Stevens and company hopped, skipped, and jumped through loose choreography—it was an unpolished performance that captured, quite intentionally, the spontaneous and often erratic joy of childhood. There were balloons and tinfoil and fancy wings that were casually discarded, lingering far too long on the edge of the stage before falling off. At one point the dancing wavy car-dealership guys showed up in the background just as the trombones went into full party mode.
The whole thing felt profoundly confusing. It was the sort of feeling you get when you’re a kid and the grown-ups are laughing at something you don’t understand. I wanted so badly to be in on the joke, to understand what Sufjan was doing. My normal categories of irony and sincerity sort of melted into one as I contemplated the profundity or perhaps downright absurdity of what I was taking in. If it was a mess, it was the most intentionally crafted and beautiful mess that I have ever seen.
Upon further reflection, I remembered Walter Brueggeman’s exegesis of Genesis 3:19 for his essay regarding Ash Wednesday entitled, “Remember, you are dust.” In it he argues, the Lenten adage “Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” ought not to bring about feelings of shame and guilt, but rather a beautiful moment of remembering one’s creatureliness. This moment of accepting our inevitable death, for Brueggeman, is a reminder that we are “kept safe in a hostile world…” We remember “who we are and whose we are” which, “frees us for our work in being for our fellow creatures.”
It occurs to me that this was freedom that I saw on the stage at this landmark Coachella weekend. It was the freedom of a child who has accepted their role as a child of God—the freedom to play and be silly, rather than try to control things and appear perfect.
photo by (flickr CC) Fred von Lohmann