John Wayne Gacy, Jr.
In a Nutshell
Sufjan Stevens assigned himself a project. A big project. A project as big as the United States is big. That's right – he wants to write an album about each of the fifty states. He hasn't gotten very far yet (two down, 48 to go), but that's probably because he's so meticulous about everything he does.
"John Wayne Gacy, Jr." comes to us from his album Illinois
, and is, indeed, about a famous Illinoisan. Actually, it's about an infamous Illinoisan. Gacy is better known as the Killer Clown, a serial killer who sexually assaulted and murdered 33 boys. He was eventually caught, his horrific acts broadcast to the world, and he was executed in 1994.
We know what you're thinking. Why would Sufjan Stevens write a song about this guy? With one look at the lyrics, it's clear that he isn't just trying to sensationalize the topic. This song doesn't make Gacy into a scary "other." Instead, Stevens brings in Gacy's troubled childhood, his respected place in the community, and a haunting lament for the people that he killed. Most importantly, Stevens compares himself with Gacy, suggesting that even such a terrifying figure has complexity and humanity. Or, to flip that around, maybe Stevens is trying to say that the rest of us are more complicated than we'd like to think.
About the Song
|Label||Asthmatic Kitty Records|
Explore the ways this song connects with the world and with other topics on Shmoop
We admit that even with all of this context, it's kind of weird to hear a song about a serial killer. But when you think about how popular serial killers are in fiction today, it's, well, kind of weird that it's weird. People seem to love stories about horrible criminals. Alice Sebold's 2002 novel The Lovely Bones
hit it big on bestseller lists and as a Hollywood movie, and it's narrated by the fourteen-year-old victim of a serial killer. In the past few years, the Swedish thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
, part of a series by Stieg Larsson, captivated a worldwide audience. Unfortunately for readers, Larsson himself met an untimely death, leaving his series decidedly unfinished at just three volumes. Maybe we can't help it – morbid stories make us think about how our own brains work, and that's pretty darn fascinating.
On the Charts
Sufjan Stevens is not really the type of artist who cracks the Billboard charts – a song about a serial killer is bound to turn some people off. However, Sufjan has received glowing reviews by many music critics. Illinois
was the top-ranked album of 2005 according to the Metacritic review aggregator site. The album received great reviews from Spin
, Rolling Stone
, and The New York Times
. The album also won the Album of the Year award at the 2006 PLUG Independent Music Awards.