John Wayne Gacy, Jr. Songwriting
Zero in on the lyrics for deeper meaning.
Sufjan Stevens is one of the more interesting songwriters in the music industry today. He is meticulous in his approach to songwriting – not many other artists would read over poetry by Carl Sandberg, novels by Saul Bellow, or historical studies of western expansion while preparing for their next album. But that's just what Sufjan did while researching for Illinois. Stevens takes a very literary approach to his songwriting, and this track certainly highlights this tendency.
Stevens allows the story of John Wayne Gacy to slowly reveal itself over the course of the song. He sets up the life of John Wayne Gacy by first describing a couple relatively mundane details of his youth. This is a boy who had an unfortunate childhood, yes, but at this point there is nothing that indicates what he will do later in his life. But then when Sufjan gets to the line, "look underneath the house there, find the few living things rotting fast in their sleep, oh the dead," the story takes a twist. This man who was so beloved by his neighbors is also responsible for killing 27 people and hiding their decaying bodies underneath his house.
This is where Stevens allows his songwriting to get a bit more personal. He displays remorse for the boys and their families, exclaiming quite emotionally, "oh my god." As he takes a more personal look at the subject matter, Sufjan includes the listener in the act, making the song personal for all involved. He asks the disturbing, almost rattling question, "are you one of them?" Suddenly, Sufjan includes all of us in this story of John Wayne Gacy Jr. Of course nobody listening to this song could possibly be one of the boys that Gacy murdered, but Sufjan is using this device to make the listener just a little uncomfortable.
Similarly disconcerting is the language that Stevens uses to describe the heinous actions that Gacy committed. For instance, Sufjan describes that Gacy "put a cloth on their lips, quiet hands, quiet kiss on the mouth." This sounds like a gentle, loving gesture, when we all know that he violently raped and suffocated his victims. And in case these descriptions are not spooky enough, Sufjan ends the song with the line "look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid." Interestingly enough, not once does Sufjan mention the name John Wayne Gacy, Jr. If it were not for the title of the song, the listener would have no clue that the song's subject matter is quite as dark as it is.
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