October 17, 2013
Sufjan Stevens: Singer, Musician, Editor
by Wah-Ming Chang
The Brooklyn-based indie singer and songwriter Sufjan Stevens is enjoying Miley Cyrus‘s “#GetItRight.” But, he writes in an open letter to her, fix your grammar. As in: “I been laying in this bed” should be “I have been lying in this bed.”
In addition to posting quotes by and about dancers (Trisha Brown, for example), writers (Truman Capote, Marilynne Robinson, Susan Sontag, George Saunders), and filmmakers/spiritual gurus (Alejandro Jodorowsky), Stevens, who received an MFA in creative writing from the New School, generally nerds out about design, typography, grammar, and punctuation choices, or mis-choices. More than a collection of snapshots with captions bemoaning the misplaced or missing apostrophe, these posts also gently and insistently break down the cultural and ironic context of all text that is visually — and nonsensically, however slightly so — off. He critiques the fonts and design used for the Savages‘ debut LP, Silence Yourself (Helvetica Narrow), and for XTC‘s 1978 album, Go2 (Courier); realizes why a title would omit a question mark (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape); dissects subject/verb (dis)agreements in fortune cookies (“Little and often makes much”); predicts the titling direction of all books (What We Talk About When We Talk About X); aligns margins and fixes a line’s orphan (“important” vs. “im•portant”); marvels over the bold italics used in comic books (“THIS WILL BE A BATTLE WORTHY OF GIANTS!“); congratulates Pitchfork for its correct punctuation style, despite the one inconsistency (comma outside the quote mark [British] vs. comma inside [American]); extols The New Yorker‘s approach to listing contributors’ bios (less is more); and diagrams a sentence posted in EW.com (tricky subject/verb agreement).
About a window-cleaning ad — which advises, Time to clean your window”s — he wonders:
Time to clean your excessive apostrophes? (Or vagrant quotation mark?) Which is it? Maybe neither. Consider the best intentions: grammatical blunder as typographical symbol meant to evoke that which sullies your view. The vexation of a misplaced quotation mark as representation of the annoying debris (i.e. cynicism, existential anxiety, etc.) on the “window pane of your life” (i.e. Weltanschauung: “your world view”), which is in much need of “cleaning” (revitalization of the mind, spiritual rehabilitation, a new job, etc.). So subliminal. So entrepreneurial. So American. My prayer: Clean Windows. Peace on Earth.
I don’t know whether to hire him to proofread, commission him to write his own manual of style, or join his cult. For now, I’ve started listening to Enjoy Your Rabbit, and am finding its grammar very exacting indeed.
Here’s his letter to Miley, in full:
Dear Miley. I can’t stop listening to #GetItRight (great song, great message, great body), but maybe you need a quick grammar lesson. One particular line causes concern: “I been laying in this bed all night long.” Miley, technically speaking, you’ve been LYING, not LAYING, an irregular verb form that should only be used when there’s an object, i.e. “I been laying my tired booty on this bed all night long.” Whatever. I’m not the best lyricist, but you know what I mean. #Get It Right The Next Time. But don’t worry, even Faulkner messed it up. We all make mistakes, and surely this isn’t your worst misdemeanor. But also, Miley, did you know the tense here is also totally wrong. Surely you’ve heard of Present Perfect Continuous Tense (I HAVE BEEN LYING in this bed all night long [hopefully getting some beauty sleep?]). It’s a weird, equivocal, almost purgatorial tense, not quite present, not quite past, not quite here, not quite there. Somewhere in between. I feel that way all the time. It kind of sucks. But I have a feeling your “present perfect continuous” involves a lot more excitement than mine. Anyway, doesn’t that also sum up your career right now? Present. Perfect. Continuous. And Tense. Intense? Girl, you work it like Mike Tyson. Miley, I love you because you’re the Queen, grammatically and anatomically speaking. And you’re the hottest cake in the pan. Don’t ever grow old. Live brightly before your fire fades into total darkness. XXOO Sufjan
The grammatical infraction of “lie/lay” doesn’t bother me as much as a line toward the end of the song: “Just as long as it’s you and I together.”It’s you and me, babe. You and me.(And note, dear Sufjan, that a comma should always follow “i.e.”)
Wah-Ming Chang was the managing editor of Melville House.