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Listening Station

OutKast? “Innocuous.” Justin Timberlake? “Sort of outstanding.” Outsider musicians Stephin Merritt and Sufjan Stevens survey the world of mainstream pop.

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Stephin Merritt and Sufjan Stevens both make pop music, but of a very particular sort. They’re fond of epic conceptual projects: On 69 Love Songs, by Merritt’s band Magnetic Fields, each song is in a different genre, from punk to show tunes; Stevens’s Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State is the first in a planned series of tribute albums to all 50 states. And their predilection for nontraditional instruments extends even to using a Slinky. Merritt’s new album, i, came out last week, while Stevens is touring for his new folk-hued CD, Seven Swans. Rebecca Marx talked to them about their take on top-40-style pop and fame.

How hard is it to be both commercial and interesting?
MERRITT: For me, interesting is the Thai Elephant Orchestra album that came out a few years ago. It was quite a lot more interesting than what little OutKast I’ve heard.
STEVENS: OutKast’s emphasis is on subverting all kinds of standards for the sake of having a good time. But Prince was doing that a long time ago.
MERRITT: It’s innocuous party music for suburban teenagers.
STEVENS: But I don’t think it’s so hard to be commercial and interesting. Look at Prince, or Neil Young.

What was the last hit song you actually liked?
STEVENS: Some of the stuff on Justin Timberlake’s album was sort of outstanding.
MERRITT: I think you have to be a certain age to appreciate Justin Timberlake. I don’t think I’ve heard one of his songs twice. I’m not really exposed to him except as a photographic image. He gives good photo shoot.
STEVENS: He’s got an interesting voice. And his album borrows a lot from Michael Jackson and Prince.
MERRITT: Beck has started appropriating Prince in an interesting way. I wish I could sing like Beck. He’s got a gorgeous falsetto and that low, husky voice. It’s very sexy and very soothing in a way that I will never be.

Which other contemporary songwriters interest you?
MERRITT: Stephen Sondheim. Kate Bush. Tom Waits.
STEVENS: There’s so much bad music out there.
MERRITT: Do you dislike all bad music?
STEVENS: [Laughs.] No.
MERRITT: Like there’s nothing inherently good about Peaches. But I really like it.
STEVENS: I liked the first record, with the panties on the front. The way it was recorded, she was right there. And I loved the tone of her voice.
MERRITT: I loved the production. It upped the ante on what you could do with minimalism in computerized chambers; I tried for that purity and tone on i.

Your music is eclectic, but people have tried to classify you under rock or pop headings. How do you resist being categorized?
MERRITT: By putting up a stink every time I’m labeled. Music is not a set of sounds. It’s a whole cultural phenomenon that includes Britney Spears, who would be absolutely meaningless if we didn’t see pictures of her. Beyoncé is not famous for her songs, she’s famous for that outfit. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. But the thing to do is to make a category that you like. Like the Magnetic Fields make variety music. There were a million TV variety shows in the seventies, and now there’s no such thing anymore.
STEVENS: Isn’t there a variety show with a young couple? Jessica Simpson?
MERRITT: Is she the daughter on The Simpsons?
STEVENS: No. I used to get Jessica Simpson mixed up with Lisa Simpson, too.

Is there such a thing as New York songwriting?
STEVENS: When I came here, I was writing songs and fiction about Michigan. New York created a healthy distance from Michigan. But it’s hard to say if actual places really affect the way you write.
MERRITT: I was recently in L.A., and it’s such a rock town. I don’t feel like there’s a lot of rock being made in New York. It seems like everything is klezmer. I guess I’m on the mailing list of all these klezmer bands.

Do you crave massive fame and popularity?
STEVENS: No. [Laughs.] I wouldn’t mind being popular in other ways, but not with music.
MERRITT: I don’t care if I’m famous. I want to be rich. I want to be able to do what I’m doing on a bigger scale, and if I feel like having an orchestra, I’d like to be able to snap my fingers and have it happen that day. I don’t particularly like orchestral music, so it’s not much of a constraint for me. But it is a constraint not to have an enormous apartment with reverb chambers and an empty swimming pool where I can record the drums if I want to.
STEVENS: You want an empty swimming pool?
MERRITT: Yeah. I want the facilities that Abba had. I may not use them like Abba, but I want to have the creative freedom to do what only a lot of money would allow me to do. So I don’t really care about fame, but I do care about money.


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