Many see her as a destructive monster, but for Sufjan Stevens, Tonya Harding is an All-American Hero.
“This song has been years in the making,” Sufjan Stevens says on his website. He’s been wanting to write a song about Tonya Harding since he first saw her in the 1991 figure skating championships. For him, Harding is an American hero. She was an unlikely star – a poor outsider from Portland whose abusive mother made all of her skating outfits. Not only was Harding a figure skater, but she also was a boxer, a rock star for a night (She was in a band called the Golden Blades that got booed off the stage after their one and only performance), she raced vintage cars, released a sex tape, and even saved a woman’s life by administering CPR.
Tonya Harding, my star
Well this world is a cold one
But it takes one to know one
And God only knows what you are
Just some Portland white trash
You confronted your sorrow
Like there was no tomorrow
While the rest of the world only laughed
“Tonya Harding” – Sufjan Stevens
Tonya Harding’s story, of course, took a dark turn when her boyfriend hired a hitman to break rival skater Nancy Kerrigan’s legs to prevent her from going to the Olympics. Harding pleaded guilty to hindering the prosecution and was therefore banned from figure skating for life. The absurdity of her story brought on a media firestorm. “She was a reality TV star before such a thing even existed,” Stevens says in an essay entitled, Tonya Harding, My Star.
Over 25 years later, “Tonya Harding” (out 12/8/2017 via Asthmatic Kitty Records) finally sees the light of day:
Has the world had its fun?
Yeah they’ll make such a hassle
And they’ll build you a castle
Then destroy it when they’re done
Stevens sings breathily to a haunting melody, endowing the song with mystical qualities. It’s tone takes the listener to a place of magical realism, crafting the world of a woman who was once considered “Portland White Trash,”, being chewed up and spit out by the monster of fame.
Tonya, you were the brightest
Yeah you rose from the ashes
And survived all the crashes
Wiping the blood from your white tights
With these lines, Stevens spins an alluring love story between a skater and her art– a love story that quickly turns into a bloodbath. Themes of jealousy, betrayal, and redemption are delicately woven over dreamlike instrumentals, giving the listener a detached sense of reality. It’s as if it exists in a pocket of space where her actions are humanized and maybe even justifiable– begging the question, is she a monster, or just a product of our obsession with scandal and celebrities?
“Tonya Harding” is haunting enough, but what is truly mystifying is the video that was released alongside it. Stevens times the song perfectly with Hardings’ 1991 U.S. Figure Skating Championships performance. The delicate, slow, methodic start of her routine syncs eerily well with the simplicity of Stevens’ piano. As delicate vocals drift softly between whimsical, yet driving instrumentals, Harding lands jump after jump. Finally we come to the end of her performance where we see erratic displays of emotion as she bursts into tears, screams, and fits of clapping after realizing she has nailed her routine perfectly. She skates off the ice to the repeated line, “shining American star”, giving the video a foreboding tone that lingers long after its conclusion.
Stevens doesn’t try to glorify the twisted aspects of Tonya Harding’s story, but rather approaches them head on with a soft, poetic grace that endows her story with sympathy and contemplation rather than hatred. She is no longer a jealous monster, but an American icon who, like many of us, could not escape the ugly parts of her life.
So fight on as you are
My American princess
May God bless you with incense
You’re my shining American star
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© Asthmatic Kitty Records