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August 08, 2019 - Image 7

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily

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“You can never publish my love,”
Rogue Wave chants, in the song that
the title of this series riffs on. Maybe
that’s true, and we can never quite
account for our love on paper or in
print, but we sure can try. That’s what
this series is devoted to: publishing our
love. Us, the Arts section of The Michi-
gan Daily, talking about artists, some
of the people we love the most. Perhaps
these are futile approximations of love
for the poet who told us we deserve to
be heard, the director who changed the
way we see the world, the singer we
see as an old friend. But who ever said
futile can’t still be beautiful?
The story of my love for Rufus
Wainwright begins in a darkened
auditorium. The crowd
hushed giggles and whispers muted
by the shuffle of feet returning to
their spots. I was already seated,
my face eerily blue as the light of
my phone reflected back on me. The
setlists for every previous artist lined
the screen as my cursor dropped to
the bottom. I don’t know anything
by this guy, I thought. I didn’t know
what he looked like, either, mistaking
the guitar tech for the performer and
prematurely clapping. On the second

night of coverage for the Ann Arbor
Folk Festival this year, I was expect-
ing more folk from the headliner.
What I didn’t anticipate was some-
thing beyond any genre, a voice that
would stick with me like a pleasant
parasite for the foreseeable future.
I’m sure I had heard Wainwright’s
music before in passing — The man
is something of a musical unicorn,
an artist Elton John once called “the
greatest songwriter on the planet”
and has released 10 albums, written
two full-length operas and performed
on five continents. Still, Wainwright
is something of a well-kept secret for
musicians and performers alike, as
we cherish his success, but still hope
to keep his genius to ourselves.
Rufus Wainwright isn’t just a sing-
er: He does everything, in a way you
would never expect. His unpredict-
ability is delightful, his humor brash,
his outlook both joyous and nihilistic.
Everyone can get something out of
his music, and the same person can
gather different things from those
songs throughout their life. Wain-
wright’s work is classic in that way,
and translates to each era of growth
like a well-loved novel might.
So, when he finished his set that
night in Ann Arbor, I turned to my fel-
low music writer to talk about it and
realized that my face was wet with
tears. The performance had been so

moving that I hadn’t even realized I
was crying in the first place. I have
been in Hill Auditorium so many
times that it barely feels like a venue
anymore, but Wainwright changed
that. My posture straightened, the
beams vibrated with each note from
his Steinway grand, his voice resonat-
ed through the half-shell auditorium
like summer air. And from then on, I
finally got it.
All the things I hated about his
voice with his first song of the set ―
the nasality, the theatrical flair, the
sarcasm in every word ― made sense
by the end of the night. What Wain-
wright was doing wasn’t just putting
on a show, but telling a drawn-out
story of his life, of all of our lives in
the microcosms of specific moments.
From then on, I was hooked.
His talent for capturing these
moments, whether they are profound
(“In the drifting white snow / You
loved me” of “Dinner at Eight”), or
darkly funny (“Now I’m drunk and
wearing flip flops on Fifth Avenue” of
“Poses”), is what makes Wainwright
stand out. There are several artists
from the early-aughts era he came up
in who managed to fuse folk, rock and
theatrics in the same way, like Regina
Spektor and Imogen Heap, but no one
does it quite as well as Rufus.
People tend to point to his musical
heritage to divine the source of this

talent, as he was parented by well-
known folk musicians Loudon Wain-
wright III and Kate McGarrigle, but
I believe he is merely an unlikely
product of his circumstances. He flit-
ted between Montreal and New York
for much of his childhood, seeing the
beauty and the ugliness of both cities
in good time. By the time Wainwright
reached adulthood, he was already
fully self-realized, a proud gay man
with a penchant for the weirder cor-
ners of this world.
In one of his most well-known
songs, “Cigarettes and Chocolate
Milk,” Wainwright explains this
plainly: “Everything it seems I like’s a
little bit stronger / A little bit thicker,
a little bit harmful for me.” The lyr-
ics dance over a polka piano beat, his
languid baritone stretching across
the notes like honey over toast. It just
makes sense to the ears, like most
of his work does. As a person who’s
grown up around music for much of
her life, listening to Wainwright’s
songs is an equally inspiring and
daunting experience.
His melodies aren’t obvious to the
instrumentals, and sometimes a full
horn section comes out of nowhere,
but somehow, it works perfectly. He
can blatantly steal a Spanish bolero
beat (“Oh What A World”) and turn
it into a meditation on modern life
within five minutes. He can reap-
propriate a Beatles song (“Across the

Universe”), a Leonard Cohen song
(“Hallelujah”), and produce covers so
convincing some people don’t realize
they’re not his words. To me, Wain-
wright represents the infinite possi-
bilities of music, beyond what any of
us could hum in the shower or think
of in our wildest dreams.
This translates beyond his studio
recordings and into performance
seamlessly. It’s why I cried in Hill
Auditorium that night, and every
time I’ve looked up live videos on
YouTube since. I really can’t help
it ― when someone captures the ups
and downs of life in our fucked-up
world so well, you have no choice but
to let it take you on a ride. His songs
feel like screaming out of windows
on freeways, like walking through
streetlight-dotted roads in the middle
of the night, like tumbling out of the
rain into a warm home.
His music is unabashedly truth-
ful, mixing the dirty laundry of real-
ity with the points of light along the
way. And still, it never feels contrived.
Wainwright knows how to write a
song that will make you feel every-
thing at once, make everyone feel
like a “beautiful child again.” From
the soaring highs of happiness to the
lowest lows of addiction and grief, he
doesn’t hide anything. Wainwright
embraces it, making the raw nerve of
human emotion into a striking sculp-
ture of his own creation.


Thursday, August 8, 2019
The Michigan Daily — michigandaily.com ARTS

Wainwright: A renaissance
musician and songwriter


Senior Arts Editor


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