“Chicago”

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Anja Jacobson

On July 5, 2005, Sufjan Stevens released a song called “Chicago.” His album, called “Illinois,” has songs about various cities around the state. His hometown being Detroit, Stevens also has an album titled “Michigan,” in which he has songs about the different towns. He released these alternative indie albums under Asthmatic Kitty Records.

“Chicago” starts by telling the story of a man falling in love with a girl and following her to Chicago, giving away everything, and the regret that followed. The second verse describes how he then drove to New York with a friend. They had no plan and no place to go but made the best of it. However, he still subconsciously felt like he made the wrong choice. The song concludes with Stevens passionately singing repeating lines, like “I made a lot of mistakes” and “All things go”. The album “Illinois” sold about 100,000 copies in 2005, the year of its release.

In an interview with Pitchfork, Stevens explained how he went to Chicago often when he was younger, as an escape to the big city from his college life in Michigan. The song “Chicago” described Stevens getting in a van and driving to Chicago during hard times. “I feel like specifically Illinois and Chicago are sort of the center of gravity for the American Midwest. Chicago is a major city in the U.S., it’s the third-largest city, I think, and it’s such a vibrant and healthy city,” said Stevens in Dusted Magazine.

For me, the song “Chicago” is incredibly moving. It somehow manages to make me feel uplifted, but like I could cry at the same time. The buildup of the song and the switch between light and dark lyrics trigger an emotional response in me that most songs do not. The instruments that create this melody include sleigh bells, a tambourine, a Wurlitzer and a vibraphone. These obscure musical instruments create a very unique sound that makes the listener feel even more intrigued and invested in the song. The somehow inspiring yet depressing tune makes me want to just leave everything behind and go to the big city.

My father loved this album and played it for me as a child. This forgotten memory was brought back to me as I started watching the show “The Politician” on Netflix, which stars actors like Ben Platt and Gweneth Paltrow. The melody started playing, and as I heard the lines “All things go / All things go” I knew I recognized this tune from my childhood.

The title sequence depicts the main character being created out of relevant objects in the show. “Chicago” plays its soft opening while he is being “created” and his character starts to come together as the song picks up, sounding almost like a fanfare.

Every episode I watched of this show, I never skipped the title sequence. The song made this introduction a unique experience that I have never seen in another show. 

Ten years ago, in 2009, “Illinois” had sold around 300,000 albums. In 2019, Stevens has over 4 million monthly listeners on Spotify, with “Chicago” being streamed almost 35 million times. The song is one of Stevens’ most-streamed songs on both Spotify and Apple Music, 14 years after its release date. This is partially due to its being used as the theme song for “The Politician”. After being reminded of this song by the show, I saved “Chicago” to my Spotify playlist.

This song is what I consider a forgotten gem. I had buried “Chicago” deep in my memory, and “The Politician” brought it back to surface. This was a great decision, in my opinion, and I am very thankful the show chose to use the song. This choice was mutually beneficial to both the series and Stevens himself; the song almost tied more intensity and connection to the main character of the show, while popularizing the song “Chicago” in 2019.