Publish Our Love: Rufus Wainwright

Wednesday, August 7, 2019 - 5:43pm

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Design by Kathryn Halverson

“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 Michigan 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 bustles, 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 expecting more folk from the headliner. What I didn’t anticipate was something 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 singer: He does everything, in a way you would never expect. His unpredictability 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. Wainwright’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 fellow 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 resonated 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 Wainwright 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 Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, but I believe he is merely an unlikely product of his circumstances. He flitted 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 an unapologetic penchant for the weirder corners 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 lyrics 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 reappropriate 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, Wainwright represents the infinite possibilities 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 truthful, mixing the dirty laundry of reality 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 everything 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 sculpture of his own creation.