December is officially Sufjan Stevens Christmas Music Month.

If you weren't previously aware, Sufjan Stevens—the folk singer behind songs like "Chicago" and "Visions of Gideon"—has created a total of 100 Christmas songs, immortalized on two magnificent, multi-album compilations: 2006's Songs for Christmas and 2012's Silver and Gold.

I first heard these songs during my first semester of college when, like many other freshmen, I was lost in a depression. The winter solstice was nigh, and though I'd always loved the holidays—I grew up celebrating Christmas and Hanukkah—all the glowing tree lights on Columbia's college walk failed to lift my spirits.

Then one snowy night, when I was studying in the student union, I heard Sufjan Stevens' rendition of "Silent Night." The sound of bells filled my ears, and a truly otherworldly voice began to hum through my headphones. At that moment, I felt as if I had entered a cathedral.

Sufjan Stevens, "Silent Night" [Track 1/8, Vol. 6]

Though I've never quite believed in a God, I have always believed that music has medicinal properties, and I've often turned to it for spiritual healing. When I heard Sufjan's music, it helped me realize that in spite of how I was feeling, I could still celebrate the holidays. I could live fully and love myself and others, while still feeling the particular sadness of being alive.

I'm not going to say that Sufjan Stevens' music actually healed me, but it sparked something—a tiny flame—that, like the Maccabees' candles during the eight days of Hanukkah, has never gone out.

Christmas Gifts: Rediscovering Faith with Sufjan Stevens

Though not all of the songs are good, Sufjan Stevens' Christmas music is all impeccably orchestrated and performed. It's also designed to sound slightly frayed and almost childlike, as if played on an old record player. This, too, is intentional. Stevens is hyper-aware of the kitschiness of carols, so he leans into it via long, strange, staccato organ lines and bass patterns.

Sometimes, the cracks in the music let in waves of Stevens' doubt and sorrow. But sometimes these cracks and holes let in beams of luxurious, cathartic beauty—moments like huge, choral harmonies ("O Holy Night"), tender duets ("Joy To The World"), gorgeous electric guitar riffs over swirling synthesizers ("The Incarnation"), and stunning, searing lyrics ("Sister Winter").

Sufjan Stevens - Sister Winter

Unsurprisingly, I'm not alone in finding solace in Stevens' Christmas music. The Internet is full of personal essays (like this one) by people who have been helped by his Christmas songs. These essays are often populated by similar imagery: dusty Bibles, faded iconography, and sometimes painful memories of forsaken religious upbringings.

For many of these writers, the music offers a return to innocence. "The familiarity of the images of corny religious artwork bring up memories within me of a simpler time in childhood, when my Christian faith and view of the church had not been tarnished," writes Pastor Joel Mayward in Think Christian.

Sometimes the music helps people come to terms with how far they've traveled away from Christianity, or from who they used to be or thought they could become. "For individuals raised in the church who matured into something else entirely, Stevens' songs invoke a nostalgia for a person you never turned out to be," writes Libby Hill for The AV Club. "It's being nostalgic for a you that never was. You might have made peace with her absence, but a part of you will always remember waiting for her to arrive, and hoping you'd find her by hovering just long enough in the space between a minor key and the word "Rejoice," to allow angels to slip in."

This reminds me of the words of another sad song about God: Julien Baker's "Rejoice," which contains the lyrics, "I rejoice / and complain / and I think there's a God / and he hears either way."

In a world that constantly reminds us how we've failed, sometimes faith can be found through embracing the space between who we are and what we could become, instead of constantly trying to fill it.

So often, we try to fill that space up with plastic, glitter, drugs, and band-aids. As one of our most garish festivals of consumption, Christmas has become (or maybe always has been) yet another band-aid—which brings me to my larger point. Stevens' Christmas music is not just powerful on an emotional and spiritual level. It also poses a challenge to capitalism.

Finding Spirit in Christmas Kitsch: Sufjan Stevens' Anti-Capitalist Protest

To say that Stevens' music possesses anticapitalist undertones isn't conjecture; Stevens himself has made his intentions clear. "By now, it's no mystery that Christmas has become an incalculable commodity in our material world—an annual exploitation of wealth, a festival of consumerism, and a vast playing field for the voyages of capitalism," he writes in the album liner notes for Silver & Gold. "Just as Adam and Eve consumed the fruit of the paradise tree, invoking original sin, so do we, in harvesting gifts, partake of the deadly fruits of Christmas: that of commerce, commodity and greed—all the flavors of the Seven Deadly Sins fashioned in various garments of wrapping paper." Based on his comments about the album, Stevens' music seems to reject Christmas consumerism, and instead seeks to rediscover the spiritual meaning behind it.

I resign to petty things
Like angels bending on their knees
I resign to glorious things
Like angels bending on their knees
— "The Midnight Clear"

But this dedication has not been free from criticism, least of all from Christians. Pastor Joel Mayward criticizes this protest of Christmas materialism in his essay, arguing that Stevens ignores the benefits of Christmas traditions in the physical world. "[Christmas] kitsch, at least when reappropriated in the vein of Stevens' song and video, may perform not as a cover-up, but as a means of illuminating the simple grace of God's love," he writes.

Elise Daniel makes a similar point in her essay for The Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics. "In seeking to expose the true meaning of Christmas, Stevens paradoxically misses it, by failing to see the goodness in material things without making them into an idol," she writes. "After all, Christ became man and physically met us in the material world for the salvation of our souls and bodies."

What Mayward and Daniel fail to realize is that by embracing the songs of Christmas—indeed, by making 100 of them—Stevens is honoring and paying respect to the power of Christmas kitsch right alongside the genuine spirituality that should, ideally, form its foundation. He isn't asking us to reject Christmas or its music; he's trying to help us find more meaning in it. He isn't damning those of us who cannot denounce capitalism or escape our own flaws. While remaining critical, he's embracing capitalism's version of Christmas as it is, as a time of distraction, hope, sorrow, and faith.

Sure, his music may not be revolutionary in and of itself, but it can help those of us living through these strange times to feel seen and less alone, which is becoming increasingly vital in our era of alienation. And perhaps it can inspire a vision of a different future–one with fewer shopping malls and more compassion.

The Future of the Season

The theorist Mark Fisher wrote that the capitalist condition—and much of the art created within it—is defined by "nostalgia for lost futures." If Stevens' music evokes a feeling of "[nostalgia] for a you that never was," as Hill writes, then it certainly also bring forth? nostalgia for a lost future—a future destroyed by capitalism and its consequences: climate change, competition, meaninglessness, isolation, and inequality.

As Mark Hinog writes in The Verge, "Stevens' yuletide catalog transcends the treacly holiday tunes favored by easy listening radio stations and musty shopping complexes...highlighting the season's social, economical, and existential pressures. It exists in the emotional gray space between euphoria and bottomless depression…We've taken a very sacred time and commodified it, so that there's a capitalist campaign to buy more, consume more, and then you have a conflict between the spiritual and the mundane." In other words, Stevens' music ties the sadness and the cheer and the politics and the loneliness of the season together. It's haunting and disorienting and full of beauty, and in that capacity, it mirrors the chaos of our souls, our family Christmas gatherings, and our economic systems.

Sufjan Stevens - Silver & Gold

Ultimately, the idea that we should reject Christmas and capitalism completely, at least on an individual basis, is as blind as the notion that a free market is inevitable. It ignores the realistic possibility of what we need to hope for, which is mass action and system-level change that, to be blunt, holds the few people who are hoarding everything and ruining the world for all of us accountable for their actions.

In the liner notes for Silver & Gold, Stevens himself puts it best. "Year after year, winter upon winter, we find ourselves 'going through the motions of merriment,'" the notes read. "This is the true horror-show catharsis of Christmas: the existential emptiness that perseveres in the heart of modern man as he recklessly pursues his search for happiness and comes up empty handed.

"And yet," they continue, "against all odds, we continue to sing our songs of Christmas...So what is it about Christmas music that continues to agitate our aging heartstrings?... Maybe this: Christmas music does justice to a criminal world, marrying sacred and profane, bellowing obtuse prophecies of a Messiah in the very same blustery breath as a candy-coated TV-jingle advertising a string of lights and a slice of fruitcake. Gloria!"

Gloria, indeed.

Sufjan Stevens Complete Christmas Collection


Nazi-Chic: The Aesthetics of Fascism

Let's take a look at Nazi-inspired fashion.

Villains always have the best outfits.

From Darth Vader's polished black space armor to The Joker's snazzy purple suit, bad guys always seem to show up their protagonists in the fashion department.

Way more handsome than Batman.

But could there possibly be a real world equivalent to the type of over-the-top villain fashion often found in fiction? It would have to be sleek and imposing, austere and dangerous. Probably black.

Maybe it's him. Maybe it's fascist ideology.

Oh, right.

Let's call a spade a spade. From an aesthetic standpoint, the Nazi SS outfit is very well-designed. The long coat tied around the waist with a buckle portrays a slim, sturdy visage. The leather boots and matching cap look harsh and powerful. The emblem placements on the lapel naturally suggest rank and authority. And the red armband lends a splash of color to what would otherwise be a dark monotone. If the Nazi uniform wasn't so closely tied with the atrocities they committed during WWII, it wouldn't seem out of place at Fashion Week. Perhaps not too surprising, considering many of the uniforms were made by Hugo Boss.

Pictured: A real thing Hugo Boss did.

Of course, today, Nazi uniform aesthetics are inseparable from the human suffering doled out by their wearers. In most circles of civilized society, that's more than enough reason to avoid the garb in any and all fashion choices. But for some, that taboo isn't a hindrance at all–if anything, it's an added benefit.

As a result, we have Nazi chic, a fashion trend centered around the SS uniform and related Nazi imagery.

History of Nazi Chic

For the most part, Nazi chic is not characterized by Nazi sympathy. Rather, Nazi chic tends to be associated with counterculture movements that view the use of its taboo imagery as a form of shock value, and ironically, anti-authoritarianism.

The movement came to prominence in the British punk scene during the mid-1970s, with bands like the Sex Pistols and Siouxsie and the Banshees displaying swastikas on their attire alongside other provocative imagery.

Very rotten, Johnny.

Around this time, a film genre known as Nazisploitation also came to prominence amongst underground movie buffs. A subgenre of exploitation and sexploitation films, Naziploitation movies skewed towards D-grade fare, characterized by graphic sex scenes, violence, and gore. Plots typically surrounded female prisoners in concentration camps, subject to the sexual whims of evil SS officers, who eventually escaped and got their revenge. However, the most famous Nazisploitation film, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, flipped the genders.

The dorm room poster that will ensure you never get laid.

Ilsa was a female SS officer and the victims were men. She spent much of the movie wearing her Nazi uniform in various states, sexually abusing men all the while. As such, Ilsa played into dominatrix fantasies. The movie was a hit on the grindhouse circuit, inspiring multiple sequels and knock-offs and solidifying Nazi aesthetics as a part of the BDSM scene.

Since then, Nazi chic fashion has been employed by various artists, from Madonna to Marilyn Manson to Lady Gaga, and has shown up in all sorts of places from leather clubs to character designs in video games and anime.

Lady Gaga looking SS-uper.

Nazi Chic in Asia

Nazi chic has taken on a life of its own in Asia. And unlike Western Nazi chic, which recognizes Nazism as taboo, Asian Nazi chic seems entirely detached from any underlying ideology.

A large part of this likely has to do with the way that Holocaust education differs across cultures. In the West, we learn about the Holocaust in the context of the Nazis committing horrific crimes against humanity that affected many of our own families. The Holocaust is presented as personal and closer to our current era than we might like to think. It is something we should "never forget." Whereas in Asia, where effects of the Holocaust weren't as prominent, it's simply another aspect of WWII which, in and of itself, was just another large war. In other words, Nazi regalia in Asia might be viewed as simply another historical military outfit, albeit a particularly stylish one.

In Japan, which was much more involved with WWII than any other Asian country, Nazi chic is usually (but not always) reserved for villainous representations.


That being said, J-Pop groups like Keyakizaka46 have publicly worn Nazi chic too, and the phenomena isn't limited to Japan.

In South Korea, Indonesia, and Thailand, Nazi imagery has shown up in various elements of youth culture, completely void of any moral context. For instance, in Indonesia, a Hitler-themed fried chicken restaurant opened in 2013. And in Korea, K-Pop groups like BTS and Pritz have been called out for propagating Nazi chic fashion. Usually such incidents are followed by public apologies, but the lack of historical understanding makes everything ring hollow.


So the question then: is Nazi chic a bad thing?

The answer is not so black and white.

On one hand, seeing Nazi chic on the fashion scene may dredge up painful memories for Holocaust survivors and those whose family histories were tainted. In this light, wearing Nazi-inspired garb, regardless of intent, seems disrespectful and antagonistic. Worse than that, it doesn't even seem like a slight against authority so much as a dig at actual victims of genocide.

But on the other hand, considering the fact that even the youngest people who were alive during WWII are edging 80, "forgetting the Holocaust" is a distinct possibility for younger generations. In that regard, perhaps anything that draws attention to what happened, even if it's simply through the lens of "this outfit should be seen as offensive," might not be entirely bad. This, compounded by the fact that Nazi chic is not commonly associated with actual Nazi or nationalistic sentiments, might be enough to sway some people–not necessarily to wear, like, or even appreciate its aesthetics, but rather to understand its place within counterculture.

Ultimately, one's views on Nazi chic likely come down to their own personal taste and sensibilities. For some, Nazi chic is just a style, an aesthetic preference for something that happens to be mired in historical horror. For others, the shadow of atrocity simply hangs too strong.


THE OPTION | What to Expect in the NCAA Championship

The Championship is tonight at 9:20PM. Which team are you rooting for?

Remember last week, when I said the smart money was on Kansas? Sorry about that. I was dead wrong. When Villanova took the court on Saturday night, they looked unstoppable from the first play. Kansas won the tip, scored a quick basket, and then, in what seemed like seconds, the game was 22-4 in favor of the Wildcats. Kansas never saw another lead. In the first half, Nova dropped 13 three-pointers, tying the Final Four record. They went into the locker room with a 15-point lead. In the second half, Kansas's offense got hot and started putting together a few impressive runs, but it didn't matter. Villanova was right there the entire time, eating up the clock and scoring every basket with style.

When talking about this game, it's important to acknowledge that Kansas played great. They put up 79 points on an extremely good defense. The only problem was, Nova shot one of the best games in NCAA history, and every time Kansas looked to be making a push, the Wildcats would just line up and ping another three. This phenomenon was best described by this tweet by Mike Jensen:

The other game, played between Michigan and Loyola Chicago, was a sloppy, defensively-charged mess. The dribbling was uncomfortable to watch at some points, and neither team made a particularly convincing argument that they should be in the championship match. Most of Michigan's points came down low, with Moe Wagner using his gigantic 6' 11" frame to dominate the paint.

On the other side of the ball, Loyola was a bundle of nervous energy and on multiple occasions their players tripped and barreled into one another, causing mayhem on the court. Still, for their part, Loyola Chicago controlled tempo in the middle of the game and had a legitimate chance of winning until they blew their 10-point second half lead. After Michigan wrestled the lead from Loyola's shaking hands, they used their size advantage and milked the clock until the end of the game, completely shutting down Loyola's hopes of making it to the final.

So, the matchup is set. Villanova will face Michigan for the championship in San Antonio. Vegas has Michigan as a seven-point underdog, and after Saturday's matches, it's hard not to see why. Still, the storyline of this game, as it is in so many championship matchups, is that of what matters more, offense or defense?

Michigan, using size to their advantage is a defensive juggernaut and boasts one of the best 3-point defenses in the entire NCAA. They run a strong perimeter defense and don't rely too heavily on one player to get the job done. They force teams to play down low and once their opponents get there, Michigan uses their size to dominate.

Villanova plays a completely different game, featuring smaller guards that can shoot and dribble. They lack size and raw power, but Villanova makes up for this with outstanding efficiency and the ability to make plays out of nothing. They're also never afraid, no matter how close the defender is, to take a deep shot and go for three.

It's also worth noting that Villanova has a top-15 rated defense, and is pretty adept at shutting other teams down. Barring foul trouble, it appears that the Wildcats, not the Wolverines will be the ones who dictate how this game is played. Michigan has a great three-point defense. Villanova's long shots are ridiculously accurate. While Moe Wagner is a matchup nightmare, it's going to be up to Villanova to decide whether or not they want to rely on their three-point game, or if they want to take it to the basket rather than trying to break Michigan's perimeter zone.

Conventional wisdom says Villanova has to ignore their opponent and play their game, but honestly, it doesn't matter. After Saturday, everyone knows what the Wildcats can do outside the arc, but they also, incredibly, have the third-highest shooting percentage in the NCAA from inside the three-point line. Michigan has a great defense and has won has won 14 games straight, including the Big Ten title, but it seems doubtful that they'll be able to stop a red-hot Villanova team tonight. Anything can happen, and it's sure to be a good one, but in my mind the Vegas line seems correct.

Matt Clibanoff is a writer and editor based in New York City who covers music, politics, sports and pop culture. His editorial work can be found on PopDust, The Liberty Project, and All Things Go. His fiction has been published in Forth Magazine. Website: Twitter: @mattclibanoff

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