The Curious Case of Sufjan Stevens and the Specific Gendering of a Wasp or:
How to Make the Title of This Essay Longer Than the Title of the Song It’s Covering!
By Noah Connor
The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us! is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard. The song starts out with sustained notes on the piano while an acoustic guitar, flutes, and keyboard create one of the most serene soundscapes heard by the human ear. After this, all of the instruments except the acoustic guitar cut out and Sufjan’s vocals come in: “thinking outrageously I write in cursive/ I hide in my bed with the lights on the floor.” This line allows the audience to share an intimate moment with Sufjan as he hides in his bed. It also creates an intimate atmosphere that is maintained throughout most of the song. The first mention of the wasp comes at the end of this verse: “there on the wall of the bedroom creeping, I see a wasp with her wings outstretched.” This line is important because it shows an intentionality to the gendering of the titular wasp of the palisades. After this the song proceeds into a “soft chorus” as I’ll call it because it is does not have as much instrumentation or vocalization as the following choruses. This chorus acts almost as a passage of time between the two verses since the events of both occur at different times.
The second verse has the most vital lines pertaining to the wasp and the importance of its specific gendering: “there on his shoulder my friend is bit seven times/ he runs washing his face in his hands/ oh how I meant to tease him/ oh how I meant no harm/ touching his back with my hand I kiss him/ I see the wasp on the length of my arm.” The way that Sufjan refers to the wasp as THE wasp is supposed to make the audience believe that this is the same wasp from earlier in the song as that is the only other wasp that is mentioned. This is interesting because it helps to contrast how scary and painful mother nature is and how comforting a kiss between friends can be. I believe that the wasp was specifically gendered as female to be representative of mother nature in this way and also to contrast the gender of the two boys. After this line about the wasp on the length of Sufjan’s arm the intimate atmosphere of the song is interrupted by a group of people singing on the chorus. This is also the first instance of a female vocal on the track. This is intriguing because of the contrasting nature of the lyrics previous. The layering of the vocals in the chorus following the second verse is beautiful and very important to continuing the metaphor of mother nature and the comfort of love. The female vocalist(s) in this section sing about the beauty of nature: “oh great sights upon this state! Hallelujah!/ wonders bright and rivers, lake! Hallelujah!” while Sufjan sings about love and his personal experiences: “we were in love. We were in love/ palisades! Palisades/ I can wait. I can wait.” These two vocal parts are mixed equally in the song as one is not louder than the other which is representative of the way that both nature and love coexist as equals. The way that Sufjan uses the voices in Predatory Wasp… to strengthen the core meaning of entire song is artistically impressive and it makes the song endlessly gorgeous. The piece ends on a sustained drone that sounds like the buzzing of insects in the distance.
This song is about the pain that mother nature can bring, and the love that humans can offer to combat it. The lyrics, the vocal layering, and yes, the specific gendering of the titular wasp all help to make Sufjan’s narrative and metaphors concise and hard hitting. This is one of those songs where nothing is accidental and everything is thought through incredibly well. This is my personal favourite Sufjan Stevens song because of the way it masterfully uses the instrumentation and lyrics to transfer the audience to wherever and whenever the story is taking place and really immerses the audience in it. The predatory wasp of the palisades is in fact out to get us, but Sufjan is here to put his hand on our backs and kiss us so we’ll feel okay again.