Sufjan Stevens Releases “Tonya Harding” Tribute On Cassette & Vinyl + Tote

To some folks out there it might seem odd to discover that singer/songwriter/musician/producer/Asthmatic Kitty label-head, Sufjan Stevens has written and recorded a song dedicated to 1990s figure-skater-turned- pop-culture villain, Tonya Harding, but that’s exactly what he’s done.  For those paying close attention, who have more familiarity and a broader understanding of the scope of what the Michigan-born artist has been involved in, however, it actually seems fairly on par with something that he might be pour his attention and energy into.  Among his other ambitious conceptual works are his 50 State project (a nearly impossible, and thus unfinished, endeavor where he announced his intention to write an individual studio album for each of the 50 US states); his 2001, Chinese Zodiac-themed, electronic album Enjoy Your Rabbit; the multi-media film and music project that he was commissioned to create paying homage to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway in his adopted city; and his solar system inspired collaboration, Planetarium, from earlier this year.  In fact, this is also the same man who created an eerily beautiful song about serial killer, John Wayne Gacy for his Illinois album.  “Tonya Harding” takes a similar direction; personal and affecting in a way that would be unexpected, if it came from anybody else.  But honestly, who else would it ever come from; especially like this?

In an attempt to present the fallen Olympian with some level of dignity, the video showcases Harding at her peak, prior to all of the scandal and public shaming, as she exhibits her prowess on the ice, rather than choosing to focus on exploiting her downfall via footage of the infamous physical assault of her competitor, grainy images from her sex tape, or video of her celebrity boxing match.

Beyond it’s digital release, Asthmatic Kitty is also offering up a physical option in the form of light blue limited edition cassette and 7-inch vinyl singles for the “one off release” that features “additional production from Doveman and Helado Negro.”  Also available are bundles with a 7-inch tote bag screen-printed with an image of the cover art created by artist, Stephen Halker.  While the tapes and totes are available now, the vinyl is simply a pre-order, set for a February-March release date.

Typically, I would go into more detail about Harding‘s backstory to try and provide some context for those who might need it, but Sufjan actually did that in tremendous detail, explaining his fascination with the subject, his process, and what compelled him to write the track.  Make sure to check that out below, following these product images.  The “Tonya Harding” single in both formats and tote via the Asthmatic Kitty shop by clicking HERE.


by Sufjan Stevens

I’ve been trying to write a Tonya Harding song since I first saw her skate at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in 1991. She’s a complicated subject for a song partly because the hard facts of her life are so strange, disputable, heroic, unprecedented, and indelibly American. She was one of the greatest figure skaters of her time, and the first American woman to perform a triple axle in an international competition. She was an unlikely skating star, having been raised working class in Portland, Oregon. Being a poor outsider, her rise to fame in the skating rink was seen, by some, as a blemish on a sport that favored sophistication and style. Tonya’s skating technique was feisty, fierce, and full of athleticism, and her flamboyant outfits were often hand-made by her mother (who was abusive and overbearing). (They couldn’t afford Vera Wang.) And then there was the Nancy Kerrigan incident. In January 1994, Tonya’s then-boyfriend Jeff Gillooly hired an assailant, Shane Stant, to break fellow figure skater Nancy Kerrigan’s leg at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships at Cobo Arena in Detroit, so that she would be unable to compete at the upcoming Winter Olympics. The after-math of the attack was recorded on camera and ultimately set off a media frenzy (and an FBI investigation). Gillooly and Stan were eventually found guilty, and Tonya pleaded guilty to hindering the prosecution, and was subsequently banned for life from the U.S. Figure Skating Association. Nancy Kerrigan recovered from her injury and won a silver medal at the Winter Olympics. Tonya Harding finished eighth.

But that’s not even half the story. When Tonya and Gillooly got married, they filmed themselves having sex on their wedding night and produced one of the first-ever celebrity sex tapes (which they sold to Penthouse for $200,000 each). Tonya also had a brief career as a boxer, and is most famous for her bout with former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones (whose sexual harassment suit against Bill Clinton precipitated his impeachment in 1998). Tonya was also (very briefly) in a band called the Golden Blades (they were allegedly booed off the stage during their first and only performance). She also raced vintage automobiles (setting a record by driving a Ford Model A over 97 miles per hours on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah). And in 1996 Tonya used mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to revive an 81-year-old woman who collapsed at a bar in Portland while playing video poker. That’s a lot to accomplish before the age of 30!

Tonya Harding’s dramatic rise and fall was fiercely followed by the media, and she very quickly became the brunt of jokes, the subject of tabloid headlines and public outcry. She was a reality TV star before such a thing even existed. But she was also simply un-categorical: American’s sweetheart with a dark twist. But I believe this is what made her so interesting, and a true American hero. In the face of outrage and defeat, Tonya bolstered shameless resolve and succeeded again and again with all manners of re-invention and self-determination. Tonya shines bright in the pantheon of American history simply because she never stopped trying her hardest. She fought classism, sexism, physical abuse and public rebuke to become an incomparable American legend.

I admit, early drafts of this song contained more than a few puns, punch lines and light-hearted jabs—sex tapes and celebrity boxing make for an entertaining narrative arc. But the more I edited, and the more I meditated, and the more I considered the wholeness of the person of Tonya Harding, I began to feel a conviction to write something with dignity and grace, to pull back the ridiculous tabloid fodder and take stock of the real story of this strange and magnificent America hero. At the end of the day, Tonya Harding was just an ordinary woman with extraordinary talent and a tireless work ethic who set out to do her very best. She did that and more. I hope the same can be said of us all.


Dead C

Located in Seattle, Dead C is the founder/editor, as well as the principal writer and photographer, of Monster Fresh. Creating the site in 2007, he did so with a specific dream in mind. Unfortunately, being a muscle relaxer-fueled fever dream, it's hard to recall all of the details. "I remember that my mom was there, but it wasn't actually her in the dream, it was actually 70s heart throb, Jan Michael Vincent. And everything took place here, in this room... but it wasn't actually here... it was different. The colors were washed out and, for some reason, there was a raccoon kicking it with us and it was wearing a holographic monocle."

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