This week, the prolific musician Sufjan Stevens released a new song titled "Tonya Harding." The haunting ode is, you guessed it, dedicated to the complex, iconic figure skater of the same name. In a blog post about the song, which was posted on the website of Asthmatic Kitty Records, Stevens admits, "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." In a separate post on his official Tumblr account, he says it is not at all related to I, Tonya, to new biopic starring Margot Robbie that is already generating some serious award season buzz. (He did, for the record, send the song along, but they didn't end up using it.)
In his blog post, Stevens goes on to chronicle the complex (and eventful) life of Harding. Perhaps his last two paragraphs sum everything up in the best and most artful way:
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: America'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.
In addition to the mesmerizing YouTube video, which syncs the song almost seamlessly with one of Harding's 1991 routines, Stevens also posted a second version of the song (complete with album artwork) on Spotify. I'm not sure what else to say. If you're a fan of Stevens, you'll know how magically he seems to capture the heartbreak and precious fragility of a person's spirit. With "Tonya Harding," he's absolutely done it again. And, if you're not a fan of Stevens or have somehow never heard of him, perhaps the song will speak for itself.