words by tom johnson
I can vaguely remember the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan story unfolding. I wouldn’t have been very old, nor did I have an affinity for figure skating, perhaps I read about it in one of those trashy teen magazines I used to steal from my older sister. You didn’t need to follow figure skating to hear about the story, however, such was the tabloid-readiness of weird and shocking narrative that unfolded.
To bring you quickly up-to-speed, Tonya Harding won the U.S Championships, having climbed up the ranks from a distinctly working-class background, the American Dream personified, while also becoming the first ever American woman to successfully perform and land a ‘triple axel’ in competition; the act of jumping then spinning your entire body around three times before landing back down on the ice, before carrying on with the skate.
Things took a markedly more sinister turn since that capturing of American hearts, however, after a pre-meditated attack on her chief competitor, Nancy Kerrigan, in 1994, resulted in Harding spending time in prison, alongside her ex-husband and her bodyguard, who had arranged the attack. Harding herself was prisoned and banned for life from skating she was banned for life from skating after pleading guilty to ‘hindering the prosecution’.
A remarkably sad fable about the pressures of fame and competition, it perhaps isn’t too much of a surprise that Sufjan Stevens has now turned his lyrical gaze upon Harding; if you can bring immense levels of pathos to John Wayne Gacy then one supposes that there’s very little else off-limits.
Released today as a stand-alone track, alongside a surprisingly poignant video of that 1991 performance, triple-axel and all, as well as an accompanying essay by Stevens outlining his reasons for the song, “Tonya Harding” puts aside many of the other narrative strands of her complicated life (she filmed and sold one of the first ever celebrity sex tapes, from her first wedding night; she became a boxer and a racer of sports cars after prison) and instead paints a somewhat simple, decidedly human portrait of the person behind story. “Are you laces untied? What’s the frown on your face for, and just what are the skates for? Tell me which is your good side,” he sings with a signature sense of weight and grace, as the song rolls on through its beautifully tender five-minutes.
The track is released digitally today, and as a cassette, 7″ single, and tote bag, which you pre-order here. Check out the video below; here’s what Sufjan himself had to say about the track:
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.
. . .