Singer and songwriter Sufjan Stevens released a new tune Wednesday about Tonya Harding, the figure skater who became tabloid fodder in the 1990s as she rose to stardom in her sport and infamy in her personal life. The song is good on its own, but it’s the accompanying video that mesmerizes me.
Stevens, who says he’s been fascinated by Harding for years, clearly wrote the song specifically for Harding’s routine from the 1991 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Each chord and lyric lines up with it perfectly.
Both start slow; there’s a beat at the beginning right when Harding lowers her arm. Then synths, which sound kind of like chimes, come in as she does an amazing, twisting jump that I don’t know the name of. The minute she lands, the chimes come back. When Stevens sings “You’re so full of surprises,” she lands another jump.
“What’s the frown on your face for,” Stevens asks, as Harding smiles. At the end, when Harding realizes she’s nailed it, she claps and cries. Each time I watch it (which I have now done eight times in the process of writing this), I worry she’s going to burst with emotion as the explosions of chords back up Sufjan’s soft voice. He sings “Shining American star” over and over again and Harding skates off the ice.
Harding’s story is deeply American: It’s crass, it’s ugly, it’s loud, it’s bombastic, it’s largely unbelievable. Harding, at the height of her fame, was intriguing and captivating. As Stevens writes in an essay accompanying the song, she was the original reality star before manufacturing reality stars became a national cottage industry (and a dangerous one at that, seeing as it gave us our current president).
What happened to Harding doesn’t seem possible, even by 2017’s standards of possibility, which are low. She was a determined and promising skater from a working class family in Portland, Oregon who climbed up the ranks of the figure skating world thanks to sheer force of will, helped (and hindered) by her monstrous mother.
Then her boyfriend (who would become her husband-turned-ex-husband) Jeff Gillooly hired a guy named Shane Stant to club Nancy Kerrigan, Harding’s toughest American competition, in the knee at a Boston ice skating rink. That dirty move didn’t work, of course; Harding was banned from U.S. Figure Skating Association after she pleaded guilty to hindering the following investigation. Kerrigan recovered and went on to win silver at the Olympics. Harding came in eighth.
Harding went on to release a sex tape. She was in a band. She raced vintage cars. She became a boxer, briefly. She was fast and thrilling and lived hard.
I was five in 1994 when Stant assaulted Kerrigan, and I became (like Stevens) obsessed with this woman. I begged my mother for the sordid details about the attack on Kerrigan’s knee. I wanted to know who did it, why they did it, how they were connected to Harding.
I have a vivid memory of sitting at my family’s dinner table, asking, “Did Tonya know that her boyfriend was going to do this?”
My mother said we didn’t know yet. So for weeks I asked her to read me every news article she could find about the developing story (I couldn’t read well enough yet to do it myself). This narrative consumed me. It was the first time I was exposed to how toxic the mix of ambition, relationships, and fame can be.
Kids at school felt bad for Kerrigan, but I always felt worse for Harding. I remember being surprised by that. Kerrigan was the victim. What happened to her was horrible. But there was — and is — something darkly compelling, glittering, and strangely authentic about Harding. She was scrutinized endlessly. She wanted things, and her desire proved dangerous. She was the gruesome Grimm’s Brother version of a Disney fairy tale. She was tough and metallic, from her figure skating suits, to the blades of her skates, to the somewhat robotic precision with which she skated.
Because Harding’s skating was different from that of her competition. More forceful. As I’ve watched this video from 1991, I’ve noticed that her grace is not quite graceful. There is an edge to her movements, as though each raise of her arm were contained in a glass box that limits her range. She makes her jumps look easy, but with each smile after she lands one, she betrays relief.
We would later learn that there was much going on under the surface. Stevens’ song hints at that with its mix of minor and major chords that ebb and flow throughout her routine. Like Harding, he nailed it. But I don’t see Harding as a hero the way Stevens says he does. What I see is a tragic, hopeful, American figure who made it impossible to look away.
Correction: This piece originally stated that Kerrigan was assaulted by Gillooly. It was actually Shane Stant, a man hired by Gillooly, who hit her in the knee.