“I keep on wondering if I sleep too long, will I always wake up the same or so?” Cat Stevens asks the deep questions. Who are we and how do we navigate our journey through this world? In his case, the answer turned out to be serving God, and good for him for all that. For most of us, we’ll settle for a little light meditation and maybe make an effort to be decent. If that’s something that a pop song can invite us to do, then the singer’s job is done.
Remember when sensitive singer-songwriters were cool? Or, conversely, remember when sensitive singer-songwriters were uncool? I don’t think the raging debate over whether being sensitive and feelsy is cool or uncool will ever be resolved, but I can tell you one thing: Cat Stevens will never not be cool. I like to act all dismissive towards earnest types, true. But I also think there’s a fine distinction to be made between earnesty and sincerity. Overly earnest people may not actually be sincere, but they very much want you to think they are. It’s manipulative. You know the kind of try-too-hard earnestly I’m talking about; the kind where the singer sounds like he’s trying to convince some half-drunk woman at a bar what a decent person he is. That’s the opposite of real sincerity. Or maybe I’m just having an exercise in empty semantics, an attempt to make some intellectual justification for why I like Cat Stevens but not James Taylor. I mean, Cat Stevens is certainly very, very sensitive and deeply feelsy, but I would never accuse him of being overly earnest. He’s just over here sitting in the sunlight, probably reading some poetry or whatever, minding his own business, thinking about life.
Please don’t DM me about this, supportive friends and family. I am not sad. (Also, learn the correct spelling of my name.) That having been said, this is totally my sad-girl jam. It’s a certain spirit-raiser and makes me feel fuzzy. Of all the people to get a headpat and a hug from in sad times, a young Cat Stevens would be pretty high up on the list, I think. Some people just have that natural soothing quality, like a human bowl of soup, which is both enviable and attractive. That’s who you want to have around when you’re weepy and inconsolable for whatever reason, like this person Lisa, who sounds clinically depressed and should probably see a doctor.
It’s hard to believe that in 1972 Cat Stevens’ albums were the kind of bestsellers that nearly everyone went out and bought. I mean, that’s hard to imagine just logistically, because in their day they had to physically walk to the record store, in the snow, and it was uphill both ways. But also, it’s weird to think of a time when it was guileless thoughtfulness and gentle melody that floated people’s boats. Songwriters like Cat Stevens still exist, people who want to write about love and finding meaning in the world. But being thoughtful and spiritual and positive-minded and just nice is not what you’d call the dominant aesthetic. Maybe it’s because our times are more troubled than 1972 was. The early seventies were all peaceful and golden, right? RIGHT??
What rock music has always needed is more bouzouki. Just step away from the three-guitar format and let some other instruments take the spotlight. Obviously, I enjoy diversification, which rock’n’roll sometimes needs a good shot of. Up steps Cat Stevens with his Greek heritage and bouzouki. Stevens liked to inject his music with touches of Greekiness, including singing in the language, using instruments not usually heard on the Top of the Pops, and the occasional cultural reference. It never made his songs any less accessible, but it definitely made his seem deeper and more interesting than other folky singer-songwriters around him. Win-win!
Remember when everybody seemed to own at least one Cat Stevens album? Usually it was Tea for the Tillerman, but there were others and there was at least one in every stack of vinyl. It was a phenomenon. Cat Stevens himself no longer exists as such; he took a very very long sabbatical from the music industry before recently coming back as Yusuf Islam. Nonetheless, everybody still knows him and his hits, and despite some problematic things he’s said and done, everybody still loves his music. That’s partly because it’s hard to think of a more likable fellow, and mostly because Cat Stevens’ music is inoffensive and broadly appealing in the best possible way. We usually use the word inoffensive as a veiled insult, meaning that something is bland, toothless, stripped of any potential rough edges. In this case, inclusive might be a better word. Cat Stevens’ music is thoughtful and positive and aims to speak to everyone. The guy had the light of God on him way before he ever realized it.
In 1977, shortly before retiring from pop music, Cat Stevens would write a song called (I Never Wanted) To Be a Star. His gripes with the music industry were genuine and he took his retirement a lot more seriously than most others who threaten to do so. But for the time being, in 1970, he was happy enough to speculate about stardom. By that point, of course, Stevens had already experienced pop success, and the stress of it nearly killed him. Being a teen idol was decidedly not for him, but he was still willing to pursue the spotlight as long as it was on his own artistic terms. I’m not sure if there’s an element of irony here, but the song paints the game of chasing success in pretty innocuous terms. Nor was Cat Stevens ever much of a one for irony, anyway.