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Tonya Harding is having a pop culture moment, and Sufjan Stevens is here for it

"You rose from the ashes / And survived all the crashes."

Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Tonya Harding is back in the pop culture conversation, with the critically beloved I, Tonya — a dark comedy in which Margot Robbie plays the embattled figure skater — in theaters this Friday. Harding walked the red carpet with Robbie at the film’s premiere, delighting fans.

And on December 5, singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens released an ode to Harding, his “shining American star.”

“Tonya, you were the brightest / Yeah you rose from the ashes / And survived all the crashes / Wiping the blood from your white tights,” Stevens sings.

Stevens’s song — a gentle, wistful (of course) ode to Harding’s talent, audacity, and resilience — was released on his record label’s website, along with an essay by Stevens about the skater, and a video that sets the song to Harding’s famous 1991 US Nationals performance, where she became the first American woman to land a triple axel in an international competition.

“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,” Stevens writes. “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.”

As a songwriter, Stevens seems drawn to misunderstood and complicated figures, particularly those who’ve attained a legendary status in American culture. (One of his best songs is “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” about a notorious serial killer.) Harding was a controversial figure, a working-class girl in homemade costumes who didn’t fit into the wealthy, prim-and-proper mold of the figure skating world. And that was before her ex-boyfriend, Jeff Gillooly, hired an associate to bash in Nancy Kerrigan’s knee in an attempt to prevent Kerrigan from competing in the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics. (Kerrigan recovered and won the silver medal.)

As a song, “Tonya Harding” sounds more like a cheeky but sincere lullaby than anything else, with Stevens softly crooning lines like, “Well this world is a bitch, girl / Don’t end up in a ditch, girl” over a quiet synth track. He originally wrote the song for I, Tonya, but it didn’t make the final cut — no surprise, given that the film’s tone is anything but gentle. (Two of Stevens’s songs appear in another awards-season contender this year, Call Me By Your Name.)

“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,” Stevens writes. “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.” That’s the goal of I, Tonya, too — and for fans of the skater as well as women who refuse to play by the rules, it’s about time.

“Tonya Harding” is streaming on Spotify, Bandcamp, and Apple Music. And in a nod to Harding’s roots in the lore of the 1990s, fans can also purchase a “limited edition blue cassette single” and pre-order a “limited edition 7-inch on blue marbled vinyl” via Stevens’s label.

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