I can tell you all the names people call him: “Sex Junkie,” a Belgian electro-priest, the Flemish version of Prince. A dandy, a narcissist, a clown. I could give you a checklist to take to his show, so you can have the satisfaction of looking at all the neatly x-ed boxes afterwards: he stripped, barked, did a split and a song about poop.
You’ve never heard of Stijn, and it’s not likely that you will again. His fame does not extend far outside the Benelux region, and even within it, he is only a minor star. The music videos he has uploaded to YouTube have garnered a few thousand views; someone comments on one every four months or so. And at thirty-six, he’s pushing the age limit of a wunderkind.
But had you seen him perform on a rain-slicked stage in the Netherlands in the early spring of 2005, you would nod your head in solemn agreement when I say that Stijn is unforgettable.
He was the closing act of the night at Utrecht’s Festival aan de Werf, and I was just about to cycle home after enduring a bland rock group when my housemate Bart, a music reviewer for 3voor12, suggested I stick around. “I hear this next guy puts on quite a show,” he said.
Stijn’s entrance on stage was so unobtrusive that I didn’t notice him until he was already there, a skinny figure in giant glasses hooking up an arsenal of old synthesizers and beat machines. He was wearing a sweater that could have been made by his grandmother—this was before that was in style. He looked like a kid. No one knew who Stijn was, and young Hollanders milled about under the streetlights with cheerful disinterest, their plastic cups of beer collecting water in a typical Dutch downpour.
The music was simple enough at first, a no-nonsense backbeat that occasionally sparkled with a sprinkle of funk. Hunched behind his machines, nearly invisible, Stijn fiddled around with patch cords and knobs. He ignored us as much as we ignored him; he could have been the sound guy, adjusting volume and pitch from the dark privacy of his booth. We had no idea that it was all part of an elaborate seduction scheme.
It was his voice that hooked us. Surprising in its control, he could dip down into the lower octaves and scoot up into a falsetto in the next breath, all without losing his clarity of tone and smooth vibrato. Most of the lyrics were silly and sexual; he sang a song called “Booty” and another entitled “POMM (Pussy on My Mind).” He had me blushing right down to my Calvinist roots, but I was transfixed. Despite the bald lasciviousness, there was a layer of class to his act—even when the clothes started coming off, beginning with the fusty sweater. People started to pack in. He woofed at us and ordered us to dance. “You better move your body,” he said in a warning tone, shading his eyes from the stage lights to see if we obeyed.
In the ultimate act of musical masturbation, Stijn sang with himself on his single “Sexjunkie,” running his vocals through a loop pedal until there was not one, not two, but three Stijns booming out at us from the loudspeakers in harmony and counterpoint. He belted out an operatic aria, ratcheting up the echo effect in an overt attempt to be over-the-top and self-aggrandizing. Instead, the solo was surprisingly gorgeous, and we stood awe-struck as it reverberated off the buildings in the open square. He stepped out from behind the synthesizers to groove to his own beats. It was then I noticed that underneath his white, form-fitting trousers, he was wearing snakeskin boots with high heels.
Admiring his supermodel cheekbones, kinky-curly hair, and a mouth that was made for sin, I had a thought that was probably running through other minds in the mesmerized many: this guy is going to be huge. He was a one-man wonder, a throwback to the days when a performer had to have it all—the looks, the voice, and the sass.
By the end of his show, the bespectacled geek with poor posture had transformed himself into a half-naked, glistening demigod, shaking his rear at a crowd that had swelled to several hundred. Women were screaming: Dutch women were screaming. Underwear was flung onto the stage. Stijn covered his left nipple with a polka-dotted thong. We didn’t let him go the first time he tried to bow out. Though we had only known him for a couple of hours, we shouted, “Stijn! Stijn!” with genuine devotion until he reappeared—goading us by taking his time on the way up the steps—and played one final song. Even after he was gone, this time for good, we stood in front of the stage in the mad hope that he would return to drive us wild.
* * *
To appreciate the significance of public screaming in the Netherlands, it is necessary to understand the deep, undisturbed waters of Dutch reserve. The Dutch speak a language that does not have a word for “excited.” Well, that’s not exactly true. An English-Dutch dictionary does list an entry for the verb: geil, which means “horny.” This put me in a difficult position when composing an email for my Dutch housemates, in which I wanted to say how excited I was to be moving in. Unless I wanted to confirm all the rumors they had heard about American girls, the closest I could get to expressing my emotion was to say that I was really looking forward to it. Even then, the “really” may have come across as overly enthusiastic.
Despite passing some of the most socially liberal legislation in history, the Dutch themselves are quiet people who value normalcy and order to a fanatical degree. During my time as an exchange student in Utrecht, I heard the proverb “Act normal—that’s already crazy enough” until I was sick of it.
When I went to an FC Utrecht-Groningen soccer match with my friend Baas, I was bewildered by the restraint of my fellow fans, men who had been attending local matches for ten years or more, serious supporters. At every sloppy pass, offside foul, or player rolling on the pitch clutching his knee, they would just shake their heads and cluck their tongues. If they spoke, it was in measured tones so low I had to strain to hear them. Even the coaches kept calm, pacing up and down in trim suits, hands behind their backs. There was a group of noise-makers at the match, but they were corralled into a designated section. Baas described it as a “dangerous” place to sit.
Baas himself would be the reason I returned to the Netherlands two years later, taking a westward-bound train across the continent to attend his funeral. “Sterkte,” friends told me when they heard he had finally succumbed to cancer. “Be strong.”
But it was not easy to be strong when one of Baas’s colleagues stepped up to the microphone at the service to read a letter from the deceased. Knowing he was near death, Baas had prepared and financed all the funeral arrangements himself, including the reception afterwards. His letter, his last words to many of us, was written in the frank, friendly way he had lived. “Friends, please convene at the Sandbaum Hotel after the service where you will find cheese, wine, and coffee provided for your refreshment. Sincerely, Baas.” That was it.
* * *
How is it that a nation which taxes marijuana and has an established prostitute union can be populated by such straight-laced people? The answer, according to many of the Netherlanders I questioned, is Calvinism. This puzzled me, in part because my housemates and friends were staunchly unspiritual. Church attendance is so low in Utrecht that some of the sanctuary interiors have been converted into apartments. But the Dutch Reformed tradition seems to have less to do with the current state of religion in the Netherlands than it does with the four hundred years of well-regulated and preserved Calvinist spirit.
Out of all of John Calvin’s principles, the Dutch appear to favor the doctrine of total depravation. Raised as a four-point Calvinist in Florida (I've always rejected the fifth point, that of limited atonement), my laywoman’s understanding of the depravation tenet is as follows: every human is born riddled with sin and deserving of damnation. No person is capable of living a good enough life to attain holiness and cannot choose God of her own will; salvation requires divine intervention.
This idea has translated itself into Dutch culture as a kind of fierce equality. If every person is equally separated from God, then every person is equal. How then can anyone act as though she is better or more deserving than someone else? Cast judgment on your neighbor and the Dutch will reply, "Look at yourself." Beyond believing in equality, they are equalizing, a characteristic evident in their minimalist décor, a solid social healthcare system, and a pervasive sense of personal dignity. It's even apparent in the infamously bad service that anyone who has eaten in the Netherlands has experienced. Trying to get a server’s attention is a futile affair; after all, why should he pay attention to you? Are you somehow better than all the other people who are waiting to be served?
Exceptionally talented people find it difficult to live in the Netherlands for precisely this reason. Difference, a quality so lauded in America, is not looked upon kindly by the Dutch. The saying, “The tallest tree catches all the wind,” is often used to discourage young children from striking out on a path that is outside of social norms, and though my housemates complained that then-Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende was the poster-boy of boring, one magazine writer touted him as "the most normal person in the Netherlands," a phrase meant to be complimentary. Dutch actors, musicians, and artists have all complained that their work is not only unappreciated by their fellow Hollanders, their uniqueness lays them open to severe criticism. Talent that enters the Netherlands from beyond its borders is slightly more tolerated if it belongs to a foreigner or “buitenlander,” a name that literally translates as “outlander.”
* * *
This may be why Stijn can get away with his shameless self-promotion. He hails from Belgium, which could be just foreign enough for the Dutch to cut him some slack. Still, I was stunned at the crowd’s response to his performance; it was a rare moment when a group of Dutch people dropped their guard and got a little crazy.
The irony, of course, is that Stijn’s image, his persona, and his music are deeply controlled. He boogies, but doesn’t flail. He improvises, but with caution. He strips, but each layer is removed with methodical, almost vaudeville, care. In fact, in one of the few critical notes on Stijn, a reviewer took issue with the “clownish” nature of his show, the repetition of jokes, the same tricks. Stijn has charm, but it doesn’t change, and the writer saw this as a sign of overweening confidence and self-absorption. I cannot agree. The way in which Stijn manipulates his rhythms, voice, and body is more indicative of a street performer’s businesslike assessment of what sells. If anything, it suggests shyness, not vanity.
In his performance of “POMM,” Stijn acts out a skit in which he spots an attractive brunette on the dance floor, “shakin’ it around like she just don’t care.” He approaches the imaginary woman and introduces himself. “Hi, I’m Stijn,” he says. “I’m, uh…a Belgian musician.” He sounds laughably lame, and once more, it conjures up the image of a recluse behind the sound machines. The skit is impressive in its searing self-awareness. It’s a wink to the crowd, a signal that even as Stijn slips back into a flirtatious dance, he knows he is not this cool all the time.
* * *
Contrary to my prediction, however, Stijn has not made it big, and it’s unlikely that he will. The infectious energy and charisma of his onstage persona do not translate easily onto an album, and he stubbornly refuses to be signed to an outside label. But he continues to make his own music and leave adoring fans in his wake.
I hesitate to use the word “adoring” to characterize my own admiration for Stijn. Still being something of a Calvinist, albeit with a European flavor, it is ironic that someone who is pretty serious about the holiness of God also has a deep appreciation for an artist who is a self-proclaimed sex junkie. Watching the music video for “G. Daddy,” I always feel queasy during the slow-motion shots of androgynous figures eating grass in evening-wear. Stijn himself exits the video bouncing on the back of a white stallion. I should not like this guy. But I do, and I know why. There is something in his heavy-lidded eyes, the wry worldview that comes out in interviews, and even in his flamboyant sexuality that is startling in its familiarity.
It’s not that he is my secret twin or that I would be Stijn if I were not Dutch Reformed, but watching Stijn flaunt himself on stage, I recognize someone who shares my love of having a body and using it. But while the Netherlands taught me to loosen up when it comes to booze and cigarettes—I already knew how to dance—I am still more or less celibate, something so unthinkable on both sides of the Atlantic that I hesitate to confess it because the conversation never stops there. People inevitably have questions, usually three of them, and never anything my (Dutch) desire for privacy makes me feel like answering. A born hedonist, it’s likely that I’d be a happy-go-lucky proponent of free love if I were not a person of faith, but this is a choice I’ve made and am making, a discipline that is difficult some days and impossible on others. When the frustration becomes agonizing, I sometimes turn to Stijn, just to watch his spins and shakes, to admire his hound-dog brow, to get a vicarious jolt of pleasure as he so obviously enjoys being a depraved Flemish music-maker, a role he plays with unflappable dedication.
But something strange happened while I was researching the figure that has been my favorite sex icon for more than eight years. I’ve started worrying about him. In newer photos, he looks less playful. His face is tired and wan. But what did I expect? He’s headed into his late thirties, and he plays nightclubs and festivals for a living. Still, there’s something about Stijn’s lean frame that suggests a mama’s boy, and I suddenly feel like writing him a note to tell him he looks unwell and needs to take care of himself. I want to send him a peppermint plant and fresh-squeezed orange juice. The impulse scares me—it calls into question my own vivacity and verve. Tenderness is a far cry from hooting and howling at an empty stage to coax Stijn into an encore. Stijn! Are we getting old?
In a recent interview, Stijn responded to the question of what he would do if he had a few free days by saying he would turn his phone off, have some friends over, and cook something tasty. So here’s your invitation, Stijn: if you’re ever passing through Indiana, you can stop by my house and get a cup of strong Dutch coffee. You can sit at my kitchen table, stroking my neighbor’s cat, or if you’re in the mood for music, feel free to tinker with the electronic pearl drop setting on my Casio. My 1970s green wool coat would look stunning on you, Stijn. Just so you know, I’m not going to sleep with you—though I will probably want to.