Despite what you might have heard, Annie Clark is not an enigma. Sure, the songs she records under the St Vincent name are often so technically complex and polished that the lyrics – and their radical vulnerability – can be occasionally obscured. But re-listening to her records ahead of the release of her fifth album, their confessional nature is what immediately stands out. Romance, and constructs of it, are more than recurring themes: they are her artistic bread and butter.
After all, Clark has recently revealed that love is “literally the point” of her next album. Titled MASSEDUCTION (that’s “mass-seduction”), the release will coincide with a tour that Clark has described as “dominatrix at the mental institution kind of bonkers.” She later told the New Yorker that the record is “all about sex and drugs and sadness.”
By weaving rock, sex, and pop into catchy shapes, Clark is one of a number of female artists who make radical statements by writing about love.
The first two singles – ‘New York’ and ‘Los Ageless’ – are both distinctly more poppy than her previous offerings, and Jack Antonoff’s influence is palpable. They’re especially different from her experimental breakthrough album St Vincent, an abstract masterpiece released in 2015, not only in their mainstream sheen, but also in the way they more overtly reveal Clark’s preoccupation with the construction of gender and its intersection with romance.
On MASSEDUCTION’s front cover, an anonymous woman’s arse sits front and centre, and such images of body parts are featured heavily in the video for ‘New York’’. The colours are bright and “feminine”, the styling bold and sexualised: think Samantha from Sex And The City meets a Jeff Koons artwork.
Not that any of this is precisely new for St Vincent: Clark has consistently pushed for the subversion of gender roles in a typically male-dominated industry. Last year, an image of her posing in a t-shirt bearing the body of a woman in a bikini graced the front cover of Guitar World, and immediately caused a stir. Clark also deliberately held the guitar as though she didn’t know how to play it, and later explained she was poking fun at the sexist history of the publication, and their tendency to splay bikini-clad models all over their covers.
And sure, although these kinds of stunts do show that Clark is aware of sexism and misogyny, they are not her most radical contribution to undoing some of the more harmful stereotypes in the music industry. Indeed, it’s her music itself that best showcases her commitment to those goals – by weaving rock, sex, emotions and pop into experimental and catchy shapes, Clark is one of a number of other female artists who make radical statements by writing about love.
But writing about love, for female artists, has its risks – risks that are even more pronounced if one dares to make pop music. It’s so easy to be pigeonholed, or to be asked in every single press conference what it’s like being a female artist; to be turned into the spokesperson for an entire gender.
Clark has used her recent promo tour to parody those kinds of questions in a humorous live Facebook video. She compared the making of a record to a bridezilla-style wedding – except that on the big day you are walking down the aisle by yourself, listening to yourself.
That live video is also the platform she used to reveal – in front of a hot pink backdrop and surrounded by hot pink microphones, no less – that the album was at its best and at its core, about love. But in the process, Clark set herself up to weather the same risks that writing about love has long posed to female artists.
First and foremost, there’s the worry that you won’t be taken seriously; that your bold, complex, gritty songs will be labelled as pop and therefore not worthy of deep analysis. Then there is the risk that the critical establishment will decide that you might be a solid artist, but that you are from a revolutionary; that you will forever be a diamonte-encrusted top in a world of Che Guevara tees. And finally there’s the risk that – if your desire comes off too strong or too demanding – you will be called crazy; that in the eyes of the male-dominated industry you will be one more “hysterical” woman in a frothing, tear-sodden sea of them.
Clark has written about love on all her five records to date, and always about the kind of love that straddles the line between the romantic and insane. That’s even implied subtly through her choice of stage name – she borrowed her moniker from a Nick Cave track about the place poet Dylan Thomas was hospitalised.
Songs about maternal affection are rare.
Some of Thomas’ poems are the most romantic known to the English language. But his was not a passive, inert kind of love: poems like ‘Love In The Asylum’ are full of blood, and they throb. “She has come possessed / who admits the delusive light through the bouncing wall, / possessed by the skies,” goes one line. And for her part, Clark herself has outright said: “I try to live at the intersection of accessible and lunatic.”
In this way, Clark seeks to challenge the ‘crazy’ woman trope; the trope of the lonely, time-wizened spinster obsessed with finding love. Her songs are about the female gaze, and how rock would look with women like Clark driving the industry. (The answer seems to involve a lot more pink.)
In fact, between Charlie XCX’s ‘Boys’ video clip, in which many of the “it” boys of the moment make very dreamy and shamelessly teen-girl-fantasy style appeals to the camera, and Torres’s twisted ‘Skim’, it seems like we are in the midst of a resurgence of female-driven pop which seeks to explicitly subvert the kind of male gaze that has dominated rock and pop music for too long.
After all, Clark’s sound has always been by turns gritty, glittering and dark. But the consistent undercurrent is that she has always sought to externalise her own inner life, expressing emotions that are visceral and sad and hard to pin down. She writes about herself from outside herself, using the perspective of other female characters, and her imagination allows her to explore love in all its disparate, messy, often ugly forms.
The Story Of Love
Clark’s story starts with 2007’s Marry Me, and the title track makes it clear that she has long been concerned with female desire – and not the typically passive kind the radio has so numbed us to. The refrain “Marry me, John, marry me, John” is sung sadly over piano, and the song is sweet and slow, even as it undermines the entire patriarchal construct of marriage.
Gender norms are flipped, as the speaker seeks to use marriage to her advantage – the line “he won’t realize I’m gone” implies her wish for independence, or possibly even infidelity. It’s a kind of anti-marriage mission statement; a rejection of the loss of freedom that women have historically had to endure as part and parcel with saying their vows, while the suggestion that everything is allowable as long as one spouse is “good” to the other is another subtle dig at the entire institution.
As we move into 2009, Clark’s Actor, more experimental in sound, is concerned with women feeling restless. This is teased out with deceptively ordinary, Disney-esque melodies; roses that strangle the record with their vines, twisting about the place at random. And then there’s the gritty guitar solos that break through the veneer, adding a Pleasantville-style sense of anxiety to the whole album.
‘Save Me From What I Want’ boasts devastating lines like, “But I’m a wife in watercolours / I can wash away,” while elsewhere ‘Black Rainbow’ has an undertone of sheer panic; this is a woman who has been repressed to the point of insanity, and the whole song builds to a climax that seems to suggest she has climbed the ledge and is staring down.
By contrast, 2011’s Strange Mercy is probably the album that is least overtly about romantic love. ‘Dilettante’ seems to be from the perspective of a woman waiting for a man (“Oh Elijah / Don’t make me wait“), but even in that particular case, Clark has explained the song is actually a love letter to New York.
Or maybe that should be a love-hate letter – one of the lines goes, “My bank in my back pocket / How far you think it’d take us?” But nothing about the song is explicit, and it can be read as though it is the woman who is ready while the man is the one holding back.
You can call Clark a lot of things, but “predictable” is not one of them.
Probably the most obvious love song Clark has penned to date is ‘I Prefer Your Love’ from St Vincent, which was not written for a romantic lover but, unusually, for her mum. “I prefer your love to Jesus,” she croons, the song more about self-sacrifice and closeness than desire.
The tune is an oddity, not only just in terms of Clark’s career, but in terms of pop music more generally: songs about maternal affection are rare. After all, the world of mainstream radio is a domain reserved almost exclusively for romantic love; for sexual love; for love in the least complicated way that we use that word.
But then again, Clark has never once settled for the simple. Love may be at the centre of her work, but it often takes on unexpected guises; her songs come birthed into the world bloodily, and malformed. You can call Clark a lot of things, but “predictable” is not one of them.
The Sound Of The Future
Even though Clark seeks to subvert gender roles, heteronormative romance and the male gaze by writing about love in a defiant and unapologetically honest way, her songs are not just diary entries. After all, she has gone on record to say that although people often interpret her songs that way, they are just taking a sexist shortcut.
And certainly when they are analysed closely, it becomes extraordinarily clear that her lyrics are not just instances from her life shot directly into her listener’s ears; they are carefully constructed narratives that expertly tie her themes with the aural texture of her songs. They are like sonic snatches of braille; raised, raspy. Communicative.
MASSEDUCTION is no different. After all, “New York isn’t New York / Without you, love,” is the opening statement of the whole album, and the word love is repeated over and over at the start, only to then disappear from the song, mimicking the loss of the “hero” and “friend” that leaves the narrator so devastated.
Clark’s refusal to be easily categorised either in her musical style or in her subject matter is a form of resistance.
Fans have already speculated that the tune is about Clark’s relationship with Cara Delevinge, or a mourning of the death of David Bowie. For her part, Clark has explained that the song is dedicated to a composite of people – but she has deigned not to confirm who.
That contrasts in many ways with the second single, ‘Los Ageless’. ‘Ageless’ is another song about heartbreak, but it is considerably less sweet, and its glitchy opening gives way to a darker and more rebellious tone. The chorus in particular hints at the rancor and rot beneath the surface – “How can anybody have you and lose you?” – but the tune quickly reveals itself to be about losing your mind, rather than a lover.
Ultimately, it’s clear that Clark has been dealing with these themes since the very beginning of her career. Her refusal to be easily categorised either in her musical style or in her subject matter is a form of resistance; a rebuttal to the kind of lazy pigeonholing that so many female artists face. It’s a kind of rebellion in and of itself.
After all, as Chris Kraus, another female artist who writes almost exclusively about love, put it in I Love Dick, “I think the sheer fact of women talking, being, paradoxical, inexplicable, flip, self-destructive but above all else public is the most revolutionary thing in the world.” By simply writing a record about love, and risking being labelled “insane” in an industry that feeds off patriarchal norms, Annie Clark is changing the goddamn world.