I think it’s high time for these two like-minded performers to make the ultimate funky fembot album
I saw Annie Clark live in concert for the first time the weekend before last. Those of you who have already seen her, whether in her solo St. Vincent guise or with actually-kind-of-weirdly-perfect comrade David Byrne, know that I had a pretty incredible experience seeing her. Maybe kind of a life-changing experience. Maybe enough to make me open a new Word document and start writing a thing for the first time in fucking months. A Really Important Experience, anyway.
St. Vincent was brought to Winnipeg as part of our Jazz Festival programming. Not a huge surprise there – Winnipeg’s Jazz Fest programming is diverse and often surprising in its breadth. Through it, I’ve seen The Hold Steady, Antlers, and – almost exactly two years ago – Janelle Monáe. That show definitely qualified as another Really Important Experience, with more than just superficial parallels to the recent St. Vincent show.
Both performers’ songs, public personae, and stage shows exemplify contrasts and contradictions that make them both more than great songwriters and performers – they are tapping into the 21st century zeitgeist of what it means to be a woman, and they’re doing it without the bullshit – expressing these formative experiences, new manifestos, and (indirectly) skewering people who have tried to stop them, without smoothing over the embarrassing, gross, scary, sad, angry, RAGEY bits.
So what does it mean to be a woman in the 21st century? According to St. V and JMonáe, it means writing about the past without forgetting the present. It means that the disparate components of their music enrich and evolve the whole, rather than undermine it. It’s both ambiguous and specific in its aim and execution. And all of this is a metaphor for their complex human identities. The music is truly an extension of themselves.
Another important, not to say paramount, aspect of both of their performer femininities is their obsession with androids (yes, gynoids if you want to get technical, but the term feels so absurdly clinical) and robots – specifically fembot performing versions of themselves that cultivate the impossible yet imperative distance between performer and audience as well as the uncanny separation between, for example, St. Vincent the performer and Annie Clark the person.
(Oh, if if it’s not already clear, I definitely do not use the word fembot in anything near a pejorative sense. I’m also not referring to The Bionic Woman. I’m just using an accessible portmanteau and teasing out some of the ways the terms ‘female’ and ‘robot’ are linked in the work of St. Vincent and Janelle Monáe.)
Being a woman is complicated, but being a super cool android woman fembot is extra complicated, with heaps of assumptions and false dichotomies piled upon the likes of Cindi Mayweather and St. Vincent (they’re forward-thinking at the expense of backward-glancing; their status as pop artists means they don’t have credibility or depth; their lyrics about experiences and emotions means they’re weak). These cast interesting reflections on their actual experiences as Janelle Monáe and Annie Clark and how they turn those experiences into art and song.
Annie Clark is a uniquely magnetic performer. I say unique very purposefully – her show was absolutely unlike any I’ve seen, and I’ve seen more than a few. I was struck immediately by her cool, distant stage presence. She was absolutely engaged and absolutely separate from her audience for the entirety of the show.
My pal and usual concert companion Larissa told me a few more things that we were likely to see on Sunday based on her experience seeing St. Vincent with David Byrne last summer in London, at the time still touring 2012’s Love This Giant. Her strikingly bleached-white hair? Still in place, although now alternating with black plaited cornrows. An ethereal, minimalist, and otherworldly outfit in monochromatic tones featuring a miniskirt and heeled boots, thereby better to do a faux ballet-booted, tiny-stepped shuffle in all directions across the stage? Also check. Most importantly, though, the surreal choreography alongside synth player, occasional guitarist, and backup singer Toko Yasuda with requisite fixed stare was still very much in place, firing off a whole series of connections and identifications in my brain. It’s a hugely effective visual package.
This visual packaging is obviously very important to St. Vincent and to her team, and it’s what elevated their show from a couple sets of really good, nuanced, and meaningful pop songs to An Event, even for a jaded rock show-goer like me. The visuals underline the tension of the songs, and the songs imbue the visuals with meaning over and above their surface appearance. Her stage show is a huge treat and a perfect example of the power they can have when they work at their best with the message of the songs.
Know who else cares about the visual package? Uh huh, JMonáe. More than caring about it, her stage presence and appearance comprise a big part of her message. Her ever-present tuxedo and sky-high quiff tell us that she’s transcending her earthly constraints. She’s building her own alternate future world, and the more I think about it, the more I think that St. Vincent fits into this world perfectly.
Where JMonáe is warm and inviting in her performance, St. V is cool and distant. JMonáe’s android element is included primarily in the content of her songs and stylizations (as in the sleeves of Metropolis: Suite 1 (The Chase) and The ArchAndroid) and St. V’s robotic element is introduced mostly in her stage presence and delivery. Above all, the mechanic elements of their performances and songwriting don’t negate the personal, emotional qualities of their music. As they shouldn’t.
St. V’s songs explore the complications of experience and being herself. She’s definitely not speaking to or about any one group in particular, but she ends up complicating femininity by really digging into and interrogating it: emphasizing its pain, its small things, her own engagement and by the same token, her own detachment. JMonáe complicates femininity and black experience through her use of futurist imagery, robotics, idealism, androgyny, and triumph.
St. V cares less about triumphing over a foe, but is eager to embrace the less-than-conventionally feminine aspects of herself, in particular the more masculine and robotic parts equally with her more feminine side. She acknowledges a dichotomy, and then tears it down and plays with it. JMonáe knowingly flies in the face of this false dichotomy and, even though she knows she’ll win, doesn’t let that stop her from pausing and weeping occasionally at the weight she’s inherited and that she takes with her when she flies.
“Marrow” is one of my favourite St. V songs. She needs help, she screams H-E-L-P me, but the music says otherwise. It stomps and menaces and also treads lightly with strings. Only the lyrics are anxious – giving the impression that St. V knows she’s the one to save herself. She builds up tension and then dispels it. “Rattlesnake” is a more recent standout, again with lyrics expressing fear – she’s running from a real or imagined rattlesnake, terrifying either way – but the music betrays no such thing. Its electronic bounce suggests resilience. Its guitar solo tells the fear off for good, no questions asked.
On early song “Sincerely, Jane”, JMonáe expresses despair at the state of her generation, evoking apocalyptic imagery, but she maintains hope that this is a nightmare that we’ll wake up from. More recently, “Q.U.E.E.N.” and its video show that JMonáe and her Wondaland crew have time-traveled to a future ‘living museum’, where they get down to funky music as part of their ‘musical weapons program’. She simultaneously is inseparable from her roots, but transcends them with her future-obsession and inexhaustable self-belief. She questions herself but comes to the conclusion “even if it makes others uncomfortable, I will love who I am.” Wise, strong words.
All of this is to say I love both St. Vincent and Janelle Monáe (no surprises here) and this android-obsession of theirs thrills me. It’s a totally different side of the cool lady pop singer-songwriter genre, and I think it has so many possibilities for development into further musical and artistic ideas of theirs. I’d love to see this concept picked up by different performers in different ways. And St. V’s recent show really really made me want a concept album by these two. Who’s with me?