femininity complicated

Can we get a Janelle Monáe/St. Vincent collaboration already?

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?

Janelle Monáe – Sincerely, Jane

St. Vincent – Marrow

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“It’s Not a Perfect Plan”: St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy Reviewed

There is a lovely dichotomy between Annie Clark’s ladylike, demure image and the intensity of her music that has drawn me to her work as St. Vincent.  Clearly, however, it is the grey areas between these poles of interpretation/representation where Clark’s most interesting and subtle ideas are explored, such as her continued fascination with mental instability and the darkness that lurks just under the surface mundanity of everyday life.  Strange Mercy picks up where 2009’s Actor left off, continuing a trajectory started by her debut outing in 2007, Marry Me (named after Arrested Development character Maeby’s joking exclamation); an off-kilter sensibility that has grown with each successive album.  Where Marry Me was relatively innocent; primarily emotionally and musically upbeat with occasional peeks below a calm, collected surface (“Your Lips Are Red”, with its stabbing bursts of piano and guitar) and Actor was more invested in acknowledgement of an unknown, indefinable horror (the creepy verses of “Marrow” narrating a bizarre biology-as-emotion metaphor before giving way to an aggressively upbeat, verging on funk, electronic-enhanced refrain that has Clark begging for help), Strange Mercy brings Clark’s often aggressive, fuzz tone guitar to the fore, helping flesh out songs that are more baroque than rock in arrangement and whose lyrics are often concerned with subverting conventional femininity.

Indeed, it is the juxtaposition of Clark’s straightforwardly beautiful singing voice with her lyrics and guitar-playing that makes her art so compelling.  There are angry elements to her songs, but the songs themselves can’t be categorized as simply angry.  There are peaceful, content elements to her songs, but the songs definitely can’t be categorized as either of those things.  “Chloe in the Afternoon” (which shares its title with Éric Rohmer’s 1972 film) opens the album dramatically with images of a dominatrix and client having a tryst during the client’s break from work; whether Clark is singing from the perspective of dominatrix or client is unclear.  The barely-melodic verses are strung together with menacing guitar riffs that give way to the sexually satisfied (relative) calm of the repetitive refrain.  When she serenely sings “no kisses, no real names” the anonymity of the encounter is made clear, as is the fulfillment of pleasure through pain (signified by that satisfyingly raw riff).

Clark continues in this vein of (hyper-)sexualized femininity with the song “Cheerleader” and its verses narrating the reasons why a female character wants to give up her presumably small-town American life of pleasing boys and being everything for everyone (“I’ve had good times with some bad guys… I’ve played dumb when I knew better/Tried too hard just to be clever”).  Clearly this sexualized cheerleader of the title is a thinly-veiled metaphor for any woman who wants to live and experience outside of the internally- and externally-imposed limits of her life thus far.  A heavy-handed comparison, perhaps, but when this cheerleader’s confessions are so honestly and unapologetically expressed and are accompanied by that mercurial guitar work, particularly emphasizing Clark’s enunciation of the word ‘I’ in the chorus and lending that refrain a powerful sense of personal resolve without resorting to cheap sentimentality, the song succeeds beautifully and works to further evolve Clark’s exploration of femininity.

Elsewhere on Strange Mercy Clark moves from light ‘n’ groovy pop to an increasingly urgent and anxious guitar solo that screams above her muted voice and a deeply ominous synth line on “Surgeon.”  On “Northern Lights” she contemplates an otherwise dark winter and the depression that inevitably comes with it (“Yeah, your pendulum hasn’t swung back in/It’s a champagne year full of sober months/Through my maudlin days, through my dry moments”) and “Champagne Year” begins with a vocal figure reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s much celebrated, much covered, and pretty much ubiquitous “Hallelujah” while singing with a kind of shrugged-shoulders stoicism, realizing the inevitably of the mundanities of life and how we cope with them.  Strange Mercy really imparts the sense that Clark has reached adulthood as a songwriter and as a person; there’s a theme of resignation that runs concurrent with the idea of new beginnings through these songs.  She is squaring her shoulders, looking her future in the proverbial eye and accepting the unpleasantness that is sure to come, while at the same time looking back at what has brought her to this turning point.  Perhaps this is why I love the album so much: it reflects the complexity and sadness and strangeness of navigating my future while being very much still tied to my past.

I’d also like to briefly divert attention from the album to the video for the first single from it, “Cruel.”  The theme of conventional, traditional femininity subverted is continued in this clip, directed by Terri Timely.  In it, Clark plays a woman who is kidnapped by a wifeless and motherless family and made to fill those roles.  She (quite hilariously) fails at all of the domestic tasks that fall to her and is clearly not the wife and mother this family were looking and hoping for, so they dispose of her by burying her alive.  The surreal highlight of the clip is Clark performing a guitar solo while hooded and tied up in the trunk of her new family’s car, followed closely by images of her singing from a grave and being slowly immersed in shoveled dirt.  What’s interesting here is the uneasy humour imparted by the idea that a woman might actually be killed by an otherwise quite nice (although rather creepy, and definitely demanding) family for failing in this traditional female role.  She is not, however, made to continue this work until she improves, but is discarded quickly and easily.  Her suitability to the role is not assumed by her femaleness, but rather tested through a kind of audition (you get the feeling that the family is quite familiar with this kidnap-a-new-mom scenario).  This is underlined (to highly amusing effect) by the pitying looks the children in particular give her.  She should know better, but she doesn’t, and they don’t have time for this kind of ineptitude.

Also attached is a live clip of St. Vincent’s performance of Big Black’s “Kerosene” from the show last May in New York City celebrating 10 years since Michael Azerrad’s book Our Band Could Be Your Life was published.  The woman can shred.

St. Vincent – Chloe in the Afternoon

St. Vincent – Cheerleader

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