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St. Vincent’s Alien Rebirth

Five years ago, on 2014’s ‘St. Vincent,’ Annie Clark declared ownership over her own work

St. Vincent in concert at Terminal 5, New York City on February 26th, 2014

St. Vincent in concert at Terminal 5, New York City on February 26th, 2014

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No matter how sharp Annie Clark’s tongue, early criticism often focused on her femininity. In 2007, a review praised her “big-girl voice“; in 2009, another mentioned her “small and fragile” vocals; in 2011, she was called “waifishly stunning,” her singing “coquettish.” (Guess the writers’ gender!) And yes, she is stunning, and her voice has carried both raw rage and dulcet adoration with equal skill since her debut as St. Vincent, 2007’s Marry Me. But for a long time, these qualities, and the stereotypes that went with them, dominated her public perception.

Then came the confounding shock of white. On the cover of 2014’s St. Vincent, which celebrates its fifth anniversary this weekend, Clark sits on a throne, commanding. Her hair, once curly and brown, is now gray fading into white. Her gaze is stark. She might be an alien ruler come to Earth. She’s definitely the one in charge.

St. Vincent is not a moment of stylistic metamorphosis; it’s the moment when Clark looked the listener dead-on and declared ownership over her work. By becoming the alien — to borrow a phrase from her frequent inspiration David Bowie — she positioned herself outside of gendered expectations. As the despot on that album’s cover, she seemed to say: I’m not a Woman In Rock. You don’t even know what I am.

The album cycles through birth, death and rebirth, beginning with a near-fatal experience in “Rattlesnake,” where, running naked from mortal danger, she’s baptized by her sweat. The next track, “Birth in Reverse,” implies death by its title, as well as the reference to the Lorrie Moore short story of the same name (in which a Celtic grave resembles a “birth in reverse”). Later, Clark wryly references her rebirth on “Every Tear Disappears,” repeating the lines “Yeah, I live on wires/Yeah, I’ve been born twice.”

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Clark has scrutinized traditional gender roles throughout her work, but before St. Vincent, her songs most often centered around women forced into domesticity. On this album, though, she sidesteps the gender binary in favor of something more fluid. The wayward characters of  “Prince Johnny” pray to be a “real” boy or girl, a phrase whose relative ambiguity challenges what “real” means; “Huey Newton” finds a non-specific you “entombed in the shrines/of zeroes and ones.” Whether it’s a number binary or gender binary doesn’t much matter. Clark seems to say that we are all trapped in something outside reality, whether it’s a Matrix-esque cyberspace, or the fantasies on TV, or gender expectations.

For all its references to digital unreality, the album has an undeniably animalistic side, as well, with its scrappy protagonist sprinting toward unreachable clarity. There are “feral hearts,” leashes and rattlesnakes; in two different songs, Clark is running. She sings about the mundanity of daily masturbation. The love songs, somewhat disguised by brass and chunky electric guitar, have a primal feeling, too, full of severed fingers, bleeding spleens and literal stolen hearts.

In all these songs, in different ways, St. Vincent suggests an escape from the cyclical commodification of women. If Clark can break free of the gender binary — whether by dying and being reborn, by floating into undefined space, or by emphasizing her animal nature — then perhaps she can avoid being objectified as she has before.

On her next album, 2017’s MASSEDUCTION, Clark dove into latex and leather, presenting herself as a sultrier, more mature self than before, only for another unnamed “you” to force her to try on costumes — a nurse, a nun, a teacher — for their pleasure. Ultimately, she finds, “none of this shit fits.” She can’t be what her dresser desires, either as a costumed stereotype or as their savior. It’s a realization she began working toward three years earlier: On St. Vincent, she knew that even the most liberated performer is still a commodity, still being sold and tasked with selling herself. Trapped within a digital world, a capitalistic world and a restrictive gender binary, she pleaded: “Won’t somebody sell me back to me?”

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