After years of anemic Grammy Awards ceremonies, some of this year’s artists finally injected some lifeblood into their performances. Perhaps the most jaw-dropping was St. Vincent’s sexually charged duet with Dua Lipa, in which the two women mashed up their singles “Masseduction” and “One Kiss.”
It started with St. Vincent (a.k.a. Annie Clark) appearing from within a shadow, dressed in black, singing about “nuns in stress positions” and “Lolita is weeping” as she played a slinky riff on her guitar. Then came a voice, joining her on the chorus of “Masseduction,” and Lipa — who looked like a mirror image of Clark’s with her bobbed black hair and monochrome look — came out, and the women traded looks and leaned into each other as they used a little of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” to transition into Lipa’s Calvin Harris collaboration, “One Kiss.” Lipa danced, Clark shredded and it became one of the night’s best and most talked-about performances.
“Those songs are two sides of the same coin,” Clark says of why they picked them. “They’re about seduction and sex and all those things. Then we wanted to give a little nod to the late, great Queen of Soul, so it was like, ‘What if we sing R-E-S-P-E-C-T as a sort of fucked up dom-sub thing, like sex.’ I don’t know if that song has ever been sung with that intonation before.”
It came together as a last-minute collaboration after the Grammys’ Ken Ehrlich floated the idea that the two should collaborate. “I was like, ‘Fuck yeah,'” Clark says. “I remember the first time I heard ‘One Kiss’ and was like, ‘Yeah, this is such a banger.’ Same with ‘New Rules.’ We met literally a week ago today and got on like a house on fire.” Once it was confirmed, though, they had to move fast and only began figuring out the performance last Wednesday.
When she looks back at the performance now, Clark is happy she was able to sneak her lyrics about smoking Marlboros and playing boudoir dress-up past CBS’ standards and practices. “Thankfully, we didn’t get to the second verse, which is all about ‘paranoid secretions falling on basement rugs,'” she says with a laugh. “It’s a fucked-up sex song, but it’s also a lot of other things. I’m talking about the power of seduction on every level, whether it’s sexual seduction, political seduction, totalitarianism and this need to get your rocks off. It seemed like there was an unethical parallel between the duality of those things that I wanted to grab at. Seduction is exciting, but it’s also a transference of power; it’s an abdication or an acquisition of power, but then what does power look like?”
It’s a sentiment she also echoed by employing “Respect” as a bridge between her and Dua Lipa’s songs. “I liked turning ‘Respect’ on its ear,” says Clark, who offers that “The House That Jack Built” is actually her favorite Franklin tune. “‘Respect’ was such an incredible song for civil rights and people of color in the Sixties. It feels anthemic in that context, and it also feels anthemic in the context of liberation of women, ‘You’ve got to show me respect.’ But then there’s that lyric that I’m sure was one of those James Brown throwaways that sounds good and feels really good to sing: ‘Sock it to me.’ I just got so tripped up on that. It’s playful, but it’s a mixed message for sure. So when Dua sang, ‘Sock it to me,’ in that context, it felt really fucked up and sexy.”
As for the singers’ similar looks, it was simply luck, or “alchemy,” to use Clark’s word. They just happened to have similar haircuts right now. “It was like, ‘OK, great,’ let’s really play into the idea of push-and-pull sexuality but then, we also look like weird twins, so there’s a weird layer of it that’s actually creepy and intriguing,” Clark explains. “One of the first things we were talking about was, ‘What do we want to look like?’ We were both wearing Versace versions of a similar scene. Dua is so good at art directing, as well, so it was deeply collaborative. We wanted to do something that was greater and sexier than the sum of its parts. The whole performance was about the six feet to six inches between us and our eyes. I think the simplicity of that and the intensity of that was why it worked.”
It’s something that has resonated with the LGBTQ community, as people have been vociferously tweeting approval at Clark for the performance. Although she hasn’t been on Twitter to read it, she’s happy to hear of the reaction. “The great thing about music is that it’s people being honest about their humanity and being like, ‘This is how I really feel and these are my flaws and strengths,'” she says. “I’m going to talk about the reality of the human condition. Talking about it makes it less scary and making it less scary means that other people feel less alone, and if people feel less alone people feel more empathy towards each other and less violence happens. Less shit happens and less constant critiquing happens, and that’s the point.”
Prior to the performance, Clark won the Grammy for Best Rock Song for “Masseduction.” “It was really nice to win for rock music, because I fucking love rock music,” she says. “I fucking love the guitar. If someone asked me what kind of music I make, I don’t know what I would say exactly, but I’m thrilled it was ‘rock music.'” After the performance, Lipa won the Grammy for Best New Artist.
When Clark looks back on the evening, she has lots of favorite moments — thanking Quincy Jones for his service, hearing from a friend that Jimmy Jam sent his regards — but she also cites the performance as something special. “I had a little powwow with Dua before we played, and we locked in and we didn’t break,” she says. “We held hands and walked to the stage and we did it. It’s like, ‘Whatever happens, it’s right here in our eyes, and I got you and you got me. It’s the two of us. That’s it.'”