BY MIN CHEN
St. Vincent is Annie Clark’s finest performance. To follow her from album to album—from her lush 2007 debut Marry Me to her latest electric masterwork Masseduction—is to watch a musician grow confident in sound and bold in aesthetic. Each musical outing has seen her shape-shift into a wildly imagined persona and archetype: 2011’s Strange Mercy introduced “housewives on pills,” her 2014 self-titled record gave us a “Near-Future Cult Leader,” and with last year’s Masseduction, “dominatrix at the mental institution.”
As she’s said, “When I’m writing music I’m very aware of how I will perform it.” She was alluding to a live setting, but that performance easily stretches past the stage into her album art, style choices, and pretty much everything else. Case in point: her all-encompassing and fearless transformation on Masseduction—beginning with a record sleeve replete with electric hues and PVC, and not ending with a rigorously choreographed live show, designed by Willo Perron, strong in visuals, color, and costumes. And in between that was a marketing campaign that hinged as much on publicity as it did on, well, performance.
Sticking tongue directly in cheek, in September 2017, she announced the impending release of Masseduction with a mock press conference on Facebook. With the straightest of faces, she riffed on the album’s title (“I did toy with the idea of calling the record Asseduction”), likened the album release schedule to a “Bridezilla-style wedding,” before taking fan questions in a style between White House press secretary and beauty pageant hopeful.
Even more intriguing was a series of faux interview clips, written by Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney, Portlandia), posted on St. Vincent’s Instagram, and intended as a sort of media kit. Except not really. In each short, she sits bolt upright in a fluorescent green armchair, resplendent in latex, while answering the most generic of interview questions. With titles reading, “Insert question about the inspiration behind this record,” and “Insert question about what it’s like to play a show in heels,” and with answers soaked in deadpan sarcasm (“My approach on this record was to be older and luckily enough, I was”), the series was less marketing material than cutting satire.
Indeed, as she reflected in 2017 about the grueling tedium of press junkets: “When you have to say something over and over, there’s a festering self-loathing. No better way to feel like a fraud.” Her mock press kit spotlights that fraud, and how that trite and timeworn format of the media interview cuts close enough to farce. In her performance of publicity is underscored the fact that publicity is performance.
And if so, St. Vincent’s making the most of that performance. Her mock press conference and interviews are exercises in absurdist glee that power her persona. “This scaffolding that she has been so deliberate in constructing has allowed her to take more risks,” said Carrie Brownstein of Clark. “There’s a classic kind of professionalism in the act, sort of like the old country stars—Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash. They let you know when you have access to their world. It’s a contrivance.” In fact, only once in the pretend press conference does she break character: asked about her favorite memory of her younger, soccer-playing days, she proceeds to recount just that before cracking up in a bit of laughter at her lacking sportswomanship. It is a brief moment, a flash of Annie Clark, before St. Vincent steps back in with her fixed stare, her level stance. She recomposes and the performance goes on.