For the last twenty years, women and men have dominated the pop charts with some equality. Last year’s stars broke down roughly equally between genders, with Eminem, Taylor Swift, Ladies Antebellum and Gaga, Justin Bieber, and Susan Boyle all winning out in terms of record sales and mindshare. Indie music seems to be the one place where men still dominate the prevailing aesthetic. The biggest names tend disproportionately toward the male. Based on a wholly unscientific survey of Pitchfork’s recent Best New Music bestowals, there’s an approximate 19:3 ratio of male to female recipients, not counting mixed-gender bands like Cults and the Pains of Being Pure at Heart. St. Vincent’s newest album is the latest to get BNM’d, with a quite solid score of 9.0.
It’s germane to note two things, here. One is that indie no longer really refers to “independent”; it’s something of a lifestyle signifier more than a strict genre or economic delimiter. And, of course, I don’t think there’s anything like overt, institutionalized sexism at publications like Pitchfork. There does seem to be a vexing lack of long-lasting, celebrated careers for female musicians of the indie variety, however.
To be clear, 2011 does seem to be something of the year of the woman in indie (or 'indie') music: from PJ Harvey’s winning the Mercury Prize to the preponderance of great and celebrated (or upcoming) albums by EMA, tUnE-yArDs, Lydia Loveless, Laura Marling, Wild Flag, The Raincoats, Tori Amos and Kate Bush.
Still. This triumph isn't without its costs.
Some “indie” musicians have already had their virtue questioned by means of authenticity: Lana Del Ray, Kreayshawn, and Scarlett Johansson come to mind. If you’re perceived as having a shred of outside help, or lacking the meanest, hardest upbringing, then your work is likely to be dismissed before it’s even heard. Elsewhere, a lack of seriousness is indie death, even though a trenchantly twee look is also an almost intrinsic part of the culture. Zooey Deschanel is criticized for being an infant, and Feist gets criticized for making toothless MOR/NPR old person music; the only winners are the ones who shut up, go home, and stop trying. A final cost — one that’s so ingrained that I doubt it’s ever really even though of — is that being a woman while indie bears an implicit assumption that you will be attractive.
One only needs to browse the topics page of Hipster Runoff to see this phenomenon in full bloom: page after page of slump-shouldered, pudgy, and/or bearded guys interspersed with stick-thin, big-eyed, attractive young women. It’s something of a given that celebrities (or“celebrities”) will be more attractive than your average fan, but at least major-label media has an even field: the men and women are all unattainably hot. Indie’s implicit D.I.Y., garage/bedroom musician assumptions mean that anyone can become a star, which is true if you’re a dude. Not so much if you’re a lady.
So it’s so far, so good for Annie Clark. She is authentic, having played in and toured with the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens. She is a serious musician according to her guitar soloing skills. And she is quite attractive. In this way, she’s the perfect trojan horse of a woman musician: passing all the indie litmus tests while telling the testers where to stick it.
Her first words to the public, on her debut album’s “Now, Now” are all about defining what she’s not: your mother’s favorite dog, the carpet you walk on, a small atomic bomb, or anything at all, on your terms at least. A cacophonous array of voices responds, “You don’t mean that. Say you’re sorry”, over which Clark shreds and the tiny musical world ends in sonic violence.
A lot Annie Clark’s music is dark and violent-sounding. On her recently covering some Big Black songs, she said to Pitchfork, “It’s not every day that you get to stand up onstage and unload every ounce of your misanthropic bile onto a crowd of people”. She does seem to express her misanthropic bile pretty well on record, though, which is admittedly less direct than doing it to her listener’s faces.
The video for lead single “Cruel”. The song itself starts out mordantly, saying “Bodies, can’t you see what everybody wants from you?” In the video, Clark is kidnapped into a family, forced into service, and eventually, slowly buried alive. It’s an apt metaphor for the way women are taken into the celebrity indie culture, only to be forgotten or abandoned once they’re past their bloom. When she says in the song, “They could take or leave you / So they took you, and they left you,” it sounds like she’s talking about so many semi-punched tickets, brushes with fame, and unfulfilled expectations.
The next song, “Cheerleader,” has Clark saying, “I've played dumb when I knew better / Tried so hard just to be clever” before launching into the chorus: “But I don't wanna be your cheerleader no more”. On “Neutered Fruit”, she says she’s eaten flowers and bought finely neutered fruit, all the while staring at an apparent love interest. “Champagne Year” sums up her artistic trepidations by saying she expected confetti and a “choir at the shore”, but will settle for not making a killing at it.
Throughout Strange Mercy, Clark expresses a surfeit of ambition tempered by a sad realism. Her lyrics are unafraid to express longing, sadness, and anger — the alchemical blend of emotions underpinning 90% of music — but it’s the last, anger, that always seems to be closest to the surface.
This anger and its manifestation are the most thrilling thing about the album. Even though Clark has a beautiful voice, and writes tuneful melodies, the best way I can think to describe her music is that it’s a masterful application of weight and mass. Sound is piled, stacked, thrown — always moved as if it were a thing. She lugs sound like a rolled up carpet with the dull dead thump of a body inside. And I suspect it’s the body of someone who’s crossed her. You can feel Strange Mercy as well as you can hear it; its specifically visceral character marks it more like a noise record than traditional rock and roll.
St. Vincent’s project, as it were, is to document one person’s world, and she does so to amazing success. Her self is projected upon the listener in four dimensions, concretely. It cuts through the bullshit idealization of the feminine that’s so long hounded musicians throughout the ostensibly more progressive world of indie music. In a recent interview with Spin, Clark expressed herself well, saying “It's really destructive and doesn't make any sense to me — the idea that if there's an exalted female, there can be only one, and if there are more than one, then they must be in direct competition with each other.”
With Strange Mercy, Clark is in competition with no one other than herself. Her doe eyes and sexy shredding skills may bring her to the fore of female musicians, but her politics and music have a wide streak of anger and antagonism toward the status quo in music. It would be a mistake to fetishize or idealize Clark. Based on the quotidian observation of her album covers, it seems like she’s drawn a similar conclusion. Whereas her first two albums featured stylish head shots of the (former “hair model”) Clark, Strange Mercy depicts a wide open mouth with a white clinging film stretched across. It’s like the world she’s showing us is one in which her voice — stifled as it is — is now primary, and poised to break through.
Fuse September 20, 2011