St. Vincent Is The 21st Century's Guitar Vanguard

Aug 20, 2018

It's not enough to make list after list. The Turning the Tables project seeks to suggest alternatives to the traditional popular music canon, and to do more than that, too: to stimulate conversation about how hierarchies emerge and endure. This year, Turning the Tables considers how women and non-binary artists are shaping music in our moment, from the pop mainstream to the sinecures of jazz and contemporary classical music. Our list of the 200 Greatest Songs By Women+ offers a soundtrack to a new century. This series of essays takes on another task.

The 25 arguments writers make in these pieces challenge the usual definitions of influence. Some rethink the building legacies of popular artists; others celebrate those who create within subcultures, their innovations rippling outward over time. As always, women forge new pathways in sound; today, they also make waves under the surface of culture by confronting, in their music, the increased fluidity of "woman" itself. What is a woman? It's a timeless question on the surface, but one deeply engaged with whatever historical moment in which it is asked. Our 25 Most Influential Women Musicians of the 21st Century illuminate its complexities. —Ann Powers


There is the image: a woman with a guitar, eyes wild with color, hair flared out behind her, playing. Ordinarily, that would be enough. But then there is the sound: a world of deep, percussive gurgles; high, piercing leads; bright, spongey chords and a roar that can only be described as sounding like a chainsaw. Like this is not an axe St. Vincent has picked up, not a heavy tool swung around and around, but something mechanized, lightning-fast, deadly.

For more than 10 years, since the release of 2007's Marry Me, Annie Clark has inhabited her musical persona with a ferocious curiosity, a keen hunger for the unheard. She has said that she picked up the guitar because of her love for grunge bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, all acts that forged newly abject masculinities at the dawn of the '90s, in contrast to the polished bombast of '80s hair metal. A 2014 video of Clark performing with Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, for Nirvana's induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, connects the dots between Kurt Cobain's loose, rough guitar stylings and Clark's adventurous technique. They do not sound alike, but they share a yen for destabilization and a fundamental suspicion about the way gender boundaries tend to cage in expression.

Though it was gospel guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe who pioneered many of rock music's electric guitar techniques, the instrument inevitably became phallicized, bound up with the masculinity of popular rock musicians through the second half of the 20th century. It's a loud machine, ripe with power, and any woman who picks it up must negotiate in her own way with its baggage. Most artists who have undermined the electric guitar's chauvinistic appeal so far have been men: Mick Ronson, playing in sequined pants while David Bowie simulated a blow job on his guitar; Cobain, who would rather slough off blasé solos than aim for masculinist virtuosity. But of course, these subversions succeeded because the subverters, to begin with, were men. They arrived insulated from any doubt that the instrument was for them.

To repurpose the guitar to her own expression, a woman must usually start from a place of advanced skill, though she need not end there. She needs to prove herself worthy of the instrument, and so she must play it better than the majority of men, for whom worthiness is an untested given. It is awe-inducing to watch Clark's hands dance fluidly across her instrument, navigating dense, complicated riffs while singing the chorus to "Surgeon" or painting neon rainbow cursive across "Bring Me Your Loves." Often she'll include choreography in her live performances, and then she's a wonder of full-body precision, sharp and unassailably poised. She has a rare skill, and yet the skill is not the point; it is the means. With it, she has undercut the stubborn assumption that rock music is an arena for men to express their power: to be louder, faster, more sexual and blunter than everyone who doesn't share their stage. She has crept onto that stage and interrogated that very power: by playing fast solos through thick, strange distortion, by contorting her voice into a disarming shriek, by shredding her guitar against the ultimate rockist taboo: a prerecorded backing track.

On any St. Vincent album, even the early ones, the traditional relationship between voice and accompaniment destabilizes. It feels wrong even to call her instrumentation "accompaniment," as if it were playing a supporting role. Rather than build foundations with her guitars and her electronics, then top them with her singing, she mimics her instruments with her voice, or vice versa; it often sounds as though she is dueting with the guitar. On "Birth in Reverse," each of her vocal notes in the verse is met with a spiny slab of distortion. On "Young Lover," she accentuates the low rumble of her chords with high vocal acrobatics that occupy the space a guitar solo would typically hold. The guitar, for Clark, is not an appendage, not a phallus, not an extension of the body. It is its own body with its own voice. By thinking of her guitar as a peer and not a tool, Clark frees her own voice to take on new textures and movements. It can abrade, chafe, or wheedle as easily as it can glide or flow.

A vast swath of pop music emphasizes cohesion among its parts. Harmonies, synchronized rhythms, complementary chord progressions — these are the genre's foundations dating back to rhythm and blues. St. Vincent disrupts that formula, utilizing an array of pedals and amplifiers to make her guitar into a chameleonic titan. It sends waves crashing through "Hysterical Strength," it shoots plumes of flame on "Young Lover," it swelters with a desert's heat throughout the solo on "Rattlesnake." No other contemporary musician imbues the guitar with quite so much life or lets it direct quite so much fantasy. Because the guitar does not always sound like a guitar, it disorients the listener, who expects St. Vincent's instruments to play their typical roles: bass in back, treble in front, voice somewhere in between. By loosening the structure of her music, Clark frees her instrument from its historical stratus as a masculinity amplifier, an assertion of gendered power. She doesn't use it to embellish her songs; she uses it to build worlds.

Her ingenuity has reverberated across today's strange pop landscape, where the rock charts fill with songs that sound very little like 20th century rock and roll. You can hear her in the anemic guitar leads punched out by The 1975, or in the freewheeling vocals of Twenty One Pilots songs. Rising indie artists like Torres and Mitski funnel much of her agnosticism toward the rules of genre. Even pop artists like Charli XCX and Lorde share some of her sensibilities, like the use of the voice as a malleable weapon rather than a portal to the soul. Clark's queer, feminine musical vernacular turns pop predispositions on their axes. When, on "Sugarboy," she calls out to her "boys," her "girls," and insists, "I am a lot like you/I am alone like you," she indulges a timely paradox. This is not music about the reassuring sway of the collective. It does not promise belonging because it does not assign roles. There are boys and there are girls, and both are in freefall without context, without the relational scaffold we call gender. Rather than soothe anxieties about where men and women might belong in pop music, about how women might siphon some of the power typically reserved for men, St. Vincent opts to interrogate the very mechanism of gendered power. She takes the most phallic of rock instruments and mangles its output into a hypersaturated, surreal array of sound. Forget the glass ceiling. Inside a St. Vincent song, you don't even know where the floor is.

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