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Three Songs No Flash

Desperation, Frustration & Future Fatigue: St Vincent Live In Berlin
Ollie Zhang , November 1st, 2017 16:01

In the run up to St Vincent’s tour, Mollie Zhang is seduced by shiny images and maximalist marketing, only to feel a little let down, a little empty, and a little relieved.

‘[Insert question about what seduction means to her.]’
‘Seduction is when the invitation is better than the party itself.’

Admittedly, I am seduced by the hype around St Vincent’s most recent album, MASSEDUCTION. It’s clever and wry, and I wouldn’t expect anything less from Annie Clark. Between the ways in which she wields media tropes (see: thin, disembodied-women’s-legs-as-props), the way ‘masseduction’ reads like ‘masseducation’, and the way she plays the marketing machine - it’s clear that Clark has an astute eye, and she employs it well. I’m excited to see what she has prepared for her gig at Berlin’s Huxleys Neue Welt. After the show, I’m a little let down - the invitation, indeed, was a bit better than the party itself. But I'm also somewhat comforted to have seen the larger-than-life pop star give a performance that wasn’t so plastic, that was nicely human in its flaws.

Annie Clark has had her finger on the pulse of mainstream western society for a while. ‘Digital Witness’, off her eponymous 2014 album, grabbed ahold of a very 21st century phenomenon of engaging with the real world through a digital veneer of sorts. If St Vincent critiqued this digital world and its attention economy, while maintaining some distance from it, MASSEDUCTION revels in it. Distanced skepticism is replaced by a wholehearted indulgence in these guilty pleasures, though inevitably not without a helping of sarcasm. Clark relinquishes detached judgment and dives in headfirst.

The lead-up to the release of MASSEDUCTION was supplemented with a relentless marketing campaign - something I normally steer clear of, but Clark’s sexy, neon aesthetic was too enticing. “People turn their TV on, it looks just like a window” - I’m reminded of ‘Digital Witness’, as I struggle to separate the glistening, neon images in my mind from my experience of the show itself. “What’s the point of even sleeping / If I can’t show it, if you can’t see me / What’s the point of doing anything,” she asked in 2014. The 21st-century phenomenon of representation overshadowing lived experience - of the image of something being valued more than the thing itself - is warped, multiplied and hyperbolised in MASSEDUCTION and in this Fear The Future tour. But Clark does this more in the run-up to the tour, and less in the show itself.

The show opens with Clark’s directorial debut, The Birthday Party - a horror short that’s part of film anthology XX. It opens in a middle-class American home in the 60s, set in crippling social anxiety and desperation. The horror, and the fun of it, lie in the main character (played by Melanie Lynskey) and the desperation she feels to maintain a picture-perfect lifestyle in the face of horror. It’s absurd, comical and ridiculous.

By the time she appears alone onstage, St Vincent seems a bit lonely and drained - maybe burnt-out like the rest of us. Like the character from her film (and much like the selves we project on social media) she provides evidence that the plastic, perfect figure is unsustainable in real life. I expect her to come out with a bang, but she holds back and opens with older material - ‘Marry Me’, ‘Cruel’, and ‘Digital Witness’ - all stripped down to sparse arrangements. Her voice wavers at times and despite her appearance (meticulously constructed, of course, complete with hot-pink patent-leather thigh-high boots), she is vulnerable.

It’s two-thirds through the show before we get to hear material from MASSEDUCTION. Her voice (still faltering at times) and heartfelt ballads are an important assertion of vulnerability amid the neon exterior. She recognises this rupture, in ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny’ - “You saw me on magazines and TV / But if they only knew the real version of me / Only you know the secrets, the swamp, and the fear.” In an age of anxiety, and upkeep around the calculated images we market ourselves through, these songs of desperation signal frustrations and difficulties in dealing with the pressures of our contemporary world. She’s helpless, in a sense - Clark, like many of us, is enticed by the way we value images. As she sings in the title track, “I can’t turn off what turns me on,” so she embraces it.

Clark makes a brief reference to another way in which she (like the rest of us) is helpless, quickly mentioning political developments of the past year. She is at a loss as to what to say, (again, like the rest of us). Yet something tells me that the split between the beautiful, maximalist marketing campaign and the slightly hollow live show isn’t intentional. And while this time I’m not obliterated by a wild St Vincent, uninhibited shredding, frantic strobes and crowdsurfing (as with her last tour), there’s something about this inevitable split that feels important and pressing.

She is flanked no longer by band members, but by larger-than-life images of herself, poised, polished and glassy-eyed. St Vincent appears anew. Barbie-like, she smiles emptily in her visuals, as she shreds neon sheets that read a silent refusal, “NO”. Gone is the freewheeling, unbridled energy I associate with Clark. She returns accompanied only by her new brand, her new cult of personality.

Clark has cleverly co-opted marketing tools and the result is brilliant. She indulges in a guilty pleasure, a perverse fascination in this cultural phenomenon and distorted, hyperbolic narcissism. In the run-up to MASSEDUCTION, she responds to “[Insert question about how she feels about selfies]” with, “I think it’s made it a lot easier to diagnose narcissistic personality disorder.” She makes herself the butt of her own joke - “[Insert question about whether she googles herself.]” “I never google myself, that’s the one form of masturbation I really don’t enjoy.” But it’s a uncomfortable pleasure that lives in most of us, isn’t it?

She displays a kind of joy and amusement in her recent Late Show appearance on being censored to singing ‘sucker’ instead of ‘fucker’, and I wonder if this willingness to compromise extends to her marketing stints with Red Bull and Spotify. A nod suggesting, “Isn’t it shit that I have to do this?” I am reminded of the ‘Los Ageless’ video in partnership with Red Bull Music, as well as the St Vincent billboards plastered with Spotify logos - is Clark selling out? Is she playing their game? Is she despairing?

“‘[Insert question about how she has changed since the last album]’ ‘[…] I’ve gained and lost weight - I gained some and then lost some… thank you.” Despite the poised persona Clark projects in the imagery on the album, this tour feels far more personal, with everything surrounding the album sketching out various frustrations, be they personal, be they grand. With nails that read “FUCK OFF,” Clark seems tired and pissed off. She is sardonic, weary and dubious.

Her live rendition of ‘Pills’ is fun, but isn’t all-consuming, like I remember her last show to be. She launches into a mockery of the medical-industrial complex, which is also revealing around the state of people’s mental health, and the pressures to be ‘fixed’. If a little tired in its critique of dependence on substances/chemical-commercial placation, is still fun; her candy-coated show goes down fairly easily. To be confronted with a rendition of a familiar desperation and a sense of personal turmoil is somewhat comforting, but isn’t a cure-all.

The best moments of the night are all in the new material. They retain some potency in their honesty. The flexible, mutating identity of St Vincent wields candour fiercely. St Vincent gave us some sort of digital priestess, or wild cult leader. Now MASSEDUCTION gives us a politician-popstar figure, with empty answers - pretty relevant, nowadays. Her antics are at once amusing and revealing, and Clark asserts an important reminder that pop reveals the symptoms of the disease that afflicts the society around it.

With this Fear The Future tour, there’s no support act, it’s all Clark. From her directorial debut, to earlier and new music, crafted into a new show with supporting material. Though she sings, “I fear the future,” she offers some hope - within culturally stifling structures, she is still able to find a way to give so much. It's a revealing, emotive and relevant show. A testimony to pop’s ability to convey honesty and humanity, the show captures fear, love and desperation in an age of anxiety and rampant consumerism.

Photo by Maria Jose Govea

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