St. Vincent Has Mastered the Art of Playing By Her Own Rules

Annie Clark is having all the fun these days. She does her best to hide it, be it as a would-be cult leader or a guitar-shredding robot. But, as happened on several occasions at Austin City Limits last weekend, it still comes through with the occasional smirk or beaming smile: when she lifts her guitar up and aims it at her fans, as though opening fire on them; when she marches around stage in unison with her bandmate Toko Yasuda; or when she climbs down into the crowd to take a selfie. Being St. Vincent is serious business, but it's also a blast.

And why shouldn't it be? Her latest album, February's St. Vincent, is arguably the best of 2014, and her reputation as an artist is nearly impeccable. Remarkably, she's managed to completely liberate herself and her art in so doing, and she's done it all on her own terms.

See also: Does Dallas Want Its Own Austin City Limits? St. Vincent Confuses the Masses on Saturday Night Live The Bulletproof Altar of St. Vincent

Clark's latest incarnation certainly has the appearance of a reinvention. The cover of St. Vincent, which she describes wryly as "party music made for a funeral," presents her with a wild shock of white, blown-out hair, seated on a throne and dressed in a glittering gown. An even bigger transformation has come in her stage show: Where Clark, who grew up in Dallas before relocating to Brooklyn, once engaged in playful banter with her audience and crowd surfed during her shows, she now recites a scripted speech and has choreographed dance moves.

Some of the new routine feels unnecessary. While her set was one of the highlights of ACL last weekend (she'll be back again this Friday), St. Vincent's music doesn't really need any gimmicks to be effective. It may even be a distraction. Part of it can likely be explained by a push to appeal to an arena audience: As a band like Arcade Fire has recently proven (with spotty success), that push from indie darling to mainstream success often means bringing a "spectacle" along.

But this is also something Clark has been building toward. Both as a public figure and as an artist, she has always been an enigma, at once staying carefully guarded about her private life while wrapping her music in cryptic messages and impressionistic imagery. Even David Byrne, who worked with Clark on their 2012 collaboration Love This Giant, admitted he knew little about her after a year of touring together. This latest iteration of St. Vincent is merely the latest facade that Clark has built around herself.

Creating that barrier has had a subtle but significant effect. It's basically allowed Clark to control the conversation around her and her art. It's rare that commentary on her music revolves around her gender, as is so often the case for female performers. Even her exceptional skills as a guitarist don't get as much attention as they deserve. Instead, her work is treated as a bit of a mystery, a subject that others approach with curiosity and relatively few preconceived ideas.

With her new "cult leader" persona, Clark has made a move not unlike Janelle Monáe. From the time she released The ArchAndroid, Monáe has presented herself as an alien, an outsider to the human race. She's used that alter-ego, a self-constructed "other," to explore complicated gender and social issues, becoming a champion for marriage equality while avoiding having her opinions pigeonholed. Never is Monáe's character more convincing than during her live show, where her superhuman stamina and dazzling dance moves make her a force of nature.

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Jeff Gage
Contact: Jeff Gage

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