Masseduction by St Vincent, (2017)
...And The Times My Life Moved With You, By Harry Lindsey
Artist's Pronouns: She/Her
On the evening of August 25th 2011, I was doing what I often do, trawling through music in hope of finding some hot new treasure to live alongside. I was 14 years old and about to listen to Cruel by St Vincent for the first time.
I first discovered St Vincent’s music through the now defunct NME TV channel. Darwin Deez (who is still touring and releasing music by the way) picked the video for Marrow in a curated lineup of his favourite songs. Make no mistake, I was watching for Darwin Deez. As I said, I was 14 years old. But in retroactive justice, I return to this memory for St Vincent.
I was immediately intrigued by the jagged cacophony of saxophones that erupt in Marrow’s chorus. To feed my intrigue, I quickly bought her 2009 album Actor with my pocket money. The CD span in fairly consistent rotation in my childhood bedroom, living alongside me in quiet enchantment. It was certainly a grower, an album I put the time in to loving. Now, it remains the only CD I have kept from my since donated collection. A souvenir for the beginning of my St Vincent fandom. While I still return to Actor lovingly, the love feels to of grown in retrospect, becoming a favourite for what it led to, rather than what it initially meant to me.
Strange Mercy plays a bigger part in a growing story, with Cruel being the song that gave way to something different in my St Vincent fandom, something with roots. I clicked on the inviting new YouTube video for Cruel on that August night, and for the remainder of my evening, it replayed and replayed and replayed. I had struck gold. The melodies were nothing short of addictive. Each replay imprinted the ascending choral vocal line, that
guitar riff and the sugary despair of the chorus onto me. It was an earworm I lovingly infected myself with, a melodic pop seed I was planting in my head. I left the family computer humming Cruel’s melodies, right up until I fell asleep.
The next day, my parents took me and my sisters on a family holiday to Cornwall. Roaming the beaches and hills of the Cornish coast, I was having fun, but I was without the internet and, therefore, without Cruel. All I had was whatever last night’s obsessive listening had imprinted upon me. I continued to replay the chorus and lead guitar riff over and over through hums, keeping the song alive in my head while I was away for a week. These hums were musical gardening, tending to the budding melodic crops in my brain. As soon as I returned home, I logged onto our family computer and listened to Cruel, revelling in my ability to now sing along after a week of hummed longing.
By the time my pre-ordered copy of Strange Mercy had arrived, I was no longer a mere fan of St Vincent, she had become somewhat of a god. At the very least, she was now unreal to me. The mythic relationship between a child and a rockstar had begun, as St Vincent transformed from an artist I enjoyed, to one I now idolized. My idolatry was practised through the conventions of many a music fan before me. When starting my record collection the following year, I made sure Strange Mercy was the first record I bought. When I watched her shred in her 4AD live sessions, I had to get my first guitar lessons. St Vincent had become bound to my teenage identity, with posters exhibiting my hero-worship, all across the walls of my childhood bedroom. Her image and her art were a driving influence to the person I was becoming.
These rituals of idolatry makeup a story many will recognize. An album, or piece of art, resonating with you and influencing your younger self. But St Vincent’s transformative power on me did not stop with Strange Mercy. 6 years later, St Vincent released Masseduction. I was in Austin Texas at the time, coincidentally her home state, studying for a year at the University of Texas as a part of my degree.
Being so far from home gave me a newfound confidence that expanded how I identify. The year felt like the privileged gift of a clean slate. One in which I used to explore my queerness and dip my toes into transfemininity for the first time. As clichéd as it seems, it truly was a life changing year for me. How I saw myself shifted entirely. What had existed as potential bisexuality, voiced only to online strangers when I was 14, had now been addressed, expressed and located as my own queerness, ready to be lived in and encouraged by my 20 year old self. And St Vincent’s music was there through all of this. Strange Mercy was there during those secret internet discussions that suggested queerness before I had a language for it. Masseduction was there with me in Austin when such suggestions became realities.
While venturing into new geographic and personal realms in Texas, the familiar voice of my childhood rock icon was expressing bolder and queerer music than ever before. It felt as if St Vincent refused to be cast as merely a rockstar of my own nostalgia. Instead, the Masseduction era felt like a musical induction into my queer adulthood. The artist I had come to associate with my allegedly heterosexual teen-self was now soundtracking my transformation with her queerest album to date. It is as if being a childhood icon was not enough for St Vincent. The red stiletto heel on Masseduction’s cover seemed to dig even deeper into my identity than the teeth of Strange Mercy ever could.
Masseduction, in both its musical and aesthetic world, dared to imagine a glam rock dystopia, completely devoid of men. From it’s music video world of hyper-feminine absurdity, to its live incarnations, Masseduction created a space where only the hyper feminine could survive. The powerful pinks and reds of Masseduction’s aesthetic consequently dripped with ease into my baby trans aesthetic, often in the form of women’s suits, lipstick and eye shadow. All stereotypically feminine artifices I used to express the authenticity of my own transfemininty.
The world St Vincent had created felt custom-made for my newfound desire to survive devoid of manhood too. But it was not just for me, Masseduction was St Vincent’s most commercially successful album to date, suggesting that an imagined hyper-feminine dystopia resonated with many music listeners in 2017.
At the core of Masseduction’s dystopia is a breakup album. The lead single ‘New York’, is pure heartbreak balladry, “new love wasn’t true love, back to you love,” Annie sings. It’s a record of personal devastation. But, in the grander landscape of Masseduction, ‘New York’ is somewhat of a red(heeled)herring. St Vincent’s heartbreak is revealed to be far more than just balladry. Masseduction sees St Vincent spin Annie Clarke’s personal heartbreak into a bold, vulnerable and expansive world that swings between power and fragility. Caught between the reality of heartbreak and the power of the hyper feminine, Masseduction exists in a hypnotic contrast that became St Vincent’s most vital world to me. It was a world of queer love, femininity and ruins. Empowerment and devastation, together. These combinations felt deeply personal to me in 2017. They reflected both the potential for euphoria and devistation existing close to one another for many queer people navigating the contemporary world. The blurred binary between ‘Mass Seduction’ and ‘Mass Destruction’ that St Vincent sings on the title track expresses a feeling of queer liberation in amidst modern chaos and violence. Somewhere between seduction and destruction lies a question any newly liberated queer or trans person must now reckon with; what does it mean to be queer or trans in what feels like the end of the world?
St Vincent begins to explore this question in a raw fuzz. Masseduction starts pained and desperate, begging her lover to ‘Hang on Me’. But then, St Vincent’s grip tightens, throwing us into the medicated nightmare of ‘Pills.’ She breaks down against the rigidity of subscription-based routine, giving way to a pair of non-conformist anthems. First, she holds us down with kink and intent for the title track, all before bending the gender binary until it snaps across the pulsating rhythms of ‘Sugarboy’. It is a powerful, chaotic, vulnerable and sexy album, and that’s what discovering queerness in 2017 felt like. Even the swaying strings of Slow Disco through to the final notes of pained hope in Smoking Section allowed a personal refuge for the first few times queer nightlife left me “dancing with a ghost.” It is an album that “Fears the Future,” yet strives for love anyway.
Masseduction captures queer realities with such strength partly because of the queer notion at it’s foundation; finding authenticity within performance. Throughout St Vincent’s discography, she has adorned characters and archetypes to express herself, be it the “dirty policeman” on Strange Mercy’s title track, the literal “nurses outfit” or teacher’s “little denim skirt” she puts on in Savior or the countless John’s and Johnny’s who are sung about on every album since her first. Each album cycle is also accompanied with her own playful description of St Vincent’s latest character. Masseduction, for example, sees St Vincent as “a dominatrix at the insane asylum… just a regular girl”. These performances are used to achieve something personal, even if distorted or cloaked. On one of Masseduction’s most gorgeous moments, Happy Birthday Johnny, St Vincent even addresses the woman behind her character, singing to a Johnny who knew the “real versions of me” St Vincent asks “Annie how could you do this to me?”. On Masseduction, St Vincent artfully plays between the archetypal and deeply personal, causing me to drift in my interpretation between Annie and St Vincent, two separate figures in her work.
This duality feels like the source of what made Masseduction so transformative for me in 2017. St Vincent used queer aesthetics and performance to offer a suggestive glimpse at the human behind the music. Beneath the veil of her theatrical femininity was the “secrets, the swamp and the fear.” It was a fruitful imagining of St Vincent for it expanded what I thought I knew and loved about her into something new. Such an expansion mirrored my own, as I grew out of a hard-to-name childhood queerness into my non-binary, trans adulthood.
St Vincent became the rockstar of my childhood and adulthood slowly, as if her significance was a secret revealed across time. There wasn’t that one moment, that mythologized life-changing introduction to an artist’s music. Instead, there was intrigue, longing, obsession, ritualistic fandom, a ridiculous year of personal revelation in Texas, just so much life lived before I grappled with what her art meant to me. And perhaps, all that life is how music becomes treasured. Not becoming loved in just one pivotal moment, but in the multitudes of moments in which we return to an artist’s work, to listen, to take refuge, to live alongside. I feel extremely fortunate to of lived and gained so many moments from St Vincent’s work, and as I continue to move and grow, I’m comforted to know my fandom could shift again. St Vincent could mean something else to me later, something new. She seems to know this, singing in a pained wisdom at the end of her Masseduction, “It’s not the end… It’s not the end…”