Outside the realm of chart-topping pop stars, there may be no working musician who manages her own image with as much exacting specificity as St. Vincent’s Annie Clark. Without the resources (or, perhaps, even the desire) to stage elaborate spectacles, Clark uses herself — her voice, her band, her guitar playing and her body — as a stage, and her videos as a way to explore the pleasures and the danger of being put on display.
In “Digital Witness,” the first single from her self-titled fourth album — or rather, the album titled after her musical alter ego — Clark explores the (illusory?) clarity of modern visual imagery, freed from film grain and physical imperfection: “People turn the TV on, it looks just like a window.” But is it?
St. Vincent’s videos return again and again to the theme of watching and being watched, with Clark on both ends of the telescope. In “Marrow,” her first video, Clark draws the attention of several groups of onlookers as she walks by the side of the road:
In “Cruel,” Clark feels the eyes of a family upon her as she shops at a convenience store:
While in “Cheerleader,” she’s literally on display, a giant, initially inert body laid out, face-down in an art museum:
But in “Actor,” she turns the tables. Here’s she’s the one watching, impassively evaluating a string of actors as they audition for her. Even more unnervingly, she’s watching us as well, staring straight into the camera:
For the most part, Clark avoids meeting the camera’s eye. In “Digital Witness,” she rolls her eyes back in her sockets and gazes into the middle distance, a faint hint of a private smile creasing her lips:
But for an artist to not be seen is to cease to exist — or at least, to have to go back to her day job. Turning herself inside-out is Clark’s vocation.
The Eyes Have It
In her videos, Clark is a deliberately unemotive, almost catatonic presence. She walks through the world without being part of it. There’s no audience, no band; the only time you see her playing guitar is in the trunk of a car with a bag over her head. (I’m excluding the goofy Portlandia-themed video for “Laughing With a Mouthful of Blood,” which basically feels like a tossed-off lark.)
But her eyes tell a different story. Clark has the bodily sense of an experienced actor, and she knows how to do a lot with a little. Her on-camera gaze is a powerful and frightening thing, rarely used but devastating when it is. (No wonder those actors are reduced to sobs.) It’s almost always a moment of accusation, an unnerving breaking of the fourth wall that reminds us: “I know you’re watching me.” And it’s usually associated with pain, either given or received. The construction of the gaze in St. Vincent’s videos is a fundamentally masochistic one: It imprisons Clark, but it also sustains her. When her larger-than-life sculpture breaks free of her chains in “Cheerleader,” she enjoys a few moments of freedom, but then she literally crumbles under her own weight, falling to earth and shattering like a porcelain doll. And yet even then, she still sees us watching her. And, of course, she’s smiling.
In “Digital Witness,” Clark’s eyes are fixed, and then they swing loose as if a paralytic agent has just worn off.
Ghost in the Machine
Elsewhere, it’s as if her body’s being controlled by an outside source, or maybe she just can’t trust it. In fact, Vincent’s videos are full of mechanized movements. In “Marrow,” the people trailing Clark are frozen in their tracks as the camera moves them back and forth…
…while in “Digital Witness,” the people themselves have become machines, marching in unison…
…or meaninglessly rolling their pencils back and forth.
Clark sometimes even casts herself as a machine:
But in the video for “Who,” from her collaborative album with David Byrne, Love This Giant!, she pokes fun at the process, awkwardly trying to mimic Byrne’s stilted but unpredictable moves:
Clark’s collaboration was a surprising one, but it continues to bear fruit on St. Vincent. Byrne, who met the Talking Heads’ Chriz Frantz when they were students at the Rhode Island School of Design, has always had a knack for incorporating a kind of unassuming conceptual art into the context of a rock concert, and for adding art-school flair to music without dampening its visceral appeal. Clark, who attended the Berklee College of Music for three years, is a virtuosic player, but there are times when her music feels more preoccupied with technique than communication. But on St. Vincent, she has her priorities in order: “If I can’t show it, you can’t see me. What’s the point in doing anything?”
Although Clark’s not one to let her hair down — she’s headed in quite the opposite direction, in fact — her videos have been a place for her to undermine the tortured severity of her music, both embodying it and poking fun at it. Witness the playfully morbid taken on her own abduction and murder in “Cruel,” where she sings to the camera from the bottom of her own rapidly filling grave.
Envisioning your own death can be a frightening thing, but for Annie Clark, it’s a sick joke, one that she’s laughing at out of the corner of her mouth.