My parents are experts in a crowded field: pointing out when they think something is needlessly overpriced, a sign of vanity or status-seeking or what have you. Based on what they say and do in fancy restaurants, I can reasonably theorize that f they saw someone paying extra for a chair because it was designed by Charles and Ray Eames, and not because it was demonstrably more comfortable or infinitely more stylish than the alternatives, they wouldn’t waste a second in lamenting that person’s decision, sometimes when still in earshot of said person. I find it embarrassing when others judge people that way, at least out loud. But I do it too, because I can’t imagine why anyone would get really excited about St. Vincent’s new record unless they were doing it for extra-musical reasons. It’s basically an Eames chair.
Calling music the equivalent of furniture sounds like the worst kind of insult. But furniture can be beautiful and inspiring, even when it’s mass-produced and highly commoditized. St. Vincent the album is frequently inspiring and sometimes beautiful, but it’s also furniture. Its fans display it as a way of broadcasting their good taste to fellow connoisseurs, whereas most people would just see it as something that serves its purpose as well as anything else – to fill an empty room.
Annie Clark’s trajectory has seen her music moving ever closer to the pop side of the spectrum, and on this disc, her first for a major label, she appears to have almost completely made the switch. Her guitar tone has become so processed that it basically sounds like a synth; although the record features real drummers, you’d never know it from the mechanical, loop-sounding and often sample- or software-based drum tracks; and Clark’s theatrical bearing as a vocalist bears more than a passing resemblance to Lady Gaga. I’m sure that’s not deliberate, but still, the distance between a St. Vincent record and a contemporary hip-hop or R&B record is demonstrably shrinking. When Kanye puts a song on his record called “Black Skinhead” with a Gary Glitter-style beat and St. Vincent has a breakbeat-led track called “Huey Newton,” and they both have loping, distorted bass riffs, where’s the line drawn?
None of this is bad per se. Or at least, it wouldn’t be, if I was really enjoying the music.Â I didn’t feel this way about St. Vincent’s last three albums, but althoughÂ this new disc does a lot of things well, it doesn’t especially succeed as pop. It does, however, signify as something other than just straight-up commercial pop music, and that’s what bothers me.
Saying you like St. Vincent and other indie-rock-associated acts (the ones that might appear on the cover of Exclaim, for example – the editors aren’t putting Beyonce on there, even though they and their readers are almost certainly as interested in her music as they are in Haim or The Darcys or St. Vincent) is a certain sign of sophistication. It seems as though the way to present yourself today, if you’re a hip and clued-in young person, is to have a diversified portfolio of music in your iTunes. Listening to St. Vincent shows you’re sophisticated enough to spend time thinking about what she means by the lineÂ in “Prince Johnny” about snorting part of the Berlin Wall, but the Justin Timberlake tracks up next on your playlist prove that you’re not too pretentious to resist an old-fashioned love song or a funky groove. So what if it has a huge marketing budget and lyrics that a four-year-old could explain? I’m as comfortable in heels at a fancy do as I am in sweatpants curled up watching True Blood on the couch. (Right.)
Problem is, I can’t actually picture dancing to any of the album, or even humming its ragged melodies after hearing them, but neither do I find its arty aspects especially riveting. The lush orchestrations of Actor and Strange Mercy are gone, making the oblique and slightly clunky poetry of the lyrics harder to ignore. “Oh what an ordinary day / take out the garbage, masturbate” is not going to land its author in the hall of fame for wit. Also,Â I don’t find the horn riffs in “Digital Witness” as compelling as the TNGHT horn riff in “Blood On The Leaves.” They’re sort of playing the same role in both songs. They just work better in the Kanye one.
And there’s what annoys me: everything about the way St. Vincent is presented – by the media, by her marketing team, by her fans – suggests that there’s something more substantial, more artistic in a song whose meaning is couched, rather than a Britney Spears song that’s obviously and straightforwardly about sex, or a break-up, or whatever. If someone lists an act like St. Vincent on their Facebook profile as one of their favourites, we’re meant to realize they’re sophisticated enough to appreciate art from beyond the narrow confines of what’s wildly popular. But this album has very little merit as a showcase for poetic lyrics, or for unconventional sonics; ultimately, it would fit more than comfortably in chart pop’s narrow confines if it weren’t for those pseudopoetic lyrics and unconventional yet mostly uninspired sonic departures. It wouldn’t be a raging success by pop’s criteria either, but at least it wouldn’t be a prop for pretentious people to flaunt their indie cred. The fact that only a tiny fraction of people listening to Reflektor have any interest in, say, Italo disco compilations, is annoying because it’s not really a matter of the Arcade Fire (actually, James Murphy) taking the influence of Italo and doing a better job of being populist with those elements. It’s purely about marketing, and indie cred. Win Butler must be saying something more profound than some disco guy moaning about the love he lost or something, Cmon, Butler plays guitar!
In the case of St. Vincent, I don’t think it’s fair to attribute any of this to Clark herself – it’s not at all clear that she’s deliberately trying to massage the reception of her music and image in order to be more popular, at least not in the way I’ve described. In fact I think she should be applauded for seizing the opportunity to sign to a major label and go for a full-on pop career, if that’s what she wants. But that doesn’t change my feeling that if someone decides to trumpet their love for this album on social media, I’m not crazy for being a bit suspicious about what their true motivation is, and what they’re really trying to tell you – about themselves.