By Amanda Silberling
An eponymous album marks a major moment in an artist’s career. For women, owning one’s work, body, and artistry can be especially powerful, even political. Throughout Women’s History Month, MTV News is highlighting some of these iconic statements from some of the biggest artists on the globe. This is Self-Titled.
My friend died about a month ago, which is still hard for me to understand. We remember it when her relatives tag her in Facebook posts, throwing every picture they have of her into the digital ether, desperate to make sure she will continue to exist. Or, we remember it when we log onto Spotify and we no longer see what songs she’s listening to.
St. Vincent made a similar observation eight years ago, that the social internet isn’t built to accommodate death, or to determine what it really means when someone stops logging on.
“I’m entombed in a shrine / Of zeroes and ones / You know,” she sings on “Huey Newton.” She isn’t just saying “you know” because it sounds good with the music — she tells us that we know, because of course we know. Anyone who has lost anyone since the advent of the internet knows.
St. Vincent’s self-titled record came out in early 2014, a digital moment before TikTok, and before we all had to learn what NFTs are. Looking back, the record put a novel spin on the idea of timelessness. We call something timeless when it would’ve made just as much sense hundreds of years ago as it does now, but these days, technology is so entrenched in our lives that when musicians ignore the contemporary moment, it can sometimes feel like an element of how we interact with the world is missing. For those of us who grew up on the internet — who remember listening to “Birth in Reverse” for the first time via a Tumblr post, when some fellow teen girl blogger observed how surprising it was to hear St. Vincent sing the word “masturbate” in the first single on an eponymous album — it’s hard to imagine a time when you wouldn’t find out that your friend died via Instagram DM.
It’s probably not a coincidence that I found comfort from St. Vincent in a time of grief. It’s gritty and fuzzy, sometimes angry, occasionally reverent, yet still a fun listen.
“I set out to make a party record you could play at a funeral,” St. Vincent, whose real name is Annie Clark, told NME at the time of release. She gravitated toward these contradictions, saying that she wants her music to reside in the middle of the Venn diagram of approachability and lunacy. Immediately after saying this, she tried to explain on mainstream television that there’s a bit of “technoshamanism” in her music, nodding to the conflation of spiritual and technological themes — so much for approachability!
“Everything we do is sort of [a performance]… You’re wearing that suit, and I have this hair, and we’re communicating things about ourselves in this analog way,” she said on The Colbert Report in 2014, sporting her white, teased bob and a dark, smoky eye. “But we now have this other realm, which is the digital realm, to recreate ourselves, to make digital versions of ourselves.”
When we talk about these dual personhoods — our online projections and our “true” selves — usually we’re talking about how our curated Instagram grids aren’t reflective of reality. But already in 2014, when Instagram boasted merely 200 million users, compared to its 1.4 billion today, St. Vincent nodded to the fact that the internet isn’t all bad. For queer kids trying to figure out who they are, maybe it’s good to be able to try new identities on the internet, connecting with others who are going through the same experiences. What if we consider that our online personas might be more real than the ones we inhabit in daily life?
St. Vincent knew that before we did. As she sang on “Digital Witness,” “People turn the TV on / It looks just like a window, yeah.” And there’s that affirmation, again, that she knows more than us: the “yeah” of it all. Yeah, we know that social media has taken over our lives, and it’s probably too late to reverse course. But is that always all bad?
Sometimes, it seems like the person St. Vincent gets to be in her music is a refuge from who she has to be in real life — a musician with the pressures of answering questions from press about who she is, or more accurately, who they think she is. How many articles were shared online praising her refusal to respond to queries about “being a woman in music,” or declining to identify as a “female headliner” of an Australian festival?
On “Prince Johnny,” she introduces us to a kind of gender fluid royalty: “You’re kind but you’re not simple / By now I think you know the difference,” she sings to describe a character who considers what it means to be a “real boy” or a “real girl.”
While promoting St. Vincent, a Rolling Stone reporter straight-up asked Clark if she “identifies as either gay or straight,” as though those could be the only two responses to a question about sexual identity.
“I don’t think about those words. I believe in gender fluidity and sexual fluidity. I don’t really identify as anything,” she responded. “I think you can fall in love with anybody. I don’t have anything to hide […] but I’d rather the emphasis be on music.”
Clark appears on the cover of her self-titled album, styled the same way she was in that Colbert interview, sitting on a white throne. Of course, there’s religious iconography involved in her music — just consider her stage name, plus her claim that her grandmother baptized her “with a cigarette in one hand and a martini in another.” She positions herself as a holy figure who also happens to be a robot; while touring this record, she performed choreographed dances on stage that made her look like an animatronic.
She made it clear during the promotion of St. Vincent that she exists in her body, but that she is more than just a body. It was during this time that she collaborated with Ernie Ball to develop her signature guitar, designed to make room “for a breast, or two.” Yet she still didn’t answer “women in music” questions, even voicing her discomfort with being called a woman (“Am I a female? I forget,” she said). During an era of music journalism when asking an artist their sexual orientation or gender identity wasn’t seen for the invasive question it is, she proved that a body isn’t always a complete reflection of oneself. What’s it like to be someone with boobs on stage? Sometimes, they get in the way.
On St. Vincent, Clark introduces herself as a cyborgian deity on her pure white, innocent throne, yet she also firmly tells us who she is outside of this performance: someone who doesn’t owe us any more information than what she’s willing to share.
“I decided to self-title my new album because I was reading Miles Davis’s biography, and he talks about how the hardest thing for any musician to do is to learn how to play like yourself,” Clark said at the time. “I think I did that on this record.” And whether she’s calling herself a heretical “Bad Believer” or preparing us to cope with death, she plays like herself on St. Vincent.