St Vincent. Photo: Getty
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“It’s cool that some people hate my show”: St Vincent on fan backlash and Chinese massages

The singer messages me on Twitter the next day. “Dude!” she says, “I’m sorry I was a cock.”

Maybe if St Vincent and I had got massages together, things would have been different. If we’d gone for a hike in the scorching midday sun of Burbank, California, or sat in a small pink box getting high off paint fumes, perhaps we’d have had a better time. She’s done those things with other journalists during this press cycle, in an effort to disrupt the stale dynamic of interviews  –  of which, she told BBC Music from inside that newly painted box, she’s done “a million”. As it is, we’re sitting in her room on the 12th floor of a London hotel, and things aren’t going well.

St Vincent, AKA Annie Clark, is in the early stages of a 37-date world tour in support of her new album, Masseduction. The shows –  which she’s doing without a band, opting instead to accompany her own fearsome guitar with rearranged backing tracks  – are fascinating, sometimes exhilarating affairs. She doesn’t throw herself around the stage in a self-flagellating fervour, as she did a few years ago on the Digital Witness tour, nor this time has she employed the shuffling, robotic choreography of Annie-B Parson.

Instead, Clark exposes herself in a different way –  by carrying the show alone. As a blue curtain gradually pulls back to reveal nothing in particular, she places herself in various positions across the stage. Sometimes she faces the audience, sometimes she stands side-on as if utterly unaware of their presence. At one point she curls up in the foetal position on the floor. The idea, she says, is to plot the trajectory from fear to freedom.

“Some people loved it and were brought to tears and thought it was the best thing they’d ever seen, and then some people were incensed by it,” Clark explains. She was in Manchester last night, London the night before. Now, she’s draped over a black chaise-longue, demonstrably exhausted, her feet spilling on to the armchair beside her (when I ask if she’s tired, she says flatly, “I don’t care, my emotions are irrelevant.”)

Does she mind that the shows, particularly her decision to play without a live band, have received such a polarised response? “Whatever,” she says. “I think it’s cool that some people hate it.” She rolls her neck around to glance at me –  the semi-horizontal position she’s taken has thus far meant minimal eye contact. “Did you hate the show?”

Not at all, I tell her. I really liked it. Then I add, in an effort to avoid bland effusiveness and because she’s still looking at me with a sceptical eyebrow raise, that perhaps I found it more intriguing than moving, and anyway it would have been hard to beat the experience I had seeing her at End Of The Road festival a few years ago. I realise too late that my words have landed with a leaden thud. 

“Great,” Clark says. “It’s the third show. I mean, when I played End Of The Road, that was one of the last dates I did. Tours take a while to alchemise.” She pauses. “Also, if a rapper got up on stage and didn’t have a live band, which most of them don’t, no one would be bummed at all. Why is the assumption that I need to have a live band onstage for something to be authentic? It’s about the management of expectation, and I think it’s similar to people thinking that they have a glass of milk, and then they drink it and it’s Sprite. ‘I don’t like this.’ Actually you like Sprite too, you just weren’t expecting it.”

St. Vincent has made a career out of giving people something they weren’t quite expecting. Her music is bold and melodic  – but only if you catch it at certain angles, like a magic eye book that only makes sense if you squint the right way. With each album since her chamber pop debut Marry Me a decade ago, she’s pushed her sound further towards a place between beauty and ugliness, aggression and vulnerability, adding scuzzy synth layers, distorted guitar riffs so heavy they drag half a second behind the beat, and lyrics both profoundly moving and a little grotesque  –  images of severed fingers, for example, that anchor a tale of drunken heartbreak.

Masseduction, her fifth LP (or sixth, if you count her David Byrne collaboration Love This Giant), is a poignant, kinky masterpiece. It’s a work of staggering frankness, with anthemic pop melodies that float atop crunchy riffs and gasping synths, as Clark’s fingers wring out every peculiarly arresting sound a guitar can make. She has a pithy tagline for each of her albums. 2011’s Strange Mercy was housewife on pills; her self-titled record was near-future cult leader; this one is dominatrix at the mental institution.

She sings of loss and depression, of BDSM and pill popping, vacuous cities and self-destructive urges. Her voice is pure and resplendent, but it also creaks, stretches into a sigh or plummets to a growl. On “Hang On Me”, as she pleads with someone, “Please, oh please don’t hang up yet,” a million unsaid things pour into the cracks in her voice.

“If you want to know about my life,” she told fans in a statement when the album was announced – aware both of her historic inscrutability and of the increased thirst for personal revelations her relationship with supermodel Cara Delevingne had prompted – “listen to this record”.
Clark performing this Summer. Photo: Getty

In the past, Clark has recoiled at the suggestion that her songs are diaristic, saying that such an idea “presupposes –  in a kind of sexist way  –  this idea that women lack the imagination to write about anything other than their exact literal lives.” Still, this record is a little different to the others. “It’s very close to my heart. It’s not literal, because if it was literal it wouldn’t be art, but you know, it’s very heart on sleeve.”

Is there a particular way she hopes people interpret it? “No,” she says, exasperated. “There’s not. I’m happy to be misunderstood. It’s not even about being ‘misunderstood’, it’s just up for interpretation. Any interpretation is fine, as long as it’s not, ‘She’s a racist, sexist or homophobe’. I’d be bummed if someone thought that. I’m not the one writing the think pieces on it. That’s not my job. My job’s to make a thing, it’s not to do all the interpreting and explaining. That’s didactic, and shows a profound lack of respect for the audience’s intelligence.”

Hoping she might be open to at least a small amount of explaining, I put it to Clark that there’s a restless quality to the album. She’s quite often leaving, or being left, or wanting to leave. On “Slow Disco”, a plaintive orchestral waltz and one of the most beautiful songs she’s written, she asks, “Am I thinking what everybody’s thinking? I’m so glad I came, but I can’t wait to leave.” Did she notice that theme running through the album’s veins? “Yes.” I wait for more, but instead she pulls her phone out of her pocket and starts typing. “Keep asking away.”

I do as she says, but the air in the room is uncomfortable. I wonder if I should clarify what I said about the show, but I think the moment’s passed. I forge on instead. In a previous interview, Clark said that “Slow Disco” was about how “the life you’re living, and the life you should be living, are running parallel.” Is there a life she feels she should be living? “Yeah,” she says, phone still out. “I should be in Turks and Caicos with a fucking pina colada coming out of a coconut, just getting a sick tan.” 

“I mean, I don’t even think I should be living,” she adds, before puffing air out of her lips. “Hilarious joke. No, I feel super lucky that I’m living the life I am. Everything I’ve ever done, every person I’ve ever met, every experience I’ve ever had, is because I got good enough at moving my fingers at micro-movements across a piece of wood and steel. That’s bonkers.”

That’s a fairly self-deprecating assessment of how St Vincent got to where she is. Her inimitable skill at moving her fingers at micro-movements across a piece of wood and steel  – more commonly known as playing the guitar  –  is part of it, but there’s an intrigue and charisma to her music, and the persona she presents, that goes far beyond technica​l skill. It’s an intangible talent, one that has steadily drawn her into the limelight – though it was her self-titled fourth album that really thrust her into the big leagues, topping a handful of Albums of 2014 lists, and earning her a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album. 
Clark with ex-girlfriend Cara Delevingne. Photo: Getty.

Then she fell in love with someone unthinkably famous, and was thrust into a more insidious kind of limelight, the kind where paparazzi followed her around, where tabloid journalists tricked her relatives into revealing painful personal information, the kind that fuelled her anxiety and depression. Though being on the road for endless stretches of time didn’t help with that. In an appearance on the New Yorker’s podcast, she said that between her self-titled album and this one, she needed to do a “radical reorganising of my life in order to fulfil my destiny as a creative person”.

“Oh my god! Who am I, Jim Jones?” she says laughing, when I quote this back to her. “Wow. I said that? It’s like a Paulo Coelho meets Jim Jones inspirational talk. I think I meant that I was just in a monastic period, I just wasn’t drinking or having sex or really doing anything that you’d consider fun.” The only pleasure she allowed herself was getting Chinese massages in New York City. I’ve never had a massage, I tell her. Perhaps I have a lifetime of tension. She looks aghast. “You probably do. You carry it with you, you know?”

Did she find it helpful, this monastic period? “Oh it was so generative. I got so much done. Completely eschewing certain things that can otherwise take up a fair amount of time left so much time to be productive. I really loved that time. Being on tour is just a different kind of energy. It’s performance all the time. Obviously I’m not putting on my best performance for you today.” She laughs again. The icy atmosphere is starting to melt, but our time’s up.

I bid Clark goodbye. She would get up, she says, but she’s too tired. I’m glad we managed to drag the encounter towards conviviality, but  –  though I’m sure she won’t spend another second dwelling on it  –  I don’t think either of us had much fun.

The next morning, my phone buzzes. Clark’s messaged me on Twitter. “Dude!” she says, “I’m sorry I was a cock.” She explains that she was exhausted, “which is not an excuse”, but that she’d felt especially defensive because she’d been getting negative tweets about the show all day, and had thought my comments were an attempt to go for the jugular. “I really misread the interaction,” she says, “and have been feeling horribly guilty ever since. I thought you were just there to tell me my show sucked and I got real defensive and yeah, it went downhill from there.”

As it turns out then, her emotions aren’t irrelevant. She feels things deeply, all the time. You can hear it in her music, in every riff, every crack in her voice, every line about loss, or leaving, or wanting to leave. Those negative tweets were sprinkled amongst a litany of praise, but  –  though she wore an insouciant armour when we met  –  she clung to them anyway. “You carry it with you, you know?” I hope she carries the good things too. I hope she gets some sleep.

Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa in Black Panther
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Marvel’s Black Panther and the politics of diverse superheroes

For a young child whose blackness is more important to them than mine was to me, the film will be a seminal moment.

For as long as I can remember, I have loved superheroes. I’m not sure what came first: the animated adventures of Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men or Superman. But it was the X-Men – humans who have evolved to have superpowers – that I fell in love with. The first film I saw multiple times in cinemas was X-Men 2, and the first comic book I ever bought, aged 14, was Astonishing X-Men.

The opening roster: Cyclops (white), Emma Frost (white), Kitty Pryde (white), Wolverine (white), Colossus (white) and Beast (blue). It never particularly bothered me that none of them were black. What I liked about the X-Men was that I recognised something of myself in them. They were social outcasts, feared and distrusted by humanity – the superhero community’s equivalent to the chess club in a school full of all-star athletes.

Perhaps that was why I never particularly cared for the adventures of T’Challa. A rare black superhero, by day he was the ruler of the secluded and hyper-sophisticated African country of Wakanda, and by night he protected his nation from its enemies as Black Panther. Empowered not by mutation but by magic, and aided by his vast wealth and martial arts training, T’Challa is as far from a social outcast as it is possible to be.

Unlike the X-Men, who tended to have an antagonistic relationship with the rest of the Marvel universe, T’Challa is a power player. Just two years after his introduction in 1966, he had joined the Avengers series, Marvel’s line-up of the world’s mightiest defenders, formed to defeat threats that no hero could tackle alone. In the 1970s, he was even asked to join the Illuminati, the secret cabal of Earth’s most influential superhumans, but declined. He is Wakanda’s defender, and his opponents operate on a global scale. In one memorable scene during Christopher Priest’s 1998 tenure of the title, the Black Panther saw off the full force of the American government, including its superheroes. I first encountered him in a gentler 2005 storyline, in which he briefly married the X-Men’s Storm. (It didn’t last. Marriage, rather like death, is only ever temporary in the world of Marvel Comics.)

Perhaps if I had been raised somewhere different, T’Challa would have excited me more. But in the hyper-diverse part of London where I grew up, being “black” was never rare or interesting enough to form part of my identity. If someone had been asked to find me at school, describing me as “black” would have been only marginally more useful than picking me out as having two arms and two legs. Instead, my identity came from the things that set me apart, and defined my friendships: a love of indie music, video games and science fiction, all of which put me firmly in the “social outcast” category along with my beloved X-Men.

For me, blackness was incidental; for T’Challa, it was essential, even though his creators, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, were both white. Part of Lee and Kirby’s genius was that they were continually borrowing from other places and ideas in a bid to keep the Marvel readership growing and to see off threats before they arrived. They already had a large nerdy and predominantly white readership: they wanted to reach out to a new audience, and so the first black superhero in mainstream comics was born.

The Black Panther name came from an African-American tank battalion that fought during the Second World War. In an astonishingly poor piece of timing, Black Panther appeared in stores in July 1966, and in October 1966 Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panthers, a far-left black nationalist political party, in Oakland, California. In the 1970s T’Challa’s alter-ego was briefly changed to the Black Leopard to avoid the association, but the rebrand didn’t stick.

As a result, T’Challa is one of just four Marvel heroes whose character is inextricably bound up with his race. (The other three are Captain America, an ordinary, white Second World War soldier given extraordinary powers; Patriot, the black present-day teenager who adored him; and Magneto, the X-Men’s greatest opponent, whose experience as a Jew during the Holocaust convinced him that humans would never accept mutants such as him as equals.) To my teenaged self, all of that bored me: better to save my money and spend it on X-Men.

So why am I so excited that Black Panther is the latest Marvel superhero to make his way from the comics to the big screen? Partly because the year I turned 18, two important things happened to me: the first was that I went away to university, and the second, not-unconnected thing was that I spent what at the time seemed an extravagant amount of money on a Batman costume. 

People often talk about their time at university in a series of clichés – I learned how to think, I found myself and so on – and here’s mine: I became black at university. Not because I experienced any racism worth talking about but simply because for the first time in my life, anyone describing me could mostly get away with “black”. At the same time, liking indie music and science fiction stopped being a distinguishing feature and became almost as everyday as my blackness had been.

As to the Batman costume, so desperate was I to ensure I got my money’s worth that I actively sought out fancy-dress parties and wore it under the thinnest of pretexts, adding the cheapest of modifications to make it fit the theme. At one point, I donned a Hawaiian lei and attended a holiday-themed party as “Batman on vacation”.

During that time, I discovered two things: the first, happily, was that a surprising number of people had a thing for Batman. The second, less happily, was that a surprising number of people felt very strongly that a black man couldn’t be Batman. Up until that point, I had seen Black Panther as an essentially dull character enlivened by a series of writers – Christopher Priest, a legendary graphic novelist, and the television producer Reginald Hudlin – who, much to my surprise, chose to slum it on the title. But as a student I began to understand why these two talented black writers found Black Panther so appealing. (Since then, the journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates has taken over the title, foregrounding the political question of whether T’Challa has a right to rule.)

The appeal of Black Panther only grew after I exchanged one crumbling and largely white Victorian institution for another in Westminster. The recent commercial success of Hidden Figures, a Hollywood feel-good film with a largely African-American cast, and the critical achievement of Moonlight, an art-house film about a black gay man, have begun to change the landscape.

If Black Panther, which not only has a black lead but a majority black cast, succeeds, my dream of seeing a screen superhero who is incidentally black – an X-Men film with a black lead; a reimagined Tony Stark/Iron Man; or perhaps even a mainstream Miles Morales, the young black teenager who in 2011 replaced Peter Parker as Spider-Man in one segment of the Marvel Universe – might get a little bit closer.

But I appreciate now that for a young child whose blackness is more important to them than mine was to me, Black Panther will be a seminal moment not because of what it might portend, but because of what it is. 

“Black Panther” is in cinemas now

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist