With her new album MASSEDUCTION, she challenges long-held conventions around female queerness and glam rock alike
Ever since Marc Bolan paired virtuosic guitar solos with galaxies of eyeshadow in the early 1970s, glam rock has supplied an open arena for men, queer or otherwise, to revel in the theatre of femininity. David Bowie’s bisexual alien personae and Freddie Mercury’s multi-octave croon found sanctuary on the stage when queerness was still considered a mental disorder (and effectively a punishable offense) in the UK and the US. Glam provoked mainstream pop culture by rupturing the seams of traditional masculinities, bringing glitter, skintight jumpsuits, and other unspeakables from the gay club to the TV screen.
The transgression of femme signifiers on male bodies has historically only flowed one way. There’s a long history of women performing masculine drag – glam rock even included a few – but the dominant ethos of misogyny ensures that a woman playing male will never be as dangerous as a man playing female. Rather than being treated as boundary-smashing visionaries, butch women in music often get relegated to the sidelines, unglamorous and unexciting, just another batch of girls trying to run with the boys.
With her new album MASSEDUCTION, St. Vincent challenges long-held conventions around female queerness and glam rock alike. Annie Clark, the singer and guitarist who’s used the superficially masculine pseudonym since her 2007 debut album Marry Me, has carved out entire new sound worlds on her fretboard, bright leads that land somewhere between classic rock solos and chiptune trills. While in retrospect her performance style could easily have been called glam since her breakout album Strange Mercy came out in 2011, only recently has she pushed her aesthetic to its most garish and freeing extreme. When she slammed her head into a bass drum onstage and howled over the squall of her own guitar, she was just falling in line with the timeless antics of rock and roll. Now that she’s playing late night TV shows against backdrops that could pass for John Waters sets, she’s stepped gracefully, in sky-high stilettos, into glam.
“She’s playing late night TV shows against backdrops that could pass for John Waters sets, she’s stepped gracefully, in sky-high stilettos, into glam”
Clark is hardly the first woman performer to adopt a surrealist, hyper-saturated aesthetic, but the world of MASSEDUCTION feels conspicuously isolated from the rest of contemporary pop. Videos for the new St. Vincent songs “New York” and “Los Ageless” are vivid, strange, and completely sterilised of men. The only other figures to populate the screen besides Clark herself, who fixes her gaze unrelentingly on the camera, are women, or, in “Los Ageless”, people of indeterminate gender obscured by head-to-toe blue bodysuits. By contrast, the women who have claimed an enduring and decidedly glam space in pop tend to fill their videos with sexualized male silhouettes. Lady Gaga, who often cites David Bowie as an influence, fought her way to pop stardom by appealing explicitly to a gay male fanbase. In her video for “Alejandro”, she dances among a dozen conventionally beautiful shirtless men, teasing the gay male gaze as readily as much mainstream pop teases the straight. Gaga, who identifies as bisexual, positions herself in a maternal relationship to her young queer fans: she is Mother Monster to her Little Monsters, a femme figure consumed as a cypher for gay men’s femininity.
Gaga, of course, is only the latest iteration in a long history of female gay icons. Madonna, Cher, Donna Summer (whose disco throb St. Vincent emulates on MASSEDUCTION’s “Sugarboy"), and Grace Jones (whose inventive videos are clear forebears to “New York” and “Los Ageless”) have all historically occupied similar roles in relation to gay men. Just as gay boys and men tend to first experience femininity by proxy, these singers in exchange experience queerness by proximity. Their glamor becomes queer not because of any personal sexual preferences, but by how their presence is consumed and invigorated by their fanbases. When these singers transgress gender norms by way of masculine drag or heightened androgyny – Gaga’s male alter ego, Jones’s far-flung shoulders and flattop enmeshed with bright red lipstick – they do so in identification with gay men more than with queer and gender-noncomforming women.
By contrast, St. Vincent barely seems to acknowledge the existence of men at all in her new work. In her videos, she stares at the camera with the same challenge Bowie held in his eyes when he flung his arm around his bandmate on Top of the Pops in 1972, the same defiance you could see on Freddie Mercury’s face as he waggled a painted fingernail at the camera in 1974. Clark’s look echoes the look of men who knew they were breaching the boundaries of accepted masculinity, but she presents resolutely femme, in dresses and a straightened bob and lipstick. It is almost an impossible look: to be a woman in high femme and gaze into the camera as though you are getting away with something.
In addition to being her most aesthetically daring work, MASSEDUCTION is also Clark’s first release since she pursued a highly visible relationship with actress Cara Delevingne, whose voice appears in snippets – it’s not clear which ones – across the album. The couple broke up in 2016, and both “New York” and “Los Ageless” function like deliciously bitter breakup songs. “How could anybody have you and lose you and not lose their minds, too?” Clark asks on “Los Ageless”, her voice boundlessly multitracked to create an effect reminiscent of Queen’s dense harmonies. On “New York”, she sings, “You’re the only motherfucker in this city that can handle me,” pronouncing “motherfucker” like a pet name – a little mischievous but not at all unkind. That both songs so clearly address heartbreak and yet maintain their high glam artifice divides them from most contemporary queer breakup lamentations. Their closest analog might be found on Sufjan Stevens’s 2010 album The Age of Adz, which paired deep mourning with fantastical electronic play, and even there Sufjan’s voice cuts to the bone. Clark, on the other hand, works through the pain by dousing it in glitter and never once showing a crack in her poise. Like Bowie’s, her voice maintains a certain theatricality; even at its emotional extremes, it sounds as though it is issuing not from Annie Clark, but from St. Vincent, Clark’s fabulous outer shell.
That so much of the past decade’s best queer music – Perfume Genius, Torres, Julien Baker, Shamir – has mined deep sadness is not surprising. To be queer is to endure a lot of bullshit. Plus, most of the sad songs that already exist are straight, and the loss of a queer relationship can feel doubly alienating — not only did you get dumped, you got dumped out of a coupling that’s minimally represented in popular culture. There’s a tendency, perhaps, among queer artists to be as forthright and openhearted as possible, to proclaim that their pain is real, that they are real, they exist. That bloodletting is often lifesaving, and the songs are often beautiful. But the joy of glam, its enduring appeal, is that it offers a chance to crawl out of that hurt place into the blinding artificial light bouncing off the disco ball, to shake your joints loose and find your secret freedom in the slip of strangers’ bodies.
“The joy of glam, its enduring appeal, is that it offers a chance to crawl out of that hurt place into the blinding artificial light bouncing off the disco ball”
In his 2006 book Performing Glam Rock, Philip Auslander writes, “Glam rock treated the stage as a liminal space in which things could happen that had no necessary counterpart in external reality.” St. Vincent’s assumption of contemporary glam treats her music videos and recorded songs the same way. In addition to her gleefully artificial sets, she embraces pop music’s most delightful fakeries: big, brash drum machines, bright synths, and vocals manipulated so heavily they might have been programmed from scratch. On the album’s title track Clark professes her horniness for the entire human race; on “Sugarboy”, she riles up both poles of the gender spectrum. “I am a lot like you (boys!) / I am alone like you (girls!),” she sings, her voice dipping to the bottom of her register and then swinging all the way back up to the top. The world she oversees as a benevolent monarch is one where femininity is the norm and sexual fluidity as natural as any multivalent appetite.
Masseduction has as much fun as any recent glam rock album, and its more muted, sorrowful moments supply a necessary tonal counterweight without breaking its spell. It’s one of the few major cultural objects to cut loose into vivid erotics without ever paying too much attention to male sexuality. The freedom to embrace glam without worrying what the boys think has long been the pursuit of queer femme circles, but it’s rarely been reflected in the mainstream. St. Vincent, now a pop figure in her own right, lets the otherwise dominant vectors of male desire fall by the slice of her patent leather boots. Her high glam, high femme fantasy might not be the real world, but it’s a welcome escape.