Natalie Bergner is one of our summer interns at Ma’yan. This post is part of our series on women’s voices in popular media.
“Ugliness is confrontational in a way that is really kind of satisfying,” states Annie Clark in an interview with fellow female musician Merrille Garbus of tUne-yArDs.Clark, who is the Dallas-raised founder/vocalist/guitarist/co-producer and everything in-between of the highly acclaimed St. Vincent, embodies strength, courage and originality in her music. She embraces “ugliness” and rejects the typical “pretty-voice” of female artists. In the interview mentioned above, Clark expresses her frustration with the repetitive question: “What is it like to be a woman in the music industry?” For Clark, this is a belittling inquiry. But is it really unfair that she is asked this question over and over? Have we actually reached a point in which our society can look past gender and believe that Clark’s experiences as a woman don’t influence or change her existence as a musician?
Clark began playing guitar when she was twelve as a means of expressing herself in “a way that’s beautiful or really aggressive.” She is unorthodox in her compilation of musical styles and instruments. She uses vocal loops, multiplying her voice so that there is a symphony of Annie Clarks reverberating on her tracks. Not only does it seem like an act of feminism to use one’s voice as a means of self-assertion, but Clark’s lyrics also convey a certain amount of anger with the way in which women are treated, or the way in which women downplay their strengths in order to appease others.
Off her newest album, Strange Mercy, on the track “Cheerleader,” Clark writes about the American phenomenon of cheerleading, rejecting it for the ways in which it might misrepresent or mistreat girls. She sings:
I’ve played dumb
When I knew better
Tried so hard
Just to be clever
But I-I-I-I-I don’t wanna be your cheerleader no more
But I-I-I-I-I don’t wanna be your cheerleader no more
Although this is only one interpretation of Clark’s lyrics, she does grapple with the ways in which girls often find themselves suppressing their personalities and intelligence in order to fit in. She conveys a sense of frustration with herself for having “played dumb when [she] knew better,” for not having been honest about her character and opinions. Through a feminist lens, Clark is figuratively asserting her power over this American phenomenon, cheerleading, in which young women falsify their individuality to please others.
The music video for “Cheerleader” illustrates the objectification of women. The video begins with a simple close up of Clark’s face as she sings. At the chorus the camera zooms out and we experience the gallery space in which Clark resides, being observed by a room full of people. She is giant in the small white cube of the gallery; she is a statue attached to ropes, which three men pull in order to make her stand. Clark symbolically represents the way in which women are perceived, as objects to be looked at, objects that must be perfected like a sculpted statue.
Although I see both her music and more specifically this song as an expression of feminism, how can I reconcile my perception of Clark as a feminist with her view of how gender shapes her music and her experiences in the music industry? For Clark, the only difference between her experience and a man’s is that “men are never asked: what’s it like to be a guy in rock and roll?” “Even asking [the question] is like saying: you poor thing, what’s it like?” Ideally, an interviewer would never have to pose such a question because it would be irrelevant, but as it stands women are still the exception in the world of rock and roll. So how do we discuss gender and feminism in a way that isn’t condescending or offensive? I’m not offering a solution to the problem, and although I am not in Clark’s shoes and have not had her experiences, I don’t believe that we can stop asking the question just yet. If we ignore the question then we ignore a fundamental issue which is that there are still less female rock-and-roll artists than there are male; and to bring this discussion to a larger scale, most powerful jobs still seat more men than women. By discussing our experiences as women we hope to incite societal change.Yet, simply because Clark is irritated by this inquiry does not mean she isn’t a feminist or has perceived sexism inaccurately. That my belief differs from hers does not abate her opinions.
Outspoken in the face of pressures towards perfection and vocal about her unique musical choices, Clark captures some of the feminist qualities that we think about here at Ma’yan. As the new intern I chose this topic for my first blog post because it seemed relevant to the subject for the upcoming Research Training Internship program which will address critical questions such as: “who is the perfect girl and what does a girl have to do to be like her? What are the secrets to her success? What happens when girls try to live up to these expectations?” In interviews, Clark often speaks about her aggression and feelings of alienation in her youth. By rejecting perfectionism, something many girls struggle with, especially in their teens, Clark carves her own path. She doesn’t sound like a trained vocalist, singing in a melodic harmonious manner. She sings from a place a raw emotion, making herself vulnerable with vocal imperfections. Because of her openness and strength I see Clark as a powerful female figure, a role model for aspiring musicians and a role model for teen girls. In Clark’s words, the “thing that keeps [her] going” is the ability of her music to “weave its way into [kids] lives” that it “can be a voice for something that they [can’t] necessarily express yet.”