St. Vincent performing at Coachella 2012. Photo courtesy of Jason Persse.
Originally, this was going to be an editorial about why there aren’t more female “guitar gods” despite a general flux of underrated female talent with guitars in hand these days. Then, about 175 words into writing that draft, many of which still remain, it occurred to me that this isn’t a case of sexism – or at least not one where women are getting the short end of the stick.
If anyone out there is pissed there aren’t more bad ass chick guitar players out there, well, first off: There are plenty, we just don’t talk about them enough. After realizing that, then ask yourself this: Why would any self-respecting artist, gender aside, want to be identified as such?
For example, let’s talk about my favorite guitarist currently making incredibly relevant music: St. Vincent. Go ahead and raise a brow at her mention, but what makes Annie Clark such a catalyst for this discussion is that she bears the exact opposite problem that Jimi Hendrix had: She’s given almost too much credit for being a great songwriter and not enough for being an equally transcendent guitarist. But if you had asked Jimi yourself (or better yet, Clapton for that matter), he may have just told you he would prefer the former title over the latter.
Of course, Hendrix’s legacy has done so much to permanently weld the tone and the sound of a guitar to the mythology of his gender (they didn’t call them “Guitar Gods” until he showed up), for reasons that have more to do with just the fact that he was a man. Typically – his famous Stratocaster moments not withstanding — his tone was thick with unprecedented distortion and bawd in a way that appeared effortless and unabashedly presented. It was only fitting with the gender roles of the era that all of these forces were being courted by a man; and sure, the focus of his art on coitus probably had something to do with it too.
Thus, for two generations of ears that have been immersed in all of the genres that have blossomed from that guitar tone alone, the English speaking world has seemed to uniformly decide on one thing: Distorted guitars mean power, domination, fist-pumping, making devil horns with those fists as you’re pumping them, and, of course — manliness.
St. Vincent may have nothing to do with that boneheaded end of the musical world, but her very existence shatters the parameters of it. In the time between riotgrrl and Zooey Deschanel, she’s fulfilled a badly needed role in music highlighted by a desperate shade of tokenism.
Because of the gender stereotypes so perpetuated with guitar-based music, femininity and instrumental virtuosity are hardly ever associated, making for one of rock’s more tasteless cultural crimes. Clark’s flawless presentation of both should define her as a female guitarist, but it’s every testament to her talent and times that they don’t.
Perhaps just by writing this, I’m committing that very crime: Pigeonholing her based on her gender by saying how great it is that she hasn’t been in the past. That would make sense if she wasn’t painting with musical colors so historically tied with masculinity in a style of her very own. The music of St. Vincent — especially her second album, Actor – is frequently steeped in generous doses of distortion, clouding the intricacies of her playing that normally would be revered by hobbyists in a fog of ecstasy:
[youtube] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZW9NYX6JZA&ob=av2e [/youtube]
In her more recent work, that opaqueness has given way to clarity, allowing her playing to achieve new peaks of nuance that pepper off-kilter melodies with light dashes of dissonance:
[youtube] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Itt0rALeHE8&ob=av2e [/youtube]
While this shatters constricting gender boundaries along the way, never does it sacrifice her identity – an artistic pursuit that is inevitably tied by one’s sense of their own sex, whatever that may be.
Last year, she turned a few heads by paying tribute to Big Black for the Our Band Could Be Your Concert event at the Bowery Ballroom. Without drawing those gender lines farther than from where they belong, let me just ask — is there anyone out there who would associate Big Black with femininity? At the same time, her version of “Kerosene” (see below) doesn’t sound all that far departed from the tone of her own repertoire of that time, which could equally never qualify as wholly masculine.
[youtube] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fVhCo7PoVpA [/youtube]
As she relaxes her voice slightly, building the song’s arching crescendo and trying to match the intonation of Steve Albini’s original version, its womanly resonance brings an extra dimension to the music of Big Black. Suddenly, in returning to it, something about Albini’s voice sounds much more androgynous – but not frail or weak. The effect is amplified tenfold as her hands crash against her guitar and into the stoic chords of that first chorus, more focused and low-end than those played in the original.
Not once does she sound like she’s “putting on the pants,” as the expression goes. Instead, she’s doing what great artists do best: showing us that when we are being the most honest with ourselves, we’re really not that different at all.