The retrospective David Bowie Is exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art (220 E. Chicago Ave.) has been a buzz-worthy topic of discussion, featured on billboards across the city and Chicago blogs alike. Its success has circulated across the country. The exhibit, which took place Sept. 23 – Jan. 4, consisted of Bowie’s iconic keepsakes along with performances by and interviews with other contemporary artists inspired by his work. The Phoenix attended an interview regarding Bowie’s influence on popular culture and music with the notable art-rock/indie-pop musician Annie Clark, more commonly known by her stage name: St. Vincent.
The Edlis Neeson Theater of the museum was filled with a large variety of people: teenagers, parents, grandparents, young professionals and even elementary school children. The interviewer, The Pitchfork Review Senior Editor Jessica Hopper, came onstage to introduce herself and Clark as the audience settled in.
Hopper began with a vivid introduction, citing Clark as the “Bowie of our time” with her outspoken persona and flamboyant music. She continued to announce many of Clark’s achievements — including a 2014 Grammy nomination for her most recent self-titled album — and spoke of Clark’s 2014 Digital Witness tour, naming it as one of the singer’s greatest artistic achievements. Clark then joined Hopper onstage and the interview began.
The musician explained that her roots in Dallas influenced her onstage fashion in her early career when her outfits featured western overtones. Other fashion influences at that time included ‘90s female punk rock bands such as Bikini Kill. Clark laughed as she explained that her attire for her first gig was “baggy, ill-fitting leather pants that created a very unattractive cameltoe.”
She had a harder time describing her music, though, and specifically what makes it authentic, simply saying “it depends.”
Clark continued by discussing the origins of many current genres of music. She boldly ventured into the racial issues surrounding her genre’s origins, even using the controversial phrase “white privilege.” She explained that many of her inspirations (naming three-time Grammy-winning African-American artist Barry White, along with a few others) had been victims to white musicians who stole much of their influences and used them to make profit.
Clark also explained how both the racial issues and the culture at the time can affect the meaning of authenticity for each genre. As an example, she cited the culture of ‘70s. In a time of “money and cocaine,” she concluded that the concept of authenticity became hard to define. She explained that Bowie’s music was always based in the actual sound of his music, though, despite the various aesthetic features he also incorporated into his performances and image.
She seemed to carry this idea of substance mixed with creativity over to her own music, explaining that “there’s so much austerity in the world, why not add some magic and make believe to move us from the mundane everyday life?”
Clark described how Bowie’s theatrical style was a stark contrast from the “California feel-good vibes” of the ‘60s, which featured artists such as Bob Dylan and Neil Young. These artists utilized acoustic guitars and lyrical poetry to express very common subject matters: love, life, happiness, etc.
Clark said she thinks England’s culture at the time was one of the main reasons for Bowie’s success.
“His music and image contained British satire that can be dry and debonair yet still touched people’s hearts.”
Hopper then switched the focus from Bowie to Clark’s latest work and tour. From her SNL performance in May 2014, to guitar-smashing antics at Pitchfork Music Festival in July 2014, to her bloody-faced Instagram post in October 2014, Hopper asked if these were theatrics to create an image or if Clark was truly an enigma of rock ‘n roll.
“You can communicate so much with your body,” she said.
She expanded on this, saying that these different actions put a physical element to the sound that she puts out in her performances; these are intentional theatrics to build and contribute her image as an artist.
In her most recent tour, Clark attempted to portray the digital realm of the present day, where “we all have our idealized avatars and we spent a lot of time making us interesting and cool.” To portray this digital realm, Clark had white, wiry hair and used flamboyant choreography and stage lighting in her shows.
For her onstage stunts, she pulls inspiration from dada art, attempting to portray a “disconnect from our physical form.”
“Everyone’s a performance artist in their own way,” Clark said, meaning that artists can use their bodies as well as their musical abilities.
To close the discussion of her 2014 Digital Witness tour, Clark came full circle back to Bowie. She claimed this tour had been much more about “pushing her artistic boundaries” and finding other mediums to enhance her music further. Every detail of her tour persona and onstage effects emanate a kind of rawness. The theatrics appeared distorted and dramatic, yet also insisted the music itself remained the basis of all its visual and stylistic details.
Talking about Bowie, Clark mentioned she had visited the David Bowie Is exhibit two floors above, and when asked which piece of clothing she would want she replied “The [Kansai] Yamamoto,” in a matter of seconds, which is the famous pear-shaped, striped costume featured in many of Bowie’s photoshoots.
“Japanese form is quite slight and androgynous and there is a sense of boxiness and proportion. They can flip [the design] on [its] head because they’re not dealing with a body with ‘tna’ — tits and ass,” she joked.
Clark also said her favorite Bowie song was “It’s No Game Part 1,” off of Scary Monsters because, in her words, “Robert Fripp’s guitar playing is so insane.” She described the song as filled with “anxiety and rage and pathos — it’s a perfect song. I could listen to it all day.”
“He always managed to add an element that makes it a little uneasy or off, but even if you strip the image you have an excellent, incredible song,” she said.
After a few more Bowie-related questions from Hopper, it was time for the audience to participate. People from all different backgrounds professed their respect and love for Clark’s music, while some inquired about the mechanics behind her guitar playing.
One woman told a teary story of how Clark’s 2009 album, Actor, was the last cognitive connection between her and her sister who had passed away from brain cancer.
Many questions were also light-hearted and curious, breaking down the complicated artist image that Clark displays.
“You appear alone on your album covers, which is something old fashioned to do. Can you comment on that?” one middle-aged woman asked from the crowd.
Clark explained that this type of bare pose was something her idols, including Bowie, had done. She preferred the iconic and enigmatic look her solo-pose album covers created, in contrast to other current bands who use nature scenes and “cute, Instagram-y type pictures.”
Another fan question came from a voice somewhere near the front right of the audience.
“In your first album, you posed as a distraught housewife. In your most recent album you were a crazy alien power lady. Where do you plan on going next?”
In a dark grizzly voice, Clark replied, “to hell.” The audience bursted out laughing.
Once the noise died down, she gave a legitimate response regarding the direction St. Vincent was taking, describing her dream collaborations and her musical goals. Her witty and refreshing sense of humor, though, was the only answer needed. Clark’s ingenuity could be heard even in her two-word punch lines.
Both Bowie and Clark do not only stand as musicians who made their marks in the present day music industry; they are also symbols of art, daring fashion and creativity that will go down in history.