Many of St. Vincent’s songs, videos, and stage acts use grotesque scenarios and images to examine the roles we play and the identities we create and embody as well as the anxieties associated with them. They employ “exaggeration, distortion, or unexpected combination” to construct and inhabit subjectivities that are inescapably hybrid and often monstrous: simultaneously life-giving and death-dealing, ethereal and bestial, feminine and masculine, self and other.Sherry Truffin, Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism, pp. 161-2.
Sherry Truffin’s contribution to Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism explores St. Vincent’s experimental music against the background of theoretical approaches to the gothic and grotesque associated with Romantic literature. Truffin observes that St. Vincent not only seeks “liberation from received identities via self-conscious self-creation,” but more importantly asks, “why would a free person consciously choose to construct and embody a grotesque self?” (p. 162). That question not only gets to the core of the grotesque in St. Vincent, but so much of women’s music and beyond–to popular music in general: metal and goth and their numerous spin-offs and subgenres. To answer it, Truffin explores the grotesque as the core of the Gothic aesthetic from Renaissance Italy to Romantic-era novels such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. She emphasizes the hybridity in St. Vincent’s work and personae and how it expresses itself in the grotesque in her performances.
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The grotesque in Truffin’s analysis of St. Vincent is a site of self-construction and liberation, but she also recognizes that in St. Vincent it’s also a painful site of disappearance, destruction, and isolation. She ends by asserting that St. Vincent’s body of work “invites us to regard grotesque others and selves with empathy and kindness. She also invites us to laugh with them, even if we are “laughing with a mouth of blood” (p. 173).
Looking back over Truffin’s chapter on St. Vincent, I recall a moment in the virtual book launch where I regarded St. Vincent as a guitarist and realized that I considered her, along with Jack White, as one of two of the most significant guitarists of our era. They both explore possibilities for guitar music beyond genre, noise, and melody, teaching us how the guitar can reinvent music over and over again, even in the 2020s. I’m also reminded of St. Vincent complaining in an interview about how guitars are invented for men’s bodies, not for women’s — so notice the unusual shape of her guitar.
Sherry Truffin is is a Professor of English and the Honors Program Coordinator at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina. In addition to her monograph Schoolhouse Gothic, she has published extensively in the Gothic, on popular culture, and on the music of Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders in Rock and Romanticism: Post-Punk, Goth, and Metal as Dark Romanticisms (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).
Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism
Women in Rock. Women in Romanticism (Routledge, 2022) is the first book-length work exploring the interrelationships among contemporary women rock musicians and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art and literature, the literature of the Romantic era. LIMITED QUANTITIES ONLY available at a 37% discount.