In 2017, singer-songwriter Annie Clark, better known by her stage name St. Vincent, coyly fielded questions in an interview with The New Yorker about her supposed position as the queer protagonist of her then-upcoming album Masseduction. She responded to the interviewer’s questions with, “Songs are like prophecies. They can be stronger than you are.”
Three years before that interview, I heard Romy Madley-Croft, one of the lead singers of the band The xx, croon the first few lines of “Shelter” from a bruised iPod Nano: “I find shelter in this way / Undercover hideaway / Can you hear when I say / ‘I have never felt this way.’” She sings above sparse background instrumentation, and the yawning ambiguity of her voice turns the song into a seemingly endless line of possibility, which – at the time – matched the seemingly endless line of long black hair that belonged to the girl who always sat next to me in seventh period art class. She liked to paint flowers, and the careful way her fingers sketched the curving outline of a rose made something in my chest bloom. I don’t know what to call this kind of quiet attraction — easy laughter passed between us like love letters in an after-school special — but I did match the uptick of my heartbeat whenever she turned to talk to me with the tempo of the beat during the second half of “Shelter,” so I think I have a start.
Many years later, in an interview with The Fader, The xx would describe their music as “A queer space. We avoid gender, we avoid sexuality, we avoid time and place, so people can have that room to connect and to set their own ideas to it.”
Songs that can take any form desired; music to free the questioning soul.
It’s a liberation that can be seen time and time again within the musical archives. The androgynous legacy of Prince — with his blown out curls, platform heels and affinity for wearing sequined suits during performances — highlights the allure of art’s nonconformity, the lines that can be blurred in expressions of identity. “My name is Prince, and I am funky,” the opening song off of Prince’s historic album [Love Symbol] declares, embossed with the golden arches of The Love Symbol itself. The glyph Prince invented to take the place of his name during the early ’90s defied phonetics and defied labels, an icon that melded the astrological Mars-Venus, male-female signs into something new: a bold announcement of fluidity.
Ziggy Stardust, the first of David Bowie’s many elaborate personas, inspired a similar sentiment of eccentricity. Stardust dazzles in Bowie’s 1972 album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, as an extraterrestrial sort of hero, descending from the heavens with a sleek red mullet, heavy makeup and an iconic lighting bolt streak of red and blue, destined to save Earth’s slow, apocalyptic demise with the power of rock ‘n’ roll. Unfortunately, he eventually weaves his own demise. As both the spider and the insect caught in its web, he finds himself trapped by the destructive nature of the very cult of personality he has created. The album closes with the song “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide,” and Stardust, knees cracked under the weight of his own stardom, implores anyone, everyone, “Let’s turn on and be not alone (wonderful) / Gimme your hands cause you’re wonderful.”
More than just convoluted spectacle of glam rock, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust melded music and social commentary within the splendor of an eclectic, space-age narrative. It wasn’t queer music in the traditional sense — speaking directly to LGBTQ experiences — yet this particular album, as well as the persona it catapulted into prominence, is still heralded as an icon for many who question labels of sexuality, of gender and of the interplay of the two. Within the strange effervescence of Ziggy Stardust, the outcasts and misfits who questioned their place in society’s norms at the time found a hand onto which to grab, a space to traverse their own forms of creative expression.
A few months after her New Yorker interview, Clark dropped Masseduction and, much like David Bowie’s work, it is more illustrative of the St. Vincent persona she created than of Clark herself. The overtly sexual figure that graces the album’s cover in a leopard-print thong and hot pink tights, a glaring reminder of the neon glow of the 1980s, is one of St. Vincent’s many elaborate manifestations. She embodies the rattle of pill bottles and throws cheeky winks that are half-hidden behind plastic surgery bandages. “Sugarboy, I’m in need / How I wish, for something sweet,” she sings on the album’s fourth track, and then immediately parries with, “Sugargirl, figurine / Pledge all your allegiance to me.” Songs have gleaming edges — sensuality oftentimes is used as a weapon — and the world she develops is one that is fraught with personal tension, different from Bowie’s and Prince’s softer, more grandiose expressions. Yet, all three pop phenomena can be considered related in the distinct ways they eschew orthodoxy.
As Clark herself said in a series of interviews with Pitchfork, “All human beings create their own mythologies, and I’m in the somewhat bizarre circumstance of creating a big mythology that gets shared with a lot of people. In some ways, doing the work that I do is about reinventing a value system. More or less, there’s a ubiquitous value system in America, these markers that signify your rite of passage into adulthood or into validity: getting married and having kids and having mortgages. But I always felt a little bit like an alien cocking my head to the side at various cultural milestones, going, ‘I would never aspire to that.’”
The transcendent power of these artists — Prince, Bowie, St. Vincent and countless others — lies in their imaginative exploration of the self through their music. The various personas and characters conceived may not be accurate representations of the artist but to be autobiographical is not the point. In the hyper-surreal landscapes of Ziggy Stardust, [The Love Symbol] and Masseduction, individuals can find echoes of private desires that are too fluid, too subjective and too nuanced to be so easily categorized.
“When people are growing up they’re generally looking for something in the culture that reflects their subconscious yearnings,” Grayson Perry told The Guardian as he described the effect Bowie’s pop had on his generation in the ’70s. I can’t help but be reminded of a certain song that one bruised iPod Nano used to contain.