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Cruelty In Action

by Brianne Mueller

As I drank my ‘power-c’ Vitamin Water in my car on a rather average November night in 2008, I tuned into my local independent radio station. A female singer-songwriter who called herself ‘St. Vincent’ was playing and as I drove home from work, I first heard her mesmerizing single “Actor Out of Work”. I immediately whipped out my notebook (before the iPhone and ‘Shazam’ took over my life) to write down the name of my new musical treasure and raced home to download the song. Bold instrumentals, distorted vocals and thought-provoking lyrics are only a few reasons why millions of fans, including myself, have grown to love St. Vincent. The emotional equilibrium in her songs is especially intriguing and, in the case of her latest single “Cruel," proves to be an essential tool in interpreting her veiled, personal lyrics.

St. Vincent, otherwise known as Anne Erin Clark, released her latest album Strange Mercy (2011) after a tumultuous year of personal loss followed by self-imposed isolation. Clark interviews often and is often considered a media-darling, yet she is very private about the source and inspiration of her lyrics. 2010, or the Year of the Tiger as she refers to it, was a year when she “lost some people” in her life. One of the most endearing and frustrating things about St. Vincent as an artist is her lack of transparency. Rather than handing the listener a personal history behind her songs, she prefers to let imaginations run wild and let listeners create personal connections to her work. Songs become puzzles and in the case of “Cruel”, the music video adds another layer of emotional navigation.

Directed by Terri Timely, the music video for “Cruel” premiered in late August, 2011 and in less than a month it has nearly 250,000 views on YouTube. At first glance, the themes within the video appear to be obvious, a “feminist critique of heterosexual relationships [and] the female’s role in the family…”, as one blogger puts it. As a feminist and artist, I too instinctively perceived the video this way, but eventually something else popped up. The storyline is less literal and more anecdotal and ultimately serves as a vehicle that enables us to access something deeper, something more emotional and universal. The villain in this story is the feeling of complete personal rejection, not domesticity.

At the top of the video, our heroine stands at the bottom of a deep grave, peering up into the moonlight. The camera cuts to inside a gas station where St. Vincent stands perusing the refrigerated beverages. She soon notices that some strange individuals are watching her. After a brief charitable act involving a lost stuffed animal, St. Vincent is abducted and thrown into the trunk of a car. It turns out that Clark is the captive of a bereaving family, who are desperate to replace the mother of their household, whom we assume has died. The bulk of the video are scenes of mild to terrifying ways in which they torture their matriarchal replacement as she performs various domestic duties. St. Vincent dutifully serves the tasks they lay before her, yet she can’t seem to do anything to please them. Ultimately, she is such a failure that they have no choice but to bury her alive in their own backyard.

Let’s say first that this video’s intent IS social commentary about domestic abuse, as some have said. From an outside perspective, the treatment of the video is rather ineffective. For one, humor is used to balance out some of the obviously dark moments in the video. For instance, St. Vincent is seen in the trunk of the car, tied up with a bag over her head…and playing a solo on the guitar. Also, she is not seen kicking and screaming to be let go, but is rather compliant with her captors’ demands and even occasionally gazes off into the distance either out of boredom or defeat. In order to spark empathy in others, commentary about domestic violence typically highlights the personal suffering of the victim. As there is no clear struggle, aside from the initial snatch-and-grab outside the gas station, and in combination with humor, the tone of the video changes. Combining serious topics with sarcasm or lighthearted vocals and instrumentals is a jarring, yet engaging quality of St. Vincent’s music, which adds depth to her already complex body of work. As educated viewers, we can see these elements are also visual present in her music videos.

Reexamining St. Vincent’s look of boredom through out her captivity brings us closer to the more emotionally significant theme within “Cruel”. Beyond a comic twist on a dark subject, it provides a window into emotions that inspired this song (and music video) in the first place. Feeling or acting numb is a great way to protect oneself from pain inflicted by others. In this case, and as her lyrics suggest, being used and tossed away is the main fear of our heroine. “…you were the one waving flares in the air so they could see you / And they were a zephyr, blowing past ya, blowing fastly so they can see ya”. Her lyrics and hesitant obedience even illustrate an inner struggle to fulfill the role being expected of her. “Bodies, can't you see what everybody wants from you? / If you could want that, too, then you'll be happy…”. The abuse that takes place in the video acts as a vehicle to illustrate the main concern – rejection.

The family goes through the trouble to kidnap her and end up tossing her out like yesterday’s trash. This is an extreme example of the term ‘used and abused’. St. Vincent elaborates, “…they could take or leave you / So they took you, and they left you / How could they be casually cruel?” It’s possible to say that the offending family members feel some sort of rejection after the loss of their mother and wife, which prompts the kidnapping in the first place. We have all felt rejected at one time or another and as St. Vincent shows us, our emotions are what connect us and keep us human as well as our senses of humor.

Bri Mueller is a life-long music enthusiast with a recent passion for film. An aspiring music video director, she is a theatre arts major (Psychology minor) from Lawrence University, currently employed as a Marketing Coordinator. Bri enjoys gluten-free brownies, parenthetical phrases and rock 'n' roll. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of Daniele Teodoro. Contact Bri at bri.mueller[at]theinclusive.net.