In the U.S military, every prospective Navy Seal is subjected to “Hell Week”. Hell Week can begin anywhere between 6 and 12 PM on the night before the third week of Navy Seal training. It is announced by high ranking officers bursting into the trainee’s sleeping quarters and rousting them with a round of machine gun fire (the guns are filled with blanks, but they sound just as loud as live ammo.) From that point onward, Hell Week consists of a series of brutal physical and mental challenges, which range from cold, wet combat simulations to only being allowed five hours of sleep over the entire five day period. Roughly 75% of trainees drop out of the Navy Seal program during Hell Week.
After learning about all of this (yes, I have an unfortunate habit of reading irrelevant Wikipedia articles at unholy hours of the night—don’t judge me) I thought it’d be fun to design my own little music critic Hell Week. I would attend five shows in four days, and write full-length reviews of all of them. “It’ll be fun,” I thought to myself. “I love going to shows, right?”
By the time I arrived at my final trial, St. Vincent at the Palace Theater, I was utterly defeated. Thanks to the previous four shows, my back, calves, ankles, and feet were on fire from the moment I got off the bus. From there, I navigated my way through a winter carnival full of unnecessarily loud children in order to get to the Palace itself. The show was sold out, so once I arrived I had to wait in line outside for twenty minutes next to a bunch of middle-aged MPR members fiercely debating the wattage of the marquee’s light bulbs. By the time I got inside, I was ready to go to bed, not attend a concert.
The show began with a screening of The Birthday Party, the St. Vincent (a.k.a Annie Clark) directed segment of the anthology horror film XX. The short film is about a mother hosting a birthday party for her daughter. Before the party, the mother finds out that her husband has overdosed on pills. She tries to hide the fact that he’s dead by dressing him in a panda costume. The whole thing is a metaphor for how society forces women to act like nothing is wrong when (surprise surprise!) something is very wrong. It’s a great concept, but the end product is marred by lack of subtlety, unconvincing acting, and über-basic shot-reverse-shot direction. Plus, there’s unnecessary jump scares every thirty seconds—something I’m guessing is meant to be ironic, since Clark has stated that she doesn’t enjoy horror movies because they “scare her too much to watch.” All in all, a well-intentioned but poorly executed film (if you’d enjoy hearing an in-depth take on The Birthday Party, click here). The whole light bulb wattage guessing incident had been one thing, but I think what really pushed my respect for St.Vincent’s fanbase over the edge was the moment they all started chuckling smugly at the “The Memory That Lucy Suppressed From Her Seventh Birthday…That Wasn’t Really Her Mom’s Fault” subtitle tactlessly pinned onto the end of the film. I would only grow to hate the people around me more and more as the evening went on.
Forty-five minutes after the conclusion of The Birthday Party, St. Vincent appeared onstage, sporting a neon pink leotard and a matching pair of thigh-high stiletto-heeled boots, and began the show. She performed an hour of cuts from her pre-MASSEDUCTION records in chronological order. No band was present- the entire show consisted solely of her guitar and vocals underpinned by a pre-recorded backing track.
What could’ve been a chance for a unique, intimate performance was reduced to St. Vincent ruthlessly mangling her own back catalog, armed with only her own skewed sense of artistic license. She always ensured that there was something standing between me and the song I knew and loved. A cheap, trebley string arrangement? Check. An obnoxious, muddy EDM bassline? Check. Lethargic, plodding tempos plaguing nearly every song? Check. I couldn’t believe what was happening. Why would St. Vincent want to bastardize her own material?
Suddenly, it hit me. She was pulling a late 90s U2! This was her PopMart tour! All the pieces were there. The gaudy costumery. The “satirical popstar” persona that she was projecting via forced, intentionally awkward stage banter. The intentionally flat delivery/kitschy, overcrowded arrangements. Now that I knew that this is how the show was going to go, I wasn’t looking forward to sitting through the rest of it, to say the least. I’d always thought of myself as concert-savvy enough to steer clear of tours like this. Oh well. I suppose nobody’s perfect.
After making a mockery out of most of my favorite St. Vincent songs, Clark granted us a brief intermission. On his way back from a beer run, a short, stubbly, fifty-something man became angry with me because I was blocking the way back to “his spot”. Now, any experienced concert-goer knows that if you find yourself in the position of beer run guy, you can A) just find another spot, or B) do your best to slither back into your old one. But this guy. This guy was so unbelievably entitled that it was beyond him to even consider doing either of those things. Instead, he decided to come up to me and scream the word “REALLY?” as loud as he could directly into my ear. In all my life, I don’t think I’d ever considered punching a random person in the face as seriously as I did in that moment. Sure I’d probably get kicked out by security, but at least I wouldn’t have to sit through another hour of St. Vincent. However, I knew from setlist.fm that on every stop of this tour, St. Vincent plays MASSEDUCTION in its entirety after intermission. Regardless of my ill-advised urge to give beer run guy a bloody nose, I couldn’t resist my morbid curiosity about how she’d approach her new material, considering she’d treated her old stuff with all the respect of Father John Misty performing the hits of Taylor Swift.
The way St. Vincent played her character during the second act was even more aggravating than the first. During this set, she held her fist in the air, civil rights-style, at the climactic point of nearly every song. Just like her stage banter, it was kind of clever at first. Yes, popstars and celebrities often appropriate the imagery of social justice movements. You made your point. Well done. However, as the set went on, the gesture gradually moved from amusing, to gauche, to distasteful. Just because you’re doing something disrespectful ironically doesn’t automatically nullify the impact of the gesture. Musically, Clark failed to break out of the cold, detached cage that she’d established for herself in the first act, putting little to no effort into key vocal moments like the bridge on “Los Ageless.” It’d be one thing if she only did this for MASSEDUCTION’s pop songs, but it pervaded throughout what were supposed to be the “emotional” numbers as well, making the set even more of a monotonous slog. I did appreciate that in this act, the instrumentals hadn’t been reduced to plastic surgery disasters, but regardless, I was still left unsatisfied.
Believe it or not, I actually like MASSEDUCTION. It’s St. Vincent’s weakest album by far, but it that doesn’t necessarily make it bad. The lyrics are a balanced mix of clever pop culture criticism and heartfelt emotional confession. The music is hit or miss, getting too poppy and repetitive at times for my taste, but the songs that do hit both the conceptual and music targets that she’s set for herself are some of the best of her career (“MASSEDUCTION”, “Los Ageless”, “Smoking Section”). It succeeds as an “indie artist pokes fun at pop music/pop culture” album, which is really something considering how many other artists have attempted to do the same thing and failed (e.g U2’s Pop, Arcade Fire’s Everything Now, Father John Misty’s entire miserable existence.) One of the reasons I think it works so well is that it mocks pop culture without completely turning St. Vincent into a soulless, ironic caricature. It’s a good satirical album precisely because it isn’t just a satirical album—it contrasts its satirical elements with the vulnerability of songs like “Happy Birthday Johnny” and “Smoking Section”, thereby keeping the listener in touch with the emotive, somewhat human St. Vincent that they know and love. Nonstop satire over the course of an entire album can easily become heavy-handed and repetitive, so it’s refreshing to hear an album that knows when to give the listener a break. Sadly, for some reason, St. Vincent failed to retain this sense of balance in a live setting.
After “Smoking Section” reached its conclusion, the curtain was drawn and the show was over. I was done. I had beaten Hell Week. After waiting in line to exit the venue for ten minutes before I figured out that it was actually the line for coat check (apparently, everybody in the audience except me had paid $5 for coat check), I marched out into the freezing November night victorious.
Sometimes live music is a spiritual, life-affirming experience. Sometimes it’s garbage. Sometimes it’s a little of both. The most important thing Hell Week taught me was the fact that even if I go to a concert and hate it, I can still gain something of value from it. Over the few months that I’ve been writing live reviews, I’ve learned more about music than I ever could have imagined, so in the end, I have no regrets about any show I’ve gone to. Except for this one. I want my $40 back.