Under the Influence: Hero, Icon, Alien.

[Photo courtesy of David Bowie’s official legacy website]


It’s January, which means that A) it’s time for another Under the Influence column, B) it’s inauguration month, C) it’s David Bowie’s birthday month, and D) it’s been a year since we lost Bowie, which at least for me is culminating in E) being pretty emotionally overwhelmed. Enter Annie Clark. Her persona is immediately very whimsical-looking, but not at all fragile. Her gaze is strong and invigorating. There’s something about her that looks a bit alien, in quite an extraordinary way that I don’t think she’d take offense by me labeling her as such, but rather smile sweetly, and maybe, like, wink or something.


Photo courtesy of St. Vincent’s Facebook page

Clark, aka St. Vincent, is a deeply talented musician and songwriter. She brings all of her energy and passion to every song she creates. Her music is sincere, thoughtful, powerful, and blends many different genres and aspects of music; she’s impossible to pin down. She grew up in Dallas, Texas and attributes a large part of her own personal influences to the city she still recognizes as home. She was a student at Berklee College of Music before joining the Polyphonic Spree, a choral rock band in Dallas, and then went on tour with Sufjan Stevens as a member of his band.

Last year at around this time, St. Vincent stopped by the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art in the middle of an exhibition called David Bowie Is to speak with the incredible Jessica Hopper. She shared her thoughts on the legend; of course, she is a long-time fan. “David Bowie’s mutating aesthetic and persona are as much an instrument as his voice or guitar,” she wrote for his official Facebook page. “Sound and vision: hero, icon, alien.”

St. Vincent is just one of the artists who paid tribute to, and honored, the late alien, as Bowie was was an idol and leader for so many artists and creative movements. As she says, “his reputation was so loved and felt by so many largely because it was a contagious ‘aesthetic and persona;’” one that made you feel that maybe you could do anything, regardless of time, place, planet, gender, status, etc. I wanted to highlight Bowie’s influence particularly with a woman who identifies strongly with the queer community, in order to show the power of his wide-reaching persona.


Photo courtesy of David Bowie’s official legacy website

Annie’s been keeping me sane lately, with her impressive repertoire of nice, funky songs to walk to (“Digital Witness,” “Huey Newton”), as well as powerful, heartbreaking ballads that make me immensely proud to be a woman (“Cheerleader”). The song I’ve selected for this is “Strange Mercy,” the single of her 2011 album of the same name. It’s quieter than some of other jams, but it begins with a heavy, heartbeat-like beat that remains steady and unwavering throughout the whole song.

Lyrically, “Strange Mercy” begins with, “Oh, little one, I know you’ve been tired for a long long time,” which, to me, feels about the same as if she presented me with a nice velour couch and a fuzzy maroon sweater, and put a hand on my shoulder and encouraged me to maybe nap a little bit. Just this first line offers the right amount of simple, sweet understanding that grants the listener their sadness, while also reminding them to keep their chin up.


Photo courtesy of St. Vincent’s Facebook page

Later, she continues, “Oh, little one, I’d tell you good news that I don’t believe if it would help you sleep / strange mercy,” which is mystical in and of itself; it’s a beautiful coupling of words. Clark promotes that the whole album is intending to describe instances of “strange mercy.” She sings with what I can only identify as “hysterical strength,” a title of another song off Strange Mercy, another incredible coupling of words that expertly twist the commonly denoted ‘female downfall’ of hysteria into inexplicable, emotional, raw strength. The bridge of the song showcases Clark at her loudest, in a deadpan, hearty voice.

“If I ever meet the dirty policeman who roughed you up / No, I don’t know what.”

This line reveals the extent of the feelings Clark has for you, for her little one, and (in a time where police brutality is real and concerning) absolutely demands that we show solidarity with those around us.

The Bowie song that I’ve selected is also one of his most popular and instantly recognizable songs, from the first piano chord. It’s a song that leads one to really believe that he might be otherwordly, set down on Earth to show us just how far we can reach.

“Life on Mars?” questions the possibility of further life than human knowledge can currently see, and yet it describes the story of a girl with mousy hair, a simple protagonist we’re all able to picture. This girl argues with her parents to get her to go to this movie, but her friend ditched her and she “walks through her sunken dream” to see some film that not only bores her, but also reminds her of the tired life she lives. Fools ask her to focus on a rush of images, of sailors and cavemen, and lawmen “beating up the wrong guy” (similar to the “dirty policeman”!) before ending with the cry, “Is there life on Mars?” Because, God, if there is, let it be better than this fantasy television life that we, the fools, ask ourselves to focus on day after day.

I re-watched the video for “Life on Mars?” while writing this, and was floored by how Bowie it was. His unapologetically rotund blue eyeshadow, open-mouthed gaze…like at any moment, he could swallow you whole. His dramatic turns of the head, complete with quick cuts from a close up of those eyes, to the whole pale blue suit look—he was unwilling to be anyone but himself, and this message translates to all who really listen to him.

It’s an anthem of strange mercy. I don’t know how to word it any differently. I think Annie was able to lock into something that Bowie introduced in this simple, grand anthem. These two are filled with indescribable comfort, surrounding you in a way that only music can. This January, if you ever need to be called a “little one,” or if you ever feel like you want to escape the planet for just a moment, I would highly recommend listening to either one of these strangely merciful songs.



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