St. Vincent and the Limits of Rock-and-Roll Mystique

The artist’s new record—and the accidental controversy it caused—shows how mysteriousness can be a kind of defensiveness.

A black-and-white picture of a blonde St. Vincent in a fluffy jacket
Zackery Michael

If you’ve searched St. Vincent on Twitter in the past few weeks, you haven’t seen chatter about the goofy soul sound of the 38-year-old rock star’s latest singles. You’ve seen snarky tweets about an interview that is mainly of interest to die-hard fans and people addicted to Twitter drama.

In late April, the journalist Emma Madden posted—and then deleted—a Q&A with St. Vincent that the artist’s press team had allegedly tried to stop from being published. A publicist said the singer thought that the questions had been too “aggressive.” In reality, Madden had gently asked about St. Vincent’s forthcoming sixth album, Daddy’s Home, and the situation that had loosely inspired it: St. Vincent’s father getting out of prison in 2019 after committing stock fraud. The artist’s unremarkable—though sometimes terse—answers normally would have gotten little notice. Instead, reports that she had tried to kill the piece ignited a few days of online blood sport. Commentators puzzled over her conduct, dissed her music, questioned her politics, and mocked the concept behind Daddy’s Home.

It’s unclear why St. Vincent objected to the interview, and it’s ridiculous for a celebrity to censor coverage that they invited. The result is a controversy that Daddy’s Home seems painstakingly designed to avoid. Her father’s nine-year imprisonment, related to $43 million in stock fraud, is a tricky subject to discuss at a time of heightened tensions around class, race, and criminal justice in America: While protests have highlighted the over-policing of Black people in recent years, prosecutions of white-collar crime have fallen to a record low. But the album itself is only partly, and only abstractly, about his situation. Speaking with journalists in recent months, St. Vincent has chosen her words carefully when asked about her dad and any related social issues. She appears to want to touch on a personal story without having it become a plaything for pundits.

All in all, the micro-scandal marks another blow against the once-venerated rock-and-roll ideal of mystique. St. Vincent has always presented herself as part of the lineage of colorful artists who keep their true self at a distance from the public—a lineage that includes David Bowie, Prince, and Grace Jones. She has also helped build a bridge between pop and the emotionally taciturn, critically adored indie-rock scene of the early 2000s. Once-hip Millennial guitar music has fallen out of fashion; so has the idea that the coolest artists keep their life and opinions obscure. The unsatisfying music on Daddy’s Home—and the yet-more-unsatisfying discourse that has unfolded around it—hints at why.

“I’m not any, any, anything at all,” St. Vincent sang in a fluttering cadence on the opening song of her 2007 debut, Marry Me. She seemed to be announcing that she’d go out of her way to defy objectification, and not only in the feminist-resists-the-male-gaze sense. She wouldn’t become an object—known, definable, usable—to any audience at any point. With inviting melodies and snarling guitars, and with sweetly sung but eerie lyrics, her pop rock posed but rarely solved riddles. As the winsome indie vibe of her early work thickened in grand and gothic ways over the years, she enjoyed acclaim and splashy collaborations (David Byrne, Dua Lipa, Taylor Swift). Still, St. Vincent seemed to keep pondering the question that she had sung about in the standout 2009 track “The Strangers”: “What do I share? What do I keep?”

Her music did make one thing clear—a fascination with forbidden pleasure. She sang of wanting to be saved from what she wanted. She couldn’t turn off what turned her on. She—I love this line—ate the flowers in the backyard. Often, the musical arrangements seemed to dramatize the tension between desire and externally enforced yet profoundly internal shame. “What would the neighbors think?” she asked on her second album, Actor, as distorted clamor tore through what had been syrupy passages. The dangerous-love themes were very classic rock. But unlike with Prince or Bowie, the point wasn’t indulgence; it was repression, introversion, and control. Like many of her art-rock contemporaries—think Radiohead or the National—St. Vincent made music about fearing vulnerability.

Such themes and their associated aesthetics—gray-day vibes, harmonic in-betweenness, psycho-thriller strings—can create a powerful sense of intrigue. But they can also leave listeners cold. Over the years, St. Vincent’s serrated instrumentals and spooky imagery have hinted at untamable urges, yet her robotic rhythms and melodies could seem overly eager to tame them. At least, that’s how I’ve often felt. One surprise of the recent interview-related backlash was in realizing how many other people felt mystified by the acclaim she’s received over the years. An ugly strain of resentment—the kind you typically see people nursing toward more in-your-face celebrities—even seemed to be floating around. “Killing an interview,” one popular tweet reads, “is the most interesting thing St. Vincent has ever done.”

Daddy’s Home, upon first listen, seems like it might impress her critics. St. Vincent has undertaken a dramatic sonic reinvention that emphasizes, in her words, “looseness and groove.” The palette is early-’70s rock and soul: the boogying synths of Stevie Wonder, the spacey noodling of Pink Floyd, the rhythmic urgency of War, the haughty haze of the Velvet Underground. Though the producer Jack Antonoff worked with St. Vincent on her 2017 album, Masseduction, his linkup with her now more recalls the finely detailed nostalgia trips he’s undertaken with Lana Del Rey. Some Daddy’s Home songs are physically nauseating in the same fun way that Parliament-Funkadelic can be. Many are full-band workouts begging to be performed in a bar whose carpeting is perfumed with cigarette smoke.

The prompt behind the album seems rich too: An artist reckons with her father’s sins, punishment, potential redemption, and how she feels about it all. On the title track, campy backup singers hiss as she recalls signing “autographs in the visitation room” on her father’s last day in prison. The tone is playfully conspiratorial as St. Vincent brags of her and her dad being “tight as a Bible with the pages stuck like glue.” His saga—and St. Vincent’s relationship to it—also feels present in the album’s references to the queer ’70s icon Candy Darling, whom Andy Warhol filmed and Lou Reed sang about. In St. Vincent’s telling, Darling is yet another lovable outlaw.

Yet with repeated listens to Daddy’s Home, a familiar hollowness sets in. The album imitates stoner kookiness but never gets extreme enough to feel all that trippy. Prog-rock sounds dress up four-minute fables rather than fueling wilder exploration. Lyrically, St. Vincent strings together bits of poetry that, with a few exceptions—the seething “Down,” the wistful “... At the Holiday Party,” the show tune “My Baby Wants a Baby”—end up amounting to emotional beige. As for her father’s story, she doesn’t push into reckoning, revelation, or vulnerability. The greatest insight she offers comes at the end of the title track, when she sings, “We’re all born innocent / But some good saints get screwed,” and, “All good puritans / They’ll pray about reform.” Those lines mix vividness and vagueness, like many of St. Vincent’s lyrics have, but the wider context means that the mystery created is not exactly a productive one.

To take the think-piece bait: The word reform has inescapable connotations in a song about prison that’s being released in an era when restorative justice and mass incarceration are hotly discussed. All good puritans just sounds mocking. St. Vincent seems to be rolling her eyes, but at what? She told The NME that the point of writing about her father’s prison time was to show that “nobody’s perfect and people make mistakes and people can transform.” To Madden, she complained, “There’s a whole lot of judgment going around and not a whole lot of understanding.” Some listeners have taken such statements to mean that, as NME touted in its headline, St. Vincent is addressing “cancel culture.”

The truth might not be that deep. In the portion of Madden’s interview when St. Vincent seemed to balk, the journalist noted that “there are some people, perhaps the more sanctimonious and morally pure, who might not be interested in an artist’s reflection on their father’s white-collar crimes.” This is correct—it’s not hard to find online commentators snickering about St. Vincent’s rich-kid problems. No one, however, wants to boycott her for making this album. Only the trolliest troll would say that she doesn’t have a right to love or forgive her father. Progressives—supposedly the drivers of that nebulous phenomenon called cancel culture—want prison reform precisely because they believe that committing crimes should not make human beings disposable.

If St. Vincent is resisting any cultural trend, it’s not “cancellation.” It’s oversharing and the impulse to politicize personal narratives. When Madden asked St. Vincent for her opinions on the prison system, the artist replied, “Well, I have plenty of thoughts on it; I’m not totally sure how it’s relevant to this.” She was more forthcoming to DIY magazine: The album is “not intended necessarily to be emblematic of the entire story of the U.S. prison system, which is—of course—incredibly varied, and racist, and lots of things. But this is my little story about it.” On Instagram in 2019, she posted an excerpt from an Atlantic story by George Packer arguing that “many on the left now share an unacknowledged but common assumption that a good work of art is made of good politics.” St. Vincent may feel that Daddy’s Home is pushing against that alleged groupthink.

If art and politics have felt especially intertwined in recent years, it’s because of a few things: social media, the ominous crises of the 21st century, and reckonings around abuse and bigotry in the entertainment industry. Yet artists still have an absolute right to talk about the world in whatever terms compel them. The Billboard charts aren’t overflowing with protest songs. Maintaining a sense of personal privacy remains a wise thing for artists to do. But in terms of art and songwriting, declining to go deeper or broader—or more specific or more vulnerable—does not make St. Vincent a fascinating resister to a culture of exhibitionism and sloganeering. It simply makes her album a frustrating listen. “I wanna be loved!” she cries on the opening track, but some deep-seated musical and lyrical caginess gets in the way of connection.

The Watergate-era sound of Daddy’s Home only emphasizes the problem. As the instrumentation evokes classic message music—including Wonder’s “Living for the City” and Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them”—it clarifies that the cultural hunger for artists to excavate their life and comment on their times is not some social-media fad. The woozy single “The Melting of the Sun” even seems to acknowledge this fact. On it, St. Vincent praises the soul-baring women Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, and Tori Amos for their honesty and bravery. In a rare moment of risk taking, St. Vincent confesses to finding her own work facile in comparison: “Me, I never cried / To tell the truth, I lied.” Lied about what? She doesn’t need to say, but she also can’t banish—even from herself—the suspicion that mystery is cheaper than meaning.