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St. Vincent Thought She Could Treat Prisons Like a Game

A controversial interview mostly shows that the artist wants to treat prisons like a toy she can wheel out whenever it suits her.

St. Vincent raising her fist in the air
Photo via Justin Higuchi; Remix by Samantha Grasso

St. Vincent’s interview with journalist Emma Madden could have been a big pile of nothing, a deflated press tour interview that was just enough to plug musician Annie Clark’s upcoming album Daddy’s Home. But instead, Clark’s apparent attempt to stop the interview from running has turned into a whole saga about who controls narratives, and a lesson in why, in 2021, you probably shouldn’t market an album about your experience with prisons if the most you can muster up are a few statistics on the subject.

On Monday, Madden published a blog on her website containing the transcript of a 30-minute interview she had done with Clark two weeks ago for an unnamed publication. (The piece has since been pulled down and the archive is being fussy, but I’ve saved a PDF of it.) She wrote that that following the interview, she was told by her unnamed editor that MBC PR, who is handling Clark’s press, told the editor Clark was “terrified of this interview coming out.” Madden wrote that she was later contacted by someone at MBC who said that Clark may have “found the interview aggressive,” but that he heard that through a chain of command, and Clark may not have used those words herself.

The interview itself is relatively tame, maybe even a little boring. But Madden tries hopefully to punch up their conversation, asking about the fact that Daddy’s Home partially explores Clark’s experience of having her father in prison for nearly a decade for “his role in a $43m stock-manipulation scheme,” and what having that history dug up by the Daily Mail as she became more famous was like.

Most interesting from Madden’s interview is when she tries to press Clark about how her experience with her father might relate to her overall understanding of prisons, and how her father’s experience with prison differs from that of brown and Black incarcerated people. From Madden’s blog, emphasis hers:

I guess the main PR bulletin point of this album is about your dad coming out of jail. Why did you want that to be the main way that people might read this album?

More like an entry point, the title Daddy’s Home to me I mean one, it is literal but also it’s funny and cringy and pervy and also I think more than anything kind of refers to my own transformation into Daddy as it were. Yeah it’s probably not anything I would’ve really thrown out there except that it was made public without my consent but I didn’t really get to tell that side of the story and I don’t bring it up for sympathy. It simply is my story, it’s not intended to be indicative of necessarily anything, it’s just my story and I was gonna tell it with humor and compassion, all of that.

Did you anticipate a lack of sympathy for your dad’s crimes and the subject matter of this album and did that factor into how you shaped this record?

That’s the tail wagging the dog my dear. No, no. A lack of sympathy, well, which crime would be the most sympathetic? I didn’t do anything, I’m simply writing about something that I think on some level everyone who’s ever had a parent can understand in the sense of you’re often going “How much of you am I?” and we kind of do identity projection through all these things so no, it’s again, it’s not really there for anything other than my own anecdotal story.

[…]

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. Do you have much sympathy for those kinds of people?

I mean I think I can get sympathy for all people. If that is the reason why they decide not to spend 46 minutes with my work then I’m sure there’s plenty of other work out there for them that they can enjoy that is morally pure. They should find pure work from pure people and enjoy it.

I guess last year’s riots brought abolition towards the mainstream, during the time you were making this record, which is partially about your father’s time in prison. How did that square with your thoughts on prison and the US carceral system?

Well I have plenty of thoughts on it, I’m not totally sure how it’s relevant to this.

Well I was wondering if you have a standpoint on it or if you’d rather just be ambiguous?

I have so many thoughts and opinions, I don’t presume that my thoughts and opinions are relevant on every subject though. I don’t have that much hubris.

[…]

Yeah the reason I brought up prison abolition earlier is because that might be how some people contextualize this album.

I would say that that’s one lens. That to me would not be the main lens.

It is, mostly, a little confusing why Clark would want this interview pulled. If anything, she just seems unprepared and unwilling to engage on Madden’s questions about prison and incarceration, as well as some questions about her relationship with her father. Did she want the interview stopped because she looked ignorant and unprepared to answer questions her PR team should have known she would be asked?

But it became all the more confusing, and then slightly clarifying, once I read through some of the other press that Clark did for Daddy’s Home, including profiles from The Guardian, The Forty-Five, and DIY Mag. I’m sure Madden did her homework by reading these pieces too, given that many of the topics that she touched on were reflected in these interviews. These interviews overlap, too: all three of them mention Clark’s story that she signed autographs for other inmates while she visited her father in prison, and two mention her lyric, “Hell, where can you run when the outlaw’s inside you?” and Clark’s reverence for and relationship with Paul McCartney.

And all three of them make a point to discuss prisons and her father’s incarceration with her, despite Clark seeming to coast when talking with Madden. From The Guardian, where Clark tries to somehow say something about the racism of prison, but also tries to stay out of it, emphasis mine:

Clark recalls visiting her father in an “edgy” medium-security institution before he was moved to a depressing camp that reminded her of primary school. During visitation, families could pose for photos in front of various backdrops. “Like, look, an inmate is at the beach. They just happen to be in an orange jumpsuit, but with their wife and baby. The one that I remember most vividly was a picture where the inmates – who are obviously disproportionately black and brown in America – could stand on a plantation veranda.” Her eyes pop. “That pretty much sums up this place.”

[…]

She has a nuanced take on her father’s conviction. “One takeaway could be: don’t go against the government, or don’t be the last person holding the bag. There’s a lot of layers to it.”

[…]

She chose to detail her family’s experience because, “while incarceration is an incredibly horrific story, it’s not in any way a unique story”. She cites the stats: nearly half of Americans – and 63% of African Americans – have had a close relative in prison. She is clear that her anecdotal experience does not make her a spokesperson for prison reform. The issue she returns to throughout our conversation is the importance of allowing for human fallibility in a “very pearl-clutching” time.

And here’s what she has to say about it for DIY, really leaning into the idea that this is now her opportunity to tell her story the way she wants to tell it, and no one else. Emphasis mine:

“This story was halfway told against my will a few years ago, when I was briefly the subject of the tabloids,” she says today, speaking over Zoom from her home studio in LA. “And that wasn’t anything I wanted to talk about [at the time]. But now, there is a bit of a silver lining – he’s out [of prison]. But it’s also like, now I get to tell MY story. And I get to tell it with humour, and compassion, and cynicism, because it’s MINE.”

[…]

Though Annie’s default mode discussing that time often errs on the side of gallows humour, her intention isn’t to downplay the severity of the situation. “It was terrible to see someone I love incarcerated,” she says, matter-of-factly. “But also, I didn’t tell this story for sympathy. It just is, you know? And it’s not intended necessarily to be emblematic of the entire story of the US prison system, which is – of course – incredibly varied, and racist, and lots of things. But this is my little story about it. And while it’s not the totality of the album, it certainly is an entry point.”

From these other interviews it’s evident that the one thing that Clark has grappled onto for this album is control. The ability to control her own narrative, and emphasize that her father’s experience isn’t indicative of the experience of other people in prison, but that it matters, a bit, for the purposes of this album, but only so much that it’s an “entry point” and not the focus of the whole album itself, despite it being marketed this way.

She’s trained herself to memorize this narrative, and she’s retained and recalled it well, except during the 30 minutes she spoke with Madden. And despite that interview being, sure, not as floral and submissive as the other press hits she did, it was still fine, but it wasn’t what she wanted, because she no longer had that control. Instead, she had a journalist that was insisting that Clark’s narrative was somehow related to the narratives of other people whose lives have been affected by the prison industrial complex. Rather than just reject the narrative, she wanted its existence totally erased.

All of this makes Clark human — the idea that she needs control after having little of it regarding this particular facet of her life. But the specific idea that she can erase the projections, reasonable or not, that other people place on her album makes her delusional. As the nationwide reckoning over the institutions of policing and prisons continues, a famous musician rejected the premise that her album that has been marketed as a commentary on her family’s experience with incarceration has anything to do with that reckoning. But the full scope of her interviews shows they know that’s not true. That Clark and her team thought that this album rollout would go seamlessly just by citing statistics on incarceration rates shows they are aware of the reality they live in, but not aware enough to avoid treating that reality as a toy for them to wheel out only when it suits them. She can choose, with little consequence, to turn away, and still, quite literally, profit off the narrative she’s chosen for herself.