BY JOEY SWEENEY
What does New York City mean today? Who is it for? We think of this often — encountering current denizens whose grasp on the city seems as tenuous as a grade-school crush, in our own wanderings where we know that what we seek there (and increasingly, here in Philly, too) can no longer be found — but it was almost all we could think about when taking in “New York,” the new song and video by St. Vincent.
“New York” may be St. Vincent’s best video and worst song. The video, directed by the compelling, medium-pushing visual artist and Philly native Alex Da Corte and filmed by Philly’s All Ages Productions, provides Da Corte with a compelling palate of scenes that, over and again, illustrates his signature look: bold colors, geometric shapes, the teasing out of the human form across abstraction. There’s so much to look at here. (Same goes for his website, which I’ve had up on my browser for four days now, chipping away at it like a pint of expensive ice cream.)
But listen closely to the song, and it feels at once both aspirational to the point of being a brand piece and out-of-touch to the point of cringing. In this New Yorker profile that might have been more a of study of Annie Clark’s lifestyle and the ways in which she’s shifting her “brand,” you get a real window into how the actual songs might be secondary to what’s going on with St. Vincent right now. All of that is what it is: This writer has no sentimental stake in, or moral judgement about, St. Vincent going for a Top 40 grab. But what feels problematic is the cheapness of the song itself — Clark fills her hook with that kind of new-to-cities bravado that seems like it wants to be lip-synched straight into someone awful’s Snapchat: “You’re the only motherfucker in this city who can handle me,” goes the refrain.
All of this, to me, begs the question: Just what kind of motherfuckers are left in this city to handle you? In the song, we are placed variously on 8th Avenue and Astor Place, in an East Village locale now so foreign to any type of authenticity that yes, indeed, we see where potential handlers might be in short supply. But the affect of the song doesn’t give us that; it instead gives us a kind of banality masquerading as bravura. It’s the bad pandering of Lady Gaga; it’s a knock-off of a CBGB shirt at a Newark souvenir stand. It makes us feel like the song’s imaginational space is not actually the “New York” that Clark is trying hard to pin down but maybe more like the one in Broad City or Master of None that’s simply a movie-based stand-in for some non-reality based version of “New York.” The fantasy, in this case, is almost as unappetizing as the reality, because in this case, they’re pretty close to one another. And ultimately it’s easy to see why, in the end, they had to go to Philly to conjure some kind of vibe for it.