St. Vincent was the musical guest on the season finale of Saturday Night Live last weekend, hosted by Andy Samberg. A talented and attractive young woman in a black dress, the singer and songwriter of St. Vincent, Annie Clark, both played guitar and sang very well.
Doesn’t sound very weird, does it? That’s because it wasn’t:
But you’d think Klaus Nomi was back from the grave and on SNL if you read the reactions to the St. Vincent performance on Twitter...
Many viewers were inexplicably perplexed by the slightly-quirky artist who recently released her latest of four albums (one of which was a collaboration with David Byrne of Talking Heads). But St. Vincent has played Coachella, opened for Arcade Fire and Death Cab for Cutie, and has more than 400,000 Twitter followers -- not exactly obscure. Clark's performance was cool and pretty mesmerizing, but she is certainly no more strange than Julee Cruise, Sierra, and Bianca Casady of CocoRosie or Beth Gibbons of Portishead.
That didn’t stop a minor Twitter freakout about how “weird” St. Vincent is. Here is a head-scratching sampling:
Who else has heard of St. Vincent? #crickets #weird
Jay Eff @Schpliffy
@nbcsnl @st_vincent thought I was drunk...no just watchin st vincent on snl. what a trip
@nbcsnl @st_vincent this chick SUCKS ASS!!! #whyGodwhy???
Avis Cyrus @SupSurruh
St. Vincent is possibly the weirdest.. band.. thing.. I've seen perform on SNL.
Sure, this is an example of how Twitter has given millions of mundane, semi-literate teenagers a means with which to voice opinions that in past decades most of us would have been blissfully unaware of, but it’s disturbing nevertheless that this competent and entertaining but not terribly earth-shattering performance blew young minds to the degree that it did.
Has corporate rock really destroyed creativity so much that anything slightly off-center from the likes of Coldplay and Kesha is considered wild and wacky?
Some argue that the Internet has brought weirdos together and in that way, has fostered more weirdness, but the St. Vincent Twitter snit shows that social media has the power to unite the boring and unimaginative just as well.
Authentic weirdness is endangered -- and that’s a problem.
Perhaps we are too busy working to pay our exorbitant rents to be – or even appreciate the – weird. Or too preoccupied with worry about not working enough.
But don’t misunderstand: By “weirdness,” I’m not saying that we need more 50-something dudes in “Why Be Normal?” t-shirts and tutus twirling around in parades or pestering people outside Starbucks, "flying their freak flags," nor am I saying that we should all go to Burning Man; I’m talking about functional weirdness, i.e., art, and how exposure to it improves society.
In a November opinion piece in The New York Times, Brian Kisida, Jay P. Green and Daniel H. Bowen argued that art can make you smarter:
“A few years ago … we had a rare opportunity to explore [outcomes after exposure to the arts] when the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened in Bentonville, Ark. Through a large-scale, random-assignment study of school tours to the museum, we were able to determine that strong causal relationships do in fact exist between arts education and a range of desirable outcomes.
“Students who, by lottery, were selected to visit the museum on a field trip demonstrated stronger critical thinking skills, displayed higher levels of social tolerance, exhibited greater historical empathy and developed a taste for art museums and cultural institutions.”
Many fans who appreciate St. Vincent expressed their approval of her performance, and some even tweeted their amusement about all the people who “didn’t get it.” And SNL is to be commended, I think, for featuring a musical act even slightly thought-provoking for once.
Once upon a time, SNL booked actual cutting-edge and genuinely weird artists and bands on the show (One notable '70s-era booking was Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys). In fact, some of television’s greatest moments, I would argue, were during the performances of musical guests on the show.
So here, boring kids, consider this -- some of SNL’s musical guests that were in fact, weird in their time, and not coincidentally, also awesome -- a tutorial:
Frank Zappa, “Peaches en Regalia,” 1976:
Fear’s “Beef Baloney” and “New York’s Alright (If You Like Saxophones),” 1981 (adorably introduced by Donald Pleasance even though it sounds like he was being heckled by the punks):
David Bowie and Klaus Nomi, “Boys Keep Swinging,” 1979:
Sinead O’Connor, “War” sung a cappella, 1992:
The original footage of Elvis Costello interrupting his song “Less Than Zero” to play “Radio, Radio” -- a song attacking corporate radio broadcasting, of which NBC parent company RCA was a part of -- isn’t available online, but at least we have the Beastie Boys’ homage to it, 1999:
Clark herself referenced the famous Costello "fuck you" in a 2012 appearance on Conan O’Brien, before performing her song "Cheerleader." Which was cool -- we need history, we need art and we need weird.
Let's thank St. Vincent for doing its part.