New York isn’t New York without you, love sings St. Vincent in the song, New York. The lead single of her fifth studio album MASSEDUCTION is described as the culmination of years of writing, with songs crafted from voice memos, text messages, and snippets of melodies.
Annie Clark, famously known by her stage name St. Vincent is born in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Already a guitarist at the early age of 12, she joined her uncle’s band Tuck & Patti, briefly took an undergraduate course at Berklee College of Music and dropped out two and a half years later to pursue music. After her stint in Berklee, she joined the Polyphonic Spree and opened for Sufjan Steven in which she began recording what would be her first album Marry Me in 2006.
Since then, St. Vincent has accumulated critically acclaim albums such as Marry Me (2006), Actor Out of Work (2008), Strange Mercy (2011), St. Vincent (2015), MASSEDUCTION (2017), and her most recent one, Daddy’s Home (2021). Right now she has earned 3 Grammys, directed a feature-length film, designed a signature guitar, and fronted the famous American rock band Nirvana.
St. Vincent’s New York
New York is the first single released on June 30, 2017, from her then-upcoming album MASSEDUCTION. A radical departure from Clark’s complicated industrial techno-electric rapid guitar licks. New York is a stripped-down piano ballad about romantic loss. It’s simple in its honesty but not without edge. The juxtaposition of harshness to tenderness is a St. Vincent trademark. A characteristic she is cognizant about.
She said in an interview with SongExploder:
I just liked the idea of using, you know, really blue language as a term of endearment. I apologize for your ears, but I just, it’s, motherfucker says like, ‘I know you inside and out, I know you, and you know me, like don’t pretend.
“You’re the only motherfucker in the city who forgive me,” she sings in New York, “Come kiss me stupid, come kiss me sore,” in Pills, “Slow down, dilettante / So I can limp beside you,” in Dilletante.
The words “motherfucker” next to “forgiveness”, and “kiss” next to “stupid” lend the song its authenticity without resorting to being trite. Whom else can we call these names other than the person who knows (or once knew) us best?
It is not without reason that Annie felt assured about this song. In an article from the New Yorker she mentioned:
It’s rare that you get to say, ‘This song could be someone’s favorite.’ But this might be the one. Twenty years of writing songs, and I’ve never had that feeling.
New York isn’t New York without you, love
New York tackles this romantic loss. A beloved who moved to a different place leaving the lover alone with memories shared together in the city. It’s intimate. Conversational even. It’s like glancing in someone’s diary except it’s intended to be read and known. Annie perfectly negotiated this vulnerability with only enough anecdotes to convey the personal to the universal.
“I have lost a hero / I have lost a friend / But for you darling, I’d do it all again.” It’s a tragedy waiting to happen. Losing a friend and a hero. Even sadder when it carries its own consciousness. It’s a Sisyphean task. Pushing a stone up the hill, compelled by something. Here, that something is love.
However, what belies the romantic loss is her love for New York itself. In a fan-recorded video of one of the first performances of this song, she prefaced the performance with dedication.
There’s only one city in the world that this song could actually truly be about. As much as one could supplant the word New York with Indianapolis etc. All great cities, all fine cities. But they’re not the best fucking city in the world. It’s just a fact. This is my love letter to you all, and to you New York.
She’s mourning the loss of the place as equal as the beloved. Love and loss might seem like separate or distinct dots on a linear timeline but it’s more like the faces of a coin. The heightened sense of grief and loss measures how much we loved (or still love) someone.
Place and loss
For St. Vincent, the presence of another person in the places we visit changes us and changes the place too. There is a New York when you’re alone, and there’s New York when you’re in love. This is the dialectics of place in relation to love. We encounter consciously the newness of place only twice in our lives. First during our settling, and second when we encounter loss.
Places are the backdrops of our existence. The theater is where we act out the minutiae of our lives from the mundane to the monumental. Sometimes, the places we frequent by virtue of necessity, know us more than anyone else.
St. Vincent recognizes this from the way she performs this song on her tours. She would replace New York and other landmarks in the track with the places from the city she’s performing in. This ties in with her philosophy in the music.
She said in an interview with Pitchfork:
My general philosophy is that once the record is out, it’s for everybody else. It’s not for me.
This invocation of philosophy attests to St. Vincent’s keen sense of universality rooted in humane experiences. While listening to pop stars’ lamentations about the occlusion of fame from living an ordinary life can be vicariously entertaining, songs like New York take root in our shared experiences.
“New York isn’t New York without you love / Too few of our old crew left on Astor / So if I trade our hood for some Hollywood / Where you’re the only motherfucker in the city who forgive me.”
The established routine, the dreary humdrum of monotony, oftentimes only gains significance when it’s already upended and we’re already way past it, the distance, sufficient enough to gain a semblance of what it was.
With St. Vincent’s decentering of herself from her music, the song effectively becomes ours. We have our own New York in our lives. The small routes, coffee shops, stores, and streets we’ve grown up with simply by virtue of frequency. Places that are never the same because something in us changed, or in this case someone left.
Annie said in an interview with GQ:
You grow so much when you think about who you’ve been in this tiny amount of space. It’s sweet. You’re living with the ghosts of yourself and your heroes.
If that’s the case, then Manila isn’t Manila without you, love. In the end, we’re only left with memories and what to do with them.
Drex Le Jaena is a writer currently based in Cavite.