CSFTD #28: St. Vincent – Paris is Burning

*Update* – Annie herself has since replied to this post on Twitter and said “@TooManyBlogs Hint: governmental neglect (all neglect is malignant), Katrina, and the “Paris” of America.

This is a good time to throw St. Vincent (Annie Clark) into the CSFTD melting pot. While she may divide opinion she is a class act. She creates some memorable songs, some even more memorable stage (and off-stage) moves and she’s not doing much at the moment, unusually for her. Typically the workaholic Clark will buckle down to working on her next album immediately after finishing one of her interminable tours (the Digital Witness one lasted two years) or with a collaborator like David Byrne (when he’s not collaborating with everyone else).

I had intended to run this particular feature back in November following the Paris terrorism attack but fortunately I changed my mind at the last minute. I say fortunately for several reasons. One of them is that a couple of fan sites quickly hosted this track as ‘Annie’s tribute to the terrorism victims’ or something similar and were equally quickly dismissed. It was considered – quite rightly I believe – to be disrespectful to those victims to attach a popular music song to the events of 13 November and to her credit Clark certainly made no attempt herself to do any such thing; at least not that I know of.

Another reason is that it isn’t clear just what it is about, or even if it has any connection to Paris at all. A fascinating debate began online a few years ago on one of those ‘song meanings’ sites. The gist of it is (it’s still there) that it concerns (a) the French Revolution, or (b) the Nazi destruction of Paris during the Second World War. I suppose you could make a case for both of them though in the case of (a) I’m not aware that the destruction of the city was the aim of the bourgeoisie, rather the overthrow of the clergy and aristocracy. The problem with (b), despite the line ’we are waiting on a telegram to give us news of the fall’ (there were no telegrams in 1789 although the telegraph was invented only 40 years later) is that there was no destruction of Paris in 1940 either (nor during its liberation in 1944). The French government capitulated in order to save Paris from that fate.

Another view has it that it is about a reclusive American soldier in Paris, when World War 2 was over and Europe lay in ruins, writing home to tell of his experiences. I can see the reasoning behind that and the lyrics do fit such a scenario for the most part.

I threw in my own six pennorth to that debate by suggesting that it concerns the Paris riots of 1968 which almost overthrew the government for a second time and which sparked worldwide popular rebellions against military and bureaucratic elites in the same way as the much more recent ‘Arab Spring’ did though on a bigger scale. Those riots were one of the many seminal events of the end of the 1960s that did much to determine the social direction of the world thereafter (see also the Moon landings, the My Lai massacre in Vietnam [which partly prompted the riots], Woodstock, the Charles Manson murders etc etc). The most fascinating era of my lifetime, for sure.  I offered several pieces of evidence. If I’m right, references to the war would mean the Vietnam War. But that didn’t end until 1975. Back to the drawing board.

Other people think it references the Franco-Prussian war or have seen nods to Hamlet in it (“Come sit right here and sleep while I slip poison in your ear”). But of all these possibilities I’m sticking to my theory that Clark would be more concerned with recent social change than with events in the dim and distant past.

But then, straight out of left field, came an interpretation that its protagonists are 100% confident about, namely that the song is based directly on the 1990 cult, award winning, American film documentary Paris is Burning. A film which chronicles the end of the underground drag ball culture era in New York City and the Africa-American, Latino, gay and transgender communities involved in it. It was a unique subculture. One of the reasons the film is so highly regarded is that it was one of the few documentaries of its time to be released theatrically, where it was able to reach LGBTQ audiences across the nation. The entire documentary is online but here is a short trailer.

Normally I’d reject this sort of conjecture out of hand. But I’m drawn to it in a way because it is just the sort of thing Annie Clark would be drawn to. Anyone who has learned anything about her private life will know that she openly admits to being attracted to subcultures such as this – and they still exist in New York where she lives – and is happy to spend her few ‘at home’ days and nights away from touring at least on the fringe of this environment.

On the other hand, I see few words in the lyrics that support that theory.

So there you have it. Plenty of theories here. Or perhaps you have one of your own? One thing we know for sure is that the cowboy country Dallas-raised Clark loves Paris and its culture. She has performed and recorded many songs live there over the years, including a ‘tribute to the Martini,’ (My Funny Valentine) and she never wastes an opportunity to go there. Another thing is that she is openly vague with her lyrics at times.

I chose Paris is Burning over her many other songs because to some of her fans Annie Clark sold out with her eponymous fourth album, focusing far too much on choreography, fashion and image rather than on the songs themselves. I don’t see it that way; it fully deserved to win the Grammy for Best Alternative Album. But at least Paris is Burning represents an earlier era (it is from her first album in 2007, Marry Me, immediately after she’d moved on from working with Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens) when she’d happily sit alone on a stage in her regular clothes and play her instruments (often several at the same time), scurrying around like a child unable to choose which Christmas presents to play with first, and sing her meaningful songs with a glorious sense of innocence.

There are lots of videos of this song but I particularly like this one.

© D J Bentley, 2016