Strange Mercy
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A Cheerleader No More

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Sometimes I imagine songs 'talking back' to one another, which is easy to do when different artists take on the same subject matter. In this case, however, its very clear that indie art-rocker St. Vincent and Jamaican singer OMI, who scored worldwide success in 2015 with the Felix Jaehn remix of his track 'Cheerleader', are on completely different wavelengths.


Cheerleaders in American Beauty (1999)

Image Source: 'Looking Past the Smile and the Sheen', NYTimes


Jamie Babbit, director of the 1999 satirical comedy film But I'm a Cheerleader, has noted that the cheerleader figures in the American consciousness as a "sort of the pinnacle of the American dream, and the American dream of femininity. The idea that girls grow up and they are brainwashed to want to be a cheerleader, you know, while, like, the guys play the aggressive sports and make millions of dollars. The girls cheer them on, you know, and make five cents, and show their legs. We just wanted it to be like this sort of stereotypical, you know, teen, teen — teen dream." Writing for NYTimes, Megan Abbott describes the appeal of the cheerleader in American popular culture: "Fresh-faced, teeth gleaming, bouncing ponytail. Eyes wide in either innocence or experience (your pick). Body held tight, brimming with promises soon to be fulfilled. She is rooting for you. Few symbols of all-American girlhood have proven more enduring in the last half century than that of the high school cheerleader."


OMI's track isn't explicitly about the figure of the American cheerleader, but it presents a parallel between the central male athlete taking on the competition and the female supporter, cheering from the sidelines. While it goes down easily, with its deep house remake and breezy tropical vibe, there is an underlying sexist tone that accompanies his evocation of male privilege, with the 'cheerleader' girlfriend 'always in my corner/ Right there when I want her', keeping him sexually faithful while many other girls tempt to lead him astray ('All these other girls are tempting/ But I'm empty when you're gone'). 


On 'Cheerleader', a track of critically-acclaimed indie rocker St. Vincent's third album Strange Mercy (2011), Annie Clark makes it decidedly clear that she's not interested in being 'the woman behind the man' any longer: ""Cheerleader" breaks on its enormous hook, with Clark singing, "I, I, I, I, I don't wanna be a cheerleader no more," each "I" pounding down hard, emphatically stating its independence." (Ryan Dombal, Pitchfork, 2011) Clark manages to seem intimate and abstract at the same time, turning the all-American cliche inside out: 'I know honest thieves/ I call family/ I've seen America/ With no clothes on...'


With Clark's intensely confessional lyrics and jaded vocal delivery (Adam Kivel of  notes that Clark sings with a "distorted, pitch-shifted shadow of her brilliant voice haunting every word"), being a cheerleader seems to be an exercise in self-betrayal and self-negation: 

'I've had good timesWith some bad guysI've told whole liesWith a half smileHeld your bare bonesWith my clothes onI've thrown rocksThat hit both my armsI don't know what good it servesPouring my purse in the dirt'


But while the chorus seems to be a rousing, build-up to a moment where Clark's lyrical persona achieves the self-determination and courage to free herself of the role once and for all, there's also that coy final verse that suggests that changing the status quo is not that easy: 'I don’t know what I deserve/But for you I could work'. St. Vincent can be cryptic, but the intelligence and raw emotion being showcased here makes all the effort made to understand her nuanced artistry worthwhile. 


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