Angel Olsen’s “Intern” Is a Response to the Origins of the Overwrought, “Confessional” Singer-Songwriter Lip-Sync

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If you’ve seen Angel Olsen perform live, you know that no matter how much she may ululate and contort her voice in all sorts of surprising ways, her face, and particularly her eyes, stay fixed in soft-focus on some unclear part of the room, like someone who’s assumed a position of apathy to express a seething grudge. As such, there’s a deadpan to all of her lovelorn lyrics, a sense of bored removal despite the emphasis in her voice; we get the feeling she’s giving a performance of love, or lovesickness, and an intriguing refusal to adopt the words and rhythms earnestly into her expression.

“Intern,” her new music video, perplexingly deemed a “trailer,” features Olsen assuming another performative stance while delivering it with numbed “over-it”-ness. In this self-directed clip (for a song that’s allegedly off an upcoming album, My Woman), she goes through the motions of the standard 90s singer/songwriter music video — the camera-addressing, the slow lip-syncing, the lusciously blowing hair. But she uses the sarcastic overripeness of synths (a new sound for Olsen) — which recall the tone of Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks score — to further the way her consciousness seems to be seated very far inside herself as she sings, acerbically and numbly commenting from within about the world’s relationship to the body and voice singing her lyrics. With imagery similar to that which we became so used to in the ’90s — where MTV and VH1 created spaces for musicians to advertise themselves via “organic” self-presentation — the “Intern” video speaks to the inherent bizarreness of the entire form, as well as its early, somewhat gendered necessitating of an air of confession.

In the same way, she emulated but deconstructed a ’50s rockabilly sound on some tracks of Burn Your Fire for No Witness — amping up the femininity of her voice to Brenda Lee-ish timbre on lines like “I feel so lonesome I could cry” in “Hi-Five,” sounding like she was singing from within the constrictions of performativ e pasts (and particularly gendered performances) before fittingly smashing them with the guttural “I’m stuck too/I’m stuck with you.” Some songs on Burn Your Fire didn’t sound so much like rockabilly as an eerie dream of it, and the ’50s, from which an occasionally less-numbed Olsen would shriek to escape.

Perhaps a bit more heavy-handedly than in “Intern,” Olsen’s “Hi-Five” video ended with a meta-awareness of the artifice on which the music video form was predicated: it featured her rotely doing flirtatious, interpretive hand gestures and then lying down on a floor covered in sequins, until the camera pulls back to a crew-member lazily flinging the sequins onto her:

Meanwhile, “Intern” presents a new, even more derealized sound for Olsen, and with it, a beautifully bored, dreamlike video with a new set of old tropes. The video opens with Olsen wearing a silver tinsel wig and staring, with glamorized listlessness, at the camera as she lip-syncs the words, “Doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done/Still gotta wake up and be someone.” At first, when you watch, you may be surprised by the way it structurally resembles older music videos — in which the norm was for musicians to painstakingly and self-seriously mouth their words, aping depth with their expressions while, for promotional purposes, also very staged-ly looking both as good and as casual possible, as in, say:

It definitely harkens back to the ’90s, the puzzling era where, for a decade, we accepted music videos as musicians’ earnest self-presentations, despite the very clear artifice of the ’90s vision for what the music video was. Music videos were, after all, addenda to albums, promotional materials that displayed the musicians as products, whereafter you might feel compelled to then delve into their actual art. Dudes in bands would often express their earnest feelings as a collective — see N’Sync’s “I Drive Myself Crazy,” and recall the trend of ’90s videos set in mental institutions; if the sincerity of angst was the criteria on which people chose to listen to music in the ’90s, these videos were the ads for musicians to visually prove their worth in wide-eyed sobriety. Look how casually pained and human I am! Look!

For the prevalent subcategory of “female vocalist”/solo artist at the time, it always seemed particularly tied to creating straightforward images of personal earnestness necessitated by gendered expectations of either confession or self-assertion — the former perhaps most fundamentally exhibited in Fiona Apple’s controversial “Criminal” video, the latter in Natalie Imbruglia’s now ironic-iconic “Torn,” in which the artist stares directly at the camera — just your everyday “gal” in jeans and a sweatshirt — then keeps staring but gets really, really, close, because the depths of the performer clearly lie in the nostrils.

In The Guardian last year, Alexandra Pollard wondered, “why are only women described as ‘confessional’ singer-songwriters?” She focused on how Joni Mitchell particularly repudiated that term, saying:

Confession is somebody trying to beat something out of you externally. You’re imprisoned. You’re captured. They’re trying to get you to admit something… Then there’s the voluntary confession of Catholicism, where you go to this window and you talk to this priest and tell him that you’re having sexual fantasies and he’s wanking on the other side of the window. That’s the only two kinds of confession I know – voluntary and under duress – and I am not confessing.

Meanwhile, the article also mentioned St. Vincent (Annie Clark) saying in i-D, “I think there’s something slightly pejorative about the term [“confessional] … it presupposes – in a kind of sexist way – this idea that’s ingrained in culture that women lack the imagination to write about anything other than their exact literal lives.”

Now, while obviously they’re still tied to marketing, music videos have become far weirder, far more narrative, and far less reliant on falsely organic soul-bearing. They far less frequently feature a singer staring into the camera and singing — although some artists who made it big in the 90s may continue to goofily retread this trend, and some new ones earnestly retread it, albeit while acknowledging its anachronism, à la Adele’s “Hello.” So when you see Olsen doing it, it at first seems puzzlingly sincere but then very quickly assumes the same remove as the rest of her onscreen/onstage appearances.

Olsen’s video even may lightly poke fun at the likes of “Hello,” with the singer at one point picking up a landline receiver, looking woefully across a room as she brings it to her face, and as a fan flays her silver locks in slo-mo on the pining lyric, “Pick up the phone, but I swear it’s the last time.” Then, static imposes itself on the screen, before it cuts to SMPTE color barsthe particular color bars that happen to have been used on TVs in the early 90s, as if the whole thing were an old blip.

Through all of her videos, and now to an even greater extent through “Intern,” Olsen has consistently used a fascinating, anti-earnest performance style to accompany her catchy, emotionally dynamic songs. She’s flattened her expression and deconstructed the nature of the emotionally exhibitionistic music video enough to write crushing songs about loneliness, love and loss while simultaneously performing distance from all emotions, altogether. You can own Olsen’s music, but she’s made sure you won’t own her soul.