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 bars — the 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.