Emma Madden on the viral fallout from their St. Vincent interview

I chat to Emma about why St. Vincent tried to kill their (now viral) interview, why they deleted their blog post, and what this all means for celebrity journalism

On Monday night, journalist Emma Madden self-published an interview that musician St. Vincent (real name Annie Clark) had asked them to kill. Emma’s interview was about the indie artist’s new album Daddy’s Home, which (released next month) deals with her father’s 2019 release from prison after having been jailed for fraud back in 2010.

But St. Vincent took issue with one of Emma’s questions about her views on incarceration, tied to last year’s prison riots in America and her father’s personal experience. “I guess last year’s riots brought abolition towards the mainstream, during the time you were making this record, which is partially about your father’s time in prison. How did that square with your thoughts on prison and the US carceral system?” Emma said.

“Well I have plenty of thoughts on it, I’m not totally sure how it’s relevant to this,” St. Vincent replied, tersely – one of the few moments of friction in a brilliant interview that was curious, empathetic, researched and fair.

But it seems the question spooked St. Vincent, as Emma was soon contacted by the star’s PR team, asking for the interview to be spiked. The magazine Emma had been commissioned by agreed not to run the piece, and so Emma uploaded it to their blog, where it swiftly went viral. The following day however – the blog post had gone.

Considering that one of my most recent posts about this exact issue – of artists and their teams dictating unreasonable terms to journalists and unfair power structures that are making it difficult for truthful journalism to thrive – I decided to contact Emma for a chat. We talked about the St. Vincent interview fallout and what it meant for celebrity journalism, fan culture, powerlessness, and what happened next.

Have a read of our (abridged) conversation below:

Eleanor: Have you ever had this kind of fallout from an interview before?

Emma: No. Having an artist demand an interview I've done to be killed is new for me.

Eleanor: I’ve had artists demand retrospective quote removal, or kick off after an interview to try and make sure some of their quotes are not included in the piece. Funnily enough it’s usually the publicists rather than the artists making these demands, worried that their client will come across the wrong way. 

Emma: I didn't even get any pointers on what was so unsettling about the interview. And I guess I would have appreciated that. I mean, I asked her what her stance was on prison abolition. I thought that was relevant because she wrote this album around the time of the protests. If you're writing an album called Daddy's Home, which is about your dad being released from prison, around the time of the protests and riots, then surely you'd have some thoughts on that. But she wasn't really willing to go there.

Eleanor: That’s always something I’ve struggled with as a journalist, what is fair game? If an artist has made art about their personal life, and their lyrics reference personal experiences, then I do think an interviewer should be able to ask about those experiences. If an artist doesn’t feel comfortable with that, then I don’t think they should do interviews.

Emma: I agree. 

Eleanor: Another thing I wrestle with is, to what extent is it fair to ask a celebrity about what’s in the news, about politics, or social issues? Is it fair to ask every famous person about Trump or MeToo, for instance? If they are not a political commentator, then why should we even expect them to have an answer they’d like to share with the world? Why should that answer mean anything to us?

Emma: Personally, my position on that is that I don't really expect artists or celebrities to be a political spokesperson. I'm not too interested in that. But the question about prison was super relevant to St. Vincent.

I was also suspicious of St. Vincent kind of dressing up as Candy Darling, you know, this trans woman from the Sixties. That was the one point that I did want to challenge her on. And I just asked her, are you impersonating her? And she said, “No, I'm just inspired by her but not embodying her or presenting as her.” And I killed that line of questioning there and then because I didn't want to make trans identity into a topic of journalistic discussion, because I don't really buy into that either. 

Eleanor: That’s very fair. So, tell me about why your post got taken down on Monday night?

Emma: There was a lot of outside pressure, and pressure that wasn't being directed towards me. If I could take on the consequences and the responsibility, the post would still be up. But the PR company was directing it towards someone else, the editor. So I just thought, okay, I'll take it down. Temporarily. I expected to speak with the company today. That hasn't happened. It's been really, really quiet on their side, which in itself is kind of unsettling. But we'll see.

Eleanor: So how will this experience affect you as a journalist? When I’ve had falling outs with artists or their team, I’ve found it very difficult to get interviewing again. I actually haven’t done an artist interview since an artist threatened to criticise a piece I had written about them on their Instagram to their hundreds of thousands of followers a couple months ago, because they didn’t like the quotes or the angle I had chosen. We eventually talked it out on email but it was a really frightening experience, that imbalance of power. 

Emma: Absolutely not. This makes me realise why I'm doing this in the first place. Because I'm not like that at all. I'm not pandering, I'm not scared of any of these people. If anything, it has reinvigorated me. I don't want to capitulate to these powers. I'm a journalist, so I want to challenge them. Nothing about this experience is going to prevent me from doing that in the future. I've always been kind of bratty. And that sometimes works in my favour. And a lot of the time it means that I'm not very graceful – but my whole life I've been challenging authority. Nothing is going to stop me or prevent me from exposing the structures of power which are trying to take hold of our industry.

But at the same time, I feel like I'm more sympathetic towards artists. Because as a result of this I have experienced fame on a very micro level. I saw what it was like to be discussed and have this very filtered down image of me in the world that people would project themselves on to. So now I feel like I'm going to go into interviews understanding what it must be like for a celebrity to have to deal with that every day. And I understand why artists would be so distrustful of the media. Because the vast majority of the time you're going to be misinterpreted.

Eleanor: Do you ever worry that celebrity journalism is becoming inauthentic, because writers are too scared to be truthful, to ask the brave questions, because of exactly what you have experienced?

Emma: I had an interesting conversation with someone on Tuesday who emailed me and said that he thinks interviewers have become more empathetic. Since we're all on social media we’re kind of experiencing what it's like to be looked upon and be perceived by the world, and have a very tiny amount of fame.

Eleanor: I see that. I do think I have become a much kinder journalist, as a result of cancel culture. But I also have to be wary of pandering to artists, to compromise my journalism so as to be “liked” by them and for my piece to be well-received by the industry as well as online. Do you, as a freelancer, worry about writing articles about an artist that they won’t like, and then having publicists withhold their talent from you as a result, making it harder for you to get work?

Emma: As a freelancer, I'm very atomized. I'm my own individual, which means that I don't really have any power. But I also feel like I'm kind of distanced from the industry in a way that makes me feel that I have a sort of aerial perspective on it. I mean, I did have to look at the roster of artists on the PR company and I did have to consider like, okay, so I'm going to publish this interview, and so I'll probably never get access to any of those artists on their roster. That's kind of fine with me. It's a bargain I can take.

Eleanor: So you think this pressure is coming from the PR company, rather than St. Vincent’s label?

Emma: I don’t know where her PR company ends and St. Vincent begins. I think it's deliberately meant to be that way. I cannot tell the difference. I was on a call to them, and they couldn't really tell me anything straight because the message had been passed down via so many messengers. 

Eleanor: It’s more threatening when its opaque. You don’t know who the enemy is. Was it always like this? Or do journalists have even less freedom, less power, now?

Emma: I feel like we have less power than ever before. I mean, even 15 years ago, Pitchfork could put up a really terrible review and that album wouldn't be listened to. You put up a terrible review now and it actually benefits the artist. I think people are more skeptical of journalists than ever before. And that works in the corporations’ favour and bigger artists like St. Vincent's favour.

I’m interested in music law, because it's esoteric by design – it protects corporations. A freelancer can't go up against a massive corporation in a court of law. I think the law plays a massive part in this. The law is there to protect corporations, and it's there to scare people like me.

Eleanor: Have you received any trolling from St. Vincent fans?

Emma: I mean, I might have done but I've made my account private. And to be honest, as long as it doesn't eat into my personal life, as long as they're not knocking at my door… I always remind myself, this is all on my phone, I can turn my phone off at any moment, I can close my eyes, I can walk away, no one's impacting that. Fan power is very different from corporate power. Fans don't have any power – they're coming from a place of powerlessness. That's why they're mad in the first place. They're mad that a journalist is speaking for them. They're mad that this journalist has perceived power, which obviously isn't how it works. 

Eleanor: Yes, that’s true, fans are mad that a journalist doesn’t understand an artist like they think they do. That we’re squandering what they see as a precious audience with a hero of theirs.

Emma: I've been upset before myself as as a fan, seeing a journalist interview someone I loved and them just not getting them. I understand the upset, but I don’t condone bullying, I just think that's tacky. But they are relatively powerless.

Eleanor: Would you say a celebrity has power? Is a celebrity a power structure?

Emma: They represent the power structure, they have the power behind them. And I think the fact that so much of discussion takes place on Twitter… Twitter is a place where civility is being made in real time. We're constantly discussing what good behaviour is and what bad behaviour is; what it looks like to be a good participant in society. What the correct opinions are. 

Eleanor: I often feel like some of the best celebrity interviews contain friction. A person reveals so much more of themselves in moments of anger or disagreement. What do you make of that?

Emma: I agree. And that's something else. I've been thinking about how, “the bad interview”, is the one that tends to get the most reaction on social media. And it's a genre that I think another journalist at The New Statesman used in St. Vincent’s last press cycle, when St. Vincent was kind of an asshole to her. And the journalist ends the interview being really sympathetic towards her. She says, “I hope she's okay. I hope she sleeps at night.”

And that was one of the more talked about interviews of her whole press cycle, just because it was bad. And the the writer looked morally pure, because she cared about her even though St. Vincent was an asshole. And I was thinking about how I didn't really want to go that way, even though it would have been much easier if I had. But that’s been done before. And also I wanted to explain my choices. I didn’t want to let the PR company win; to let them control me. Because at the end of the day it’s just a blog post.

Eleanor: So, why didn’t the magazine stand up for you?

Emma: The publication was smaller than the ones I usually write for. They didn't have the power to do anything about it. This is the part of the story I'm going to reflect on most. And also, I mean, this has ultimately been really good for St. Vincent. Like, she was trending on Twitter yesterday. I don't know how many times she must have trended before.

Eleanor: Finally, what’s your number one interviewing tip for fellow journalists?

Emma: Ask the questions you're scared of asking.

Eleanor: Amen to that!

Was St. Vincent right to kill the interview? Does this behaviour set a precedent? Let me know your thoughts by tweeting me @eleanorhalls1. You can find Emma @emmamaddenUK. You can also drop me an email: eleanorahalls@gmail.com