The 20th century’s visions of the future were as grandly dramatic as its narratives of the present — either it was flying cars and space colonies, a utopian vision of the rewards of ceaseless Progress, or it was a terrifying dystopia wherein people were ground in the machinery of state power. Either way, artists presented the future as something that would be radically different from the present, for better or worse.
Dystopic futures essentially took on the form of two conflicting visions, which you can summarize neatly by comparing the two great dystopian novels of the 20th century, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Nineteen Eighty-Four offered a vision of repression through fear and hate, while Brave New World depicted repression through pleasure and love. Both were clearly reflective of 20th-century fears of totalitarianism, and seemed all too credible — but now here we are, living in the future, and it turns out that we’re living in neither of these grand narratives. Instead we’re just… here, floating in time and space, trying to make sense of it all.
This isn’t to say that Orwell and Huxley were entirely wrong — after all, you could argue that Orwell’s vision of ubiquitous surveillance has been realized in Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA. But unless you’re unlucky enough to live in North Korea — a state that is, quite literally, a relic of 20th-century totalitarianism — you’re not indoctrinated by in the ways of Ingsoc and prosecuted mercilessly for thoughtcrime. Instead, here in America we sit at the top of a pyramid of global privilege, and the instrument of our repression turns out to be a mildly geeky dude in glasses, trawling endless reams of phone records for something that may or may not be significant. If we have security, it’s through obscurity: we’re essentially all just bits in an endless sea of data.
All this brings me to St. Vincent’s new self-titled record, which is streaming at NPR now and is currently on repeat at Flavorwire central. Like pretty much everything Annie Clark has made, the album’s great — it’s a romp through a distinctly digital landscape of squelchy synths, dance-floor-friendly beats, and Clark’s trademark guitar pyrotechnics. (Clark herself has described it as “a party record you could play at a funeral.”)
But what’s most interesting about St. Vincent is that its lyrics present a compelling portrait of the state of the present and the almost-future in America, a sort of mildly dystopic digital realm wherein repression is enabled through indifference and disinterest. The album is, as Clark says in excellent first single “Birth in Reverse,” “my report from the edge,” and it turns out that the edge isn’t all that different from where we are right now.
There’s a certain mundanity to Clark’s futurism, evidenced by the aforementioned “Birth in Reverse,” which provides a vision of waking up bleary-eyed in the 21st century: “Oh what an ordinary day/ Take out the garbage, masturbate.” The song’s title is evocative of the most human of processes, the creation of life (and also rather calls to mind the final scenes of Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void, another surreal vision of life in a near-future neon metropolis), but it’s also imbued with a sense that the world is closing in around us, albeit not in an entirely unpleasant way.
Indeed, Clark’s main beef with our repression is that we enter into it willingly. “Digital Witness,” the album’s conceptual centerpiece, complains, “If I can’t show it, you can’t see me/ What’s the point of doing anything?” — a not-at-all-subtle allusion to the modern-day culture of (over-)sharing. It evokes what you might call the commodification of identity, the sense that our very selves have become data for processing and monetizing, and the way we have acquiesced to this with barely a whimper: “Give me all of your mind/ I want all of your mind… Won’t somebody sell me back to me?”
Listening to St. Vincent, I found myself thinking of Spike Jonze’s Her, which, although clearly different in its outlook, presents a vision of the very near future that’s similar in its naturalism and mundanity. Where 20th-century futurists presented artifacts of technology as symbols of dynamism and power, Clark and Jonze present technology as a source of confusion and alienation. It’s not so much that Skynet has become self-aware and wants to destroy us all; instead, like the ever more self-aware operating system of Her, it’s slowly rendering us irrelevant.
There’s a faint echo of the Huxley/Orwell dichotomy in the contrasting visions of the future here: Her presents a soft-focus world wherein Joaquín Phoenix’s character’s life is given meaning by something entirely artificial, while St. Vincent’s future gives us reality played out in the view of an all-seeing digital eye. But neither future has anything like the grand narrative of Brave New World or Nineteen Eighty-Four — there’s no overarching state apparatus, no crushing oppression, no Room 101. Instead, the future is more like Futurama: just like the present, but with fancier stuff.
The central challenge faced by the characters depicted in both Clark’s songs and Jonze’s film is a personal one, a sense of trying to find and define one’s self in a world where the boundaries between physical reality and digital artificiality are blurred and stretched — Her, after all, catalogs its protagonist falling in love with an operating system, while St. Vincent evokes the idea of drifting in cyberspace, never certain of where or what you are: “Entombed in the shrine of zeros and ones/ Oh we fatherless features, you motherless creatures.”
Neither of these visions of the future is grandly dystopic in the sense that Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World were; rather, they’re based around small, individual narratives in a future devoid of anything bigger. Indeed, in the end they render the whole narrative of futurism irrelevant, because there really is no grand future that awaits us, just an endless present, a constant stream of ones and zeroes. (There are echoes here of Douglas Rushkoff’s ideas about present shock, which I’ve written about here before.)
There’s one more contrast to observe, too: Jonze’s protagonist is pretty much the epitome of 21st-century male insecurity, a man so emasculated and uncertain of his place in the world that, as his ex-wife observes with evident disgust, “he’s madly in love with his laptop.” Clark, by contrast, oozes sexual confidence, from the disarmingly frank opening to “Born in Reverse” to the strut of “Regret” and album opener “Rattlesnake.” If there’s gender conflict, it’s approached from a position of equality, not insecurity. Clark’s lyrics have always had a feminist bent, and it’s fascinating to contrast her female-centric future with Jonze’s vision of post-millennial masculinity, such as it is.
But ultimately, what’s lacking from both visions is genuine humanity; as Clark observes in “Every Tear Disappears,” St. Vincent‘s penultimate track, “A smile is more than showing teeth.” Both provide visions of a very near future wherein flesh and blood blur more and more with their digital creations. The days of flying cars and teleportation are long behind us; these days, our futurism is essentially an echo of the present. This is how the world
ends fails to end — not with a bang, but with the ongoing low-level hum of mainframe fans and fluorescent tubes.