“Digital Witness,” the lead single from Annie Clark’s self-assured fourth album as St. Vincent, is a portrait of someone whose desperate need for attention and affirmation has metastasized into full-blown social media addiction and a distance from active life. “What’s the point of even sleeping if I can’t show it, if you can’t see me?” Clark sings on the chorus. “What’s the point of doing anything?”
Clark doesn’t display much empathy for the protagonist of the song, but the jagged, overstimulated sound of her music fleshes the character out a bit my implying she’s frazzled and antsy, and maybe even a little unhinged. The music has a manic intensity that feels exciting and urgent, but the tone of the lyrics are at odds with the banal realities of social media in 2014: Facebook, Twitter, and the rest are part of everyday life now, but for most people, they’re just a convenient way to communicate with friends and family. The hysteria of “Digital Witness” doesn’t have much connection to the mostly mundane ways people use social media, but it’s very tapped into the anxieties of people who dread it: You’ll become an obsessed zombie person; you’ll become a narcissist; you’ll never stop performing your identity. “Digital Witness” is the bottom of Clark’s social media slippery slope. In another era, it’d be a song about a frantic person who can’t stop making phone calls or writing letters.
Since all of this anxiety is projected on to a character rather than confronted in a more direct and subjective way, “Digital Witness” comes off as extremely condescending toward the diverse range of people who regularly use social media. It’s like insisting that anyone who takes a selfie is a raging narcissist, or when smug celebrities dismiss online journalists as being a bunch of losers who live in their parents’ basement. It’s rooted in the assumption that you’re living a full and authentic life, while others are not.
St. Vincent’s entire body of work to date is mainly concerned with pleasant, beautiful façades that hide buried emotions and anxieties. This is usually dramatized in the music itself, as Clark contrasts tranquil, sterile tones with agitated rhythms and short bursts of abrasive distortion. So it makes sense that social media would be an intriguing topic for her, as it represents both a performance of identity that she seems to instinctively distrust, and creates a culture that demands a degree of transparency that makes her uncomfortable.
Clark’s art and public persona is very meticulously constructed, and she limits what the general public knows about her personal life — she consistently sidesteps any questions about her family or sexuality, and recently told Pitchfork that “the real currency in the future will be privacy.”
It’s easy to empathize with her reluctance to bow to the pressure to be fully open in public. If you’re the kind of person who feels a need to control the way others perceive you, the culture of oversharing on social media can seem like the pinnacle of tastelessness and self-obsession. But that impulse to limit information about your life, hiding your flaws, and creating a sense of mystery about yourself is just as much a performance of identity as anyone who is perhaps too open about their lives on Facebook or Instagram.
“Digital Witness” is an excellent piece of music, and its unlikely balance of nervous energy and rigid composure is something Clark does better than anyone else. But in comparison to a lot of her work — most especially the nuanced and sympathetic portraits of uptight characters on her 2009 album Actor — the lyrics of “Digital Witness” feel shallow and judgmental. It’d be a lot more interesting if instead of projecting so much on others, she’d dig a little deeper into why creating a persona, whether by sharing online or refusing to, can be so scary.
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