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Playlist: communication in the digital age

| Thursday, August 27, 2015

Playlist_Banner_WebJanice Chung | The Observer

For better or worse, in the second decade of the 21st century, so much of human communication has come to be mediated through devices and screens. The debate around the massive changes brought about by the digital age is so frequently polarizing: Are we more connected or more isolated than ever before? Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs have likewise sparked discussions about the privacy, or lack thereof, of our communication online. The prevalence, however, of both these technologies and the conversation about their role in our lives have made it a fertile topic for exploration by musicians in recent years.

“We’re still connected, but are we even friends?” Win Butler asks on Arcade Fire’s 2013 single “Reflektor.” Over the course of a nearly seven-minute disco track, Butler and Régine Chassagne continue to question what it means to communicate online, theorizing that it’s “just a reflection of a reflection/of a reflection of a reflection.”

Father John Misty’s “True Affection,” off this year’s excellent “I Love You, Honeybear,” explores the inadequacy of digital communication as well. The track’s electronic production stands out on an album of folk rock songs, with Josh Tillman embracing digital technology in his music even as it bemoans its social effects. “When can we talk/With the face/Instead of using all these strange devices?” he asks at the beginning of each verse, suggesting that real-life communication is still the best way to show affection.

Drake offers a critique of social media on “Energy,” from his recent mixtape, “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late.” On the track, he complains about women “askin’ me about the code for the Wi-Fi/So they can talk about they timeline/And show me pictures of they friends/Just to tell me they ain’t really friends.” The rapper interrogates how the meaning of friendship has changed because of social media and bemoans how frequently it becomes a distraction, even in real-life conversation.

“Digital Witness,” the 2014 single by St. Vincent, wonders about our reliance on social media. On the song’s chorus, Annie Clark sarcastically asks, “If I can’t show it, if you can’t see me/What’s the point of doing anything?” The song is clearly cautious about the performative nature of social media and the tendency to constantly be capturing moments to share online. “Watch me jump right off the London Bridge!” she jokes at one point, pointedly critiquing the narcissistic, attention-seeking aspects of social media.

M.I.A.’s “Internet Connection” is also about our dependence on the Internet, even as it embraces digital sounds, using samples such as the Photo Booth countdown timer and the sound of emptying your trash folder to create what she calls a “digital ruckus.” Over this beat, she relates the experience of “surfin’ out of my mind” and the difficulty of turning off the computer to go “do something.”

EMA’s underrated 2014 album “The Future’s Void” addresses many of the same issues, especially on “3Jane,” which discusses the effects of constantly sharing about yourself online. “Feel like I blew my soul out/Across the interwebs and streams,” Erika M. Anderson sings, ”It was a million pieces/Of silver, and I watched them gleam.” The Internet leaves a “hole so big inside of me” and makes her feel disconnected from the world.

So many of these artists raise their concerns about the digital age as questions — these discussions about the impacts of technology are still very much unresolved. At the very least, however, these songs force us to consider the effect on ourselves and how we interact with others. As Clark wrote in a review of “Reflektor,” but which could also be applied to the other songs of this playlist, this music “elucidates constant psychic vacillation between uber-connection and utter disconnection. They ask you to be aware of your fractured attention span/psyche/in touch with your humanity.”

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About Matthew Munhall

Matthew thinks everyone should listen to Charly Bliss.

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