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Rock bands hate the Internet—or at least they've turned their hesitations and anxieties about hyperconnectivity into fertile ground for songs. You'll find it in the first Death From Above 1979 album since they came out of hibernation and all over the latest Parquet Courts side release; you can hear its echoes on EMA's new album and in certain pockets of a new St. Vincent song. It was spelled out most clearly in Arcade Fire's interactive video for "Reflektor," which asked viewers to hold up their smartphones to their laptop screens and then blared the words "BREAK FREE." What makes these bands so dismissive of the technology that they depend on to disseminate their music?
Parkay Quarts (aka Andrew Savage and Austin Brown from Parquet Courts) named their new album Content Nausea, a catch-all term for the jitters you get from looking at a screen for too long. Their lyrics and compositions impart a yearning for the halcyon days of the 90s—guitars spurt and stutter a la David Berman and Stephen Malkmus, while Savage drones lines like, "Remember meeting a friend, writing a letter, being lost? / Antique ritual all lost to the ceremony of progress."
Earlier this year, Canadian noise-rock duo Death From Above 1979 released their second album, The Physical World, the first new music they'd put out in ten years. On the song "Always On," drummer and vocalist Sebastien Grainger speculates that Kurt Cobain would have hated the world we live in now. "You can't turn off, you're always on . . . If we brought Kurt back to life, there's no way he would survive." Cobain seems like a strange figure to kill off again in a song about how no one's ever alone anymore, but he died exactly ten years before DFA1979's debut—before the Web became easily accessible, let alone an unavoidable presence. He doesn't get a say in how his memory's used.
Yet is writing an e-mail really that far removed from writing a letter? Are people now refusing to meet with their friends because they have Facebook? Would Kurt take one look at our smartphone-addled country and decide he'd rather be dead again forever?
Like Arcade Fire did with "Reflektor" and the album of the same name, Parkay Quarts and DFA1979 flaunt their memories of a pre-Internet time to distinguish themselves from young people who have never known another world. It's a vein of thought that social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson has dubbed "digital dualism;" you've got your "real life" and then you've got the digital life, which is fake. Jurgenson asserts that there's no real divide either practically or psychologically between the environments you traverse outside your window and the ones you visit through your computer screen.
"If we can fix this false separation and view the digital and physical as enmeshed, we will understand that what we do while connected is inseparable from what we do when disconnected," Jurgenson writes in his essay "The IRL Fetish." "Disconnection from the smartphone and social media isn't really disconnection at all: The logic of social media follows us long after we log out. There was and is no offline; it is a lusted-after fetish object that some claim special ability to attain, and it has always been a phantom."
Rather than level contempt at the online world, artists like EMA and St. Vincent engage it with a playful sense of complicity. St. Vincent's "Digital Witness" positions Annie Clark as someone who revels in her addiction to sharing herself with the Web: "What's the point of even sleeping if I can't show you, if you can't see it?" she asks. On her sophomore album, The Future's Void, EMA worries about technological apocalypse, but also sneers at those who consider themselves above taking selfies or texting. Around the album's release, she posted a series of self-portraits with stills from the online virtual world Second Life projected onto her face.
Both these artists grapple with the Internet instead of dismissing it, and it's probably because the Internet is a place that has afforded women more autonomy than the patriarchal analog universe. It's easier to scoff at technologies that do nothing to bolster your sense of identity or belonging. Anderson writes songs about camgirls, online sex workers who were among the first entrepreneurs to turn their modems into businesses. St. Vincent absorbs the complicated feeling of becoming someone who is always seen and maybe kind of loves it.
I see digital dualism preached through music made by white guys, not by those who are finding their voice for the first time in a system that lets them broadcast their art without gatekeepers. That "antique" past might have been comfortable for people who already had a platform, but for the rest of us, this crowded, anxious, plugged-in world is real even if it isn't perfect.