Unpacking St. Vincent’s “Digital Witness”

St. Vincent/Annie Clark‘s new album is gleaming. It took me a couple of listens to fully immerse, but when I did, it was magic. And just a couple of weeks after the album was released, her live show at Haw River Ballroom quickly became one of the best and most tirelessly exciting I’ve seen.

The fifth track of her self-titled album that dropped in February, the song “Digital Witness” is reflective of a general disillusionment with how immersed many of us have become in the realm of digital media.

Part of the chorus facetiously instructs, “People, turn the TV on. It looks just like a window.” She speaks to the ways we’ve replaced tangible experiences with ones we can passively experience on a screen.

Later on, the phrase turns as she suggests, “People, turn the TV on and throw it out the window.” Clark sings about the pursuit to get in touch with actual reality, and she proposes that the most reinvigorating and radical thing we can do reconnect with what it is to be human is to actively reject the technological options we’re handed.

There’s an evident, deeper reason for this critique than simply turning off your phone when you want to get something done or trading time spent on Facebook for time spent reading a book. There is a meditation on existence at the heart of the song. Clark is proposing reflection on the digital age in a way that is not shallow or empty; she’s getting at what exactly it means to be a person in this era.

Clark asks repeatedly, “Digital witnesses, what’s the point of even sleeping? If I can’t show it, if you can’t see me, what’s the point of doing anything?”

The idea of sharing has become so integral to feeling as if we are communicating effectively, not just to one but to many. Are we really just witnessing the world and electing to participate in it less and less? It seems with all the sharing we’re doing, someone should eventually be asking what we are gaining. I’m glad Clark is one of the people publicly engaging with the topic.

She ends the song with a lyrical plea: “What’s the point of even sleeping? So I stopped sleeping, yeah, I stopped sleeping. Won’t somebody sell me back to me?”

On days when I’ve spent longer than a couple of hours on my laptop—which is almost every day—I feel you, Annie Clark.

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