On Pop Music, Instagram Anxiety and Being Alone
It's comforting to see artists like Shamir, Rina Sawayama and Hannah Diamond make sense of my rabid internet addiction.
Hi. This is a monthly column where I'll be writing about something I've been unhealthily obsessed with. It is basically a written accompaniment to this meme. But with more music. Thanks.
"They say we don't feel pain, they say we're gross and vain," sings Shamir on their latest track "90's Kids", a gorgeous lo-fi ballad that has the sticky, meandering quality of something you'd overhear your flatmate humming in the shower, or crackling out your neighbour's radio. The sort of thing that would have you pressing your ear against the wall to get a better listen. Except it isn't just a catchy pop song. It also perfectly articulates that intoxicating blend of existential dread, paralysing anxiety and relatable humour that will be familiar to anybody who is young and spends a lot of time scrolling through memes on their phone until their eyes feel dry and their brain feels like a smashed compass.
I spent my upbringing in various neighbourhoods in London surrounded by constant noise and incessant movement. I always seemed to be running for a bus, or squeezing through crowds of people, screaming kids, blaring car speakers, my feet slapping against gum-tacked concrete pavements on the way to school. But as the only child of a single mum who worked evenings to keep us both afloat, I also spent a lot of time completely alone. This was before the internet became ubiquitous, and we didn't own a television, so there would be great stretches of time spent doing things I can barely remember now. Writing letters to people that don't exist. Secretly reading the sex columns in my mum's stack of old Cosmopolitan magazines. Staring out the window at passersby and imagining their names and house interiors. If that sounds kind of depressing, it really wasn't. But it did imbue me with a deep and genuine desire to be frequently alone, jostled up against the need to be constantly enveloped in noise and mental activity, that has lasted well into adulthood – and it's a tension that has since manifested itself in being online, in scrolling through Instagram, repeatedly tagging people in memes, but speaking to no one IRL for vast periods of time.
Shamir isn't the only artist to take the preoccupations of the perennially anxious internet generation and turn it into pop music. Last week, for instance, east London artist Rina Sawayama released the video for "Cyber Stockholm Syndrome", a twinkling, R&B track that neatly sums up that feeling of wanting to curl up with the effervescent blue glow of your iPhone, thirsty for those late-night likes, while also wishing you could hurl that same tiny glass rectangle at the wall. "Came here on my own, party on my phone / Came here on my own, but I start to feel alone," she sings, addressing the unique inner battle which pervades all those hours spent online. It's something she's spoken about in interviews as well. "Before, I saw the internet as a captor of our time and free will," she told The Fader . "But now, I see embracing a positive relationship with our online selves as an act of self-preservation and defiance. In this age, the digital world can offer vital support networks, voices of solidarity, refuge, escape… That's what 'Cyber Stockholm Syndrome' is about: pessimism, optimism, anxiety, and freedom."
She's painted that same picture of pessimism, optimism, anxiety and freedom in earlier work too. In "Tunnel Vision", released in 2015, she sings "I know you're sad and lonely, but I've got 100 tabs open in my mind" alongside a sparkling, pastel-coloured video that shows her rolling around her bed late at night, an iPhone inches away from her face, bathing her in its cold, white light. Later, the iPhone is literally in place of her heart, glowing through her shirt, as if it's become just another organ. Directed by Instagram artist Arvida Bystrom, the video neither judges nor celebrates our relationship to the digital world, but presents it as it is; a force that is ubiquitous, and one with which we're frequently, inescapably obsessed.
This column was really hard to write. Not because the thoughts weren't there, or even that I had any difficulty organising them, but because my phone was staring at me from the table on the left hand side of my laptop. Even when I flipped it around, shiny screen facing downwards, matte rose-gold back facing upwards, it was still there, full of the names and images of everyone I have ever known, notifications waiting to be seen, icons waiting to be touched in order to soak up the most up-to-date information, down to the previous second. The other day, my friend sent me a message on Gchat: "Mate, how often are you on Instagram? Because your name is always the first to show up on my stories." "Quite a lot," I replied, "Like, more than I speak to people IRL, more than I do anything else really. Lmao."
The way Shamir and Rina are exploring internet anxiety in their music isn't exactly subtle, but it is gentle. Hannah Diamond from PC Music, on the other hand, has always dived in harder and colder. In her video for "Hi", for instance, we once again see someone alone in their room, rolling around their bed, deep in thought, but the neon-lit scene feels more utopian somehow. "I don't wanna be alone in my bedroom writing messages you won't read," she sings in sugary tones over stabbing synths, calling to mind all those giddy DMs you drafted but never sent, one finger suspended over the screen before pressing delete. "I don't wanna be alone in my bedroom on the internet, waiting to say … hi."
Speaking about the song and video in a press release, Hannah Diamond explained that "Hi" tells "the story of an online relationship, not with one specific person, but with all the people you interact with, and how it can often feel really isolating in online spaces despite being constantly surrounded by others." At the end of the clip, she flips open her pink laptop and stares at the screen in a way I can only describe as intentionally creepy. "Hi! Oh my God, it's so good to see you!" she says, as if she is addressing not a human being, but her laptop, or even just the internet itself. Which is relatable, because at times it can feel like the internet is a singular, tangible mass, rather than an entity made up of limitless information that arguably doesn't even exist.
It would be inaccurate to claim that pop music is now putting a voice to internet anxiety, as if it's a huge trend, because it's not. There are only a few artists I have noticed doing this, and at this point it still feels a bit 'meta', and like an exception to the rule. But I do think there's something to be said about how the generation who were brought up finding solace in online spaces are now the ones making the art. And how, because of that, conversations around the internet are evolving, and beginning to seep into mediums like pop music, becoming way more nuanced than your 61-year-old uncle grumbling about how in his day kids did roly polys around a bonfire instead of staring at "that thing".
I don't think social media platforms like Instagram are necessarily bad for your brain or even for the world at large. There's very little research on how they affect mental health, and the links that can be made are still kind of tenuous, or fail to dig beneath the surface or take in the wider picture. Like, sure, Instagram might exacerbate unattainable beauty standards, but online communities are also working hard to dismantle them. That said, in my own experience, Instagram does offer a unique kind of turmoil that fits somewhere between sadness and desire, sometimes in opposition to each other, sometimes at the same time.
If you've ever uploaded a perfect-lighting selfie to Instagram then felt immediately stressed about all the eyes that might be viewing it, you'll know what I mean. If you've ever DMed your crush, felt the discomfort of being left on 'seen', and then chill again when they reply, you'll know what I mean. If you've ever tried to complete a simple, straightforward task – like writing a column on pop music and Instagram anxiety – and just could not focus on it for longer than 60 seconds without refreshing your notifications and forgetting your train of thought, then you'll know what I mean. And honestly, it's comforting to know I'm not the only one who feels this constant push and pull. And that pop music, the most unifying force of all, is somehow able to make sense of it.
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