When everything’s bite-size, who gets a full meal?
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On July 17, 2015, I packed into a room with a few hundred other people to watch ascendant indie rocker Mitski perform at a now-defunct venue in Brooklyn, NY. I’d seen Mitski perform a handful of times previously—including once for a solo acoustic session I’d orchestrated for Fvck The Media—and we’d been able to share a few conversations. Nothing seemed particularly different about this specific show, apart from the at-capacity crowd reflecting Mitski’s popularity uptick. As I did for nearly every show I attended that summer, I filmed a few songs. Towards the end of Mitski’s set, I hit record as her band—at that point made up of Mitski, guitarist Callan Dwan, and drummer Casey Weissbuch—launched into an inspired rendition of “Drunk Walk Home.”
There were around 300 people in that room. Before this year’s over, the video that I uploaded of that performance will have been viewed over a million times. There’s a small section of that video that will have been consumed at a far greater rate.
At some juncture over the past few years, a TikTok user ripped a portion of that video’s ending, highlighting the blistering, anguished scream Mitski unleashes amidst the song’s punishing climax. Subsequently, that clip (and sound) went viral, ushering in a handful of videos either duplicating or expanding on that initial, fragmented entry. A few of those emergent videos also culled the scream from another live video I’d shot of Mitski and a separate backing band (made up of LVL UP‘s Nick Corbo and Mike Caridi on drums and guitar, respectively) performing the song in Chicago. At some point, the screaming videos picked up a sort of critical mass and eventually developed into a communicative shorthand for users looking to express the depths of severe, untenable emotion.
YouTuber dannybot delivered a wonderful, exploratory long-form video essay, “MITSKI vs. TIKTOK: The Exploration Of A Lack Of Context,” that touched on a number of things, all related to Mitski. Among those topics was the “Drunk Walk Home” scream videos, their use and impact as shorthand, and other bits of Mitski’s catalog that have been splintered off into digestible, bite-size TikToks. In the essay, they make arguments for and against reduction when it comes to art, acknowledging the potential for potency in each approach. However, their overarching argument is tethered to something I have been contemplating for the majority of my adult life: how modern society’s been irreparably shaped by—and openly caters to—immediacy.
Ignoring the role the internet played in accelerating this development would be irresponsible. We’ve literally never had a faster or more effective medium to express our thoughts or cultivate our dopamine responses. As a result of that acceleration, there’s been a natural ripple effect in how we collectively function as a society. Namely, attention spans—especially for younger people—have been rapidly decreasing. This has also been reflected by consumer habits, especially within music, where Spotify playlist algorithms reign supreme. Unfortunately, there’s a very apparent downside embedded into this ongoing articulation of attention, and it’s directly tied to how we navigate context.
There are an innumerable array of bleak outcomes that the internet presents, which have been thoroughly outlined in documentaries (Werner Herzog’s Lo And Behold, Reveries Of The Connected World, Jeff Orlowsky’s The Social Dilemma, etc.) and in piercing social commentary (Bo Burnham’s recent works, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, and Douglas Rushkoff’s Throwing Rocks At The Google Bus, to name a few). Critically, many of those bleak outcomes hinge on an insatiable appetite for immediate satisfaction and the willingness to sacrifice context or consideration in order to achieve the preferred end results. We’re actively bearing witness to the damage this has wrought in politics (the introduction and proliferation of the MAGA and QAnon sects), religion (the ongoing rise of Christofascism), health (anti-vaxxers’ renewed sense of deeply-misplaced righteousness), journalism (which prizes being first or exclusive, often to detrimental effect), and entertainment.
By slowly eroding our patience through this level of unprecedented access, we become more susceptible to diminishing the value of context. Between the pursuit of sustained dopamine and a growing desire to be perceived on a larger scale, we tend to minimize our window to examine historical precedent, sociological impact, and other factors that are necessary to making measured and/or informed judgments. It can be something as simple as skipping a “terms and agreements” section when signing up for a new social media platform, or it can be something far more sweeping and complex, like navigating how to effectively rehabilitate or deprogram an individual whose past actions have endangered others. These things take time, and in a world dominated by the drives of late-stage capitalism, that time isn’t always accessible or manageable. Unfettered access has competing information available to us at an unsustainable rate for effective analysis; generating a nuanced take on most issues is at odds with the modern trends of information consumption.
Social media’s impact on this evolution continues to be profound. From Vine to Snapchat to Twitter to TikTok, there has been an emphasis on fragmentation, condensation, and gratification. All of those platforms represent an opportunity to be performative in both behavior and conviction while actively encouraging participation in cutthroat dynamics. In attaining and conforming to those dynamics, one of the first casualties tends to be patience. You, as a broadly-defined “creator,” are expected to satisfy an audience as immediately and frequently as possible. If there’s no reciprocal or receptive activity to the content you’ve generated, you’ve failed. If something, anything gains traction, it’s now treated as currency or capital. At this point of the creator-audience relationship, your humanity is siloed into what is effectively marketable content and little else, replete with the expectation of continuance. Mitski understood this more than most, citing it as a reason to enter another—potentially permanent—hiatus.
Following Mitski’s emergence as a public figure after the release of 2014’s Bury Me At Makeout Creek, she was subjected to an uncomfortably close scrutiny that was often characterized by sexism, racism, or both. As her metaphorical star rose, the intrusions from fans, critics, and detractors became more calculated and personal, with many carving out impossible standards for her to achieve or uphold. Mitski’s largely-fan-driven reputation spiraled out into something that felt, at times, uncomfortably sinister. The alarming velocity of the snap judgments surrounding Mitski’s life, work, and perceived worth became a point of contention for online commenters and a point of pause for many in the music industry, who were beginning to see the nightmarish depths of stan culture. Mitski’s first hiatus announcement came in 2019, and a long, near-total public silence has followed since the artist wrapped her tour promoting 2022’s Laurel Hell. To fill that silence, a number of fans have been returning to videos of Mitski screaming.
Part of the reason the old “Drunk Walk Home” live performance videos gained significant traction can be attributed to the fact that Mitski stopped screaming sometime before 2017, for unstated reasons (artistic merit or risk aversion are both likely). It certainly wasn’t for lack of things to scream about. She has a specific scream that’s been able to unify a number of people who feel unseen, unloved, or over-pressured. That is a legitimately beautiful thing. But we can’t continue to fragment things at the rate we are, or the risk of catastrophe will become exponentially larger than the possibility of wholesome, impactful results. Patience is critical to navigating context. When we lose the ability to exert one on a meaningful level, we run the risk of displacing the other. And when we lose both, we’re left without one of our strongest safeguards against exploitation, corruption, and systemic attacks. If we don’t retain the awareness to emphasize the value of slowing down to glean deeper understandings, we’ll be stuck, mindlessly and furiously performing for each other as the world burns around us.
And then we won’t need an avatar of Mitski screaming into the void as a communicative shorthand, because we’ll be too busy doing it ourselves.
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