It’s some bewitching hour, all the lights are off, and the blue glow of a screen illuminates your face. You’re doing something probably not very important: alternating between a few trivial DMs and some YouTube rabbit hole; lost in a subreddit quagmire; or scrolling through Twitter and Facebook feeling like you’re keeping up with everyone but also viscerally aware of the walls that are up. I’ve done this plenty. So have you. This is who we are now, right?
The Midnight’s new single, “America Online” — with its relaxed and somewhat detached soundscapes and heavy digitization of Tyler Lyle’s vocals — excels in demonstrating our complicated sense of digital intimacy. The haze of nighttime screen light seeps out of every nook and cranny of the synthesizers, even as the rhythm section maintains a breezy bounce (optimism has not left us). Lyle’s pipes and their digitized state reinforce one of our modern era’s most noble truths: We’re always trying to burrow through the digital noise, grasping at something that resembles true human connection but often missing the mark.
America’s Online but Is It Connected?
A decent chunk of our modern world began in the early 1990s. (AOL launched in 1991 after pre-existing as different services and the World Wide Web hit the outside world the same year.) In the ’90s, as platforms like AOL Instant Messenger and ICQ were getting more popular, and as website forums, message boards, and email were in full swing, there was this truly energetic optimism (and, as we later learned, naïveté) surrounding these services. We thought we were at the dawn of a new age of global interconnectedness. We could talk to people around the world, forging friendships, romances, and creative relationships that before the growing ubiquitousness of the internet, online services, and the web would have cost bundles in long-distance fees — or weeks or months of waiting on physical “snail” mail.
Fast-forward to today, and our “connections” abound, right? The depth and breadth of communication we can engage in with people across the globe is unprecedented — this site wouldn’t exist without it and neither would synthwave as we know it. We have decent internet speeds and audio/video tech to feel even more present and more available and intimate than ever — because we can ostensibly share more of ourselves than ever before. Our internet connections and therefore our connections over the internet, should be some kind of blissful syncretism.
“We’ve confused communication with connectedness…”
But while we may have more “access” to each other, it’s becoming clearer that this is not generally the same thing as true intimacy. We’ve “confused communication with connectedness,” to quote social work researcher and Netflix host Brené Brown. Just because I can — in the span of a few seconds or minutes — hop on Facebook Messenger and chat with people in virtually any nation, it doesn’t guarantee true connection.
This is a commentary The Midnight are well-suited to tackle, especially as of late. Last year’s Kids was — to oversimplify it — a profound examination of the wistfulness for community, family, and meaning inherent in what on the surface seemed like nostalgia for the optimism of youth in the 1980s. Songs like the title cut and “America 2” addressed the idea that even the fondest, happiest memories are tinged with the sometimes crushing realization of never being able to truly revisit what once was.
“America Online” seems to find us later in the timeline, dealing with the aftermath of the ’80s becoming the ’90s, and what came later. Oh, we still on a surface level have some optimism around our considerations of internet technology. We don’t pay for internet access by the minute or hour anymore, and we can “access” endless amounts of content, information, and people. So we’re free to just chill online late at night — just scrolling endlessly through all of our feeds, click-clacks of the keyboard or swipe of a finger here and there, and tired and drained but somehow still optimistic that the next true connection is out there waiting for us.
Lyle’s disembodied vocals are a bargaining — if I give myself to you, and if I make an effort, will you reciprocate it? “Are we all one beating heart?” the chorus asks. Tim McEwan’s buoyant backbeat, bathed in hypnotically beautiful synthscapes and adorned with an entrancing pan-pipe lead — sorry haters, no sax — provides a relaxed, late-night disco backdrop through which to contemplate our withering connections.
As with much of The Midnight’s work, “America Online” still has a powerful sense of optimism shining through it. When Lyle and McEwan dive deep into their study of all aspects of the human condition, they never cease to come up for air with a nice offer of hope.
The Midnight are currently on tour. Buy tickets, because their shows are a life-changing experience.