There’s a faint echo of the Huxley/Orwell dichotomy in the contrasting visions of the future here: Her presents a soft-focus world wherein Joaquín Phoenix’s character’s life is given meaning by something entirely artificial, while St. Vincent’s future gives us reality played out in the view of an all-seeing digital eye. But neither future has anything like the grand narrative of Brave New World or Nineteen Eighty-Four — there’s no overarching state apparatus, no crushing oppression, no Room 101. Instead, the future is more like Futurama: just like the present, but with fancier stuff.
The central challenge faced by the characters depicted in both Clark’s songs and Jonze’s film is a personal one, a sense of trying to find and define one’s self in a world where the boundaries between physical reality and digital artificiality are blurred and stretched — Her, after all, catalogs its protagonist falling in love with an operating system, while St. Vincent evokes the idea of drifting in cyberspace, never certain of where or what you are: “Entombed in the shrine of zeros and ones/ Oh we fatherless features, you motherless creatures.”
Neither of these visions of the future is grandly dystopic in the sense that Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World were; rather, they’re based around small, individual narratives in a future devoid of anything bigger. Indeed, in the end they render the whole narrative of futurism irrelevant, because there really is no grand future that awaits us, just an endless present, a constant stream of ones and zeroes. (There are echoes here of Douglas Rushkoff’s ideas about present shock, which I’ve written about here before.)
There’s one more contrast to observe, too: Jonze’s protagonist is pretty much the epitome of 21st-century male insecurity, a man so emasculated and uncertain of his place in the world that, as his ex-wife observes with evident disgust, “he’s madly in love with his laptop.” Clark, by contrast, oozes sexual confidence, from the disarmingly frank opening to “Born in Reverse” to the strut of “Regret” and album opener “Rattlesnake.” If there’s gender conflict, it’s approached from a position of equality, not insecurity. Clark’s lyrics have always had a feminist bent, and it’s fascinating to contrast her female-centric future with Jonze’s vision of post-millennial masculinity, such as it is.
But ultimately, what’s lacking from both visions is genuine humanity; as Clark observes in “Every Tear Disappears,” St. Vincent‘s penultimate track, “A smile is more than showing teeth.” Both provide visions of a very near future wherein flesh and blood blur more and more with their digital creations. The days of flying cars and teleportation are long behind us; these days, our futurism is essentially an echo of the present. This is how the world ends fails to end — not with a bang, but with the ongoing low-level hum of mainframe fans and fluorescent tubes.