Soon There Will Be Nothing At All: Hannah Diamond’s Virtual Reality Breakdown
I sometimes spend months listening to music with worn out hardware before finally, begrudgingly replacing it. I’m well accustomed to auxiliary cables and earbuds that cut out a left or right channel or hem their audio with static unless positioned in just the right manner, each internal wire lined up perfectly. So, however aggravating, it’s not out of the ordinary to find myself interrupted, tediously straightening out my tangled aux cord and twisting its end around in its socket, during my first listen of PC Music pop star Hannah Diamond’s 2017 mix Soon I Won’t See You at All. This sort of banal technical breakdown can feel like a betrayal in our age of seemingly uninhibited connectivity and instant gratification. When I’m fussing to return Diamond’s voice to my ears with one hand, trying to keep the other on the steering wheel and my eye on the road, I’m reminded of the disjuncture between where I am and where was promised. Music can be immersive — transcendent, even — but it’s ultimately only as effective as its means of delivery allow, and the kinked Walmart cable plugged into my 2000 Chevy feels woefully insufficient in carrying me away from Tampa traffic into Diamond and producer A. G. Cook’s icy digital soundscapes.
But really, even the most cutting edge tech is susceptible to this kind of failure. The development of communications technology in the 21st century has in one regard been a push toward seamlessness — faithful replication in digital media of immediate, fleshy experience — such that the move from live to surround sound, from firsthand vision to high definition, from IRL to URL, implies no loss. But as digital media are integrated ever more ubiquitously into our lives, as we put more and more faith into the authenticity of their connections, it has become so painfully obvious as to be trite: something has been lost, after all. Each of us are enabled to connect to hundreds or thousands of people instantly, but the messages we receive back are devoid of the infinitesimal tonal affectations, gestures, and physical exchanges that constitute our embodied interactions. We take for granted (because we do it too) that these messages may be carefully revised to make a certain impression. Over and over again, we agonize to receive a response to a vulnerable message, or get a reply that leaves us longing for something more. This drama — desperate and stubborn hope for real, authentic connection, dashed again and again by the incapacity of our virtual worlds to sustain it — is at the heart of Hannah Diamond’s work, and Soon I Won’t See You At All is its culmination.
From the very beginning of Diamond’s output with PC Music — i.e. her “waiting for so-o-o-o-o long,” wondering “why don’t you hit me up?” in 2013’s “Pink and Blue” — she’s played on the image of a girl alone in her room, dreaming of something more. But in her group of early 2014 releases, the mark of digital mediation on her longing begins to take center stage. In A. G. Cook’s “Keri Baby,” Diamond assumes the role of a virtual avatar a la Vocaloid character Hatsune Miku, “kinda real, kinda (oooh),” unclear on the line between virtual reality and the “real” thing, but ultimately wishing to be more than just “an MP3.” And in “Attachment,” Diamond attempts to accept her lover’s image on her screen as the only way they will be “together forever,” convincing herself that, now that she’s on her own, the attachment has become more real between them, and the picture saved on her phone allows her to see her partner “clearly.”
Diamond’s body of work seems to oscillate between transcendent affirmation of our interconnectivity, and at the opposite extreme, depths of isolated confusion.
Born in 1991, Hannah Diamond came of age alongside flip phones, Myspace, and AIM. Her preoccupation with the digital is unsurprising, but in the premier of her web series, HDTV, she makes clear that, as she sees it, “the main thing” her lyrics are about is love, “when you first really start liking someone…all those kind of mixed emotions that you’re going through, but then you kind of find out that they maybe don’t quite feel the same way as you.” It’s this question of uncertain romantic connection, filtered through the online spaces that, for Diamond, “can often feel really isolating,” that she begins to crystallize with her 2015 single and debut music video, “Hi.” As Diamond pines, “I can imagine / you looking deep into my eyes / I know that you’re on the other side,” she looks outward, her gaze mediated by windows, mirrors, hyperactive desktops, billboards, and camera lenses, wondering “are you with me, is it real?” Diamond writes that “Hi” is about “interacting with people who only show small segments of their life, and the dilemmas around authenticity that this presents.” Behind all of her daydreams, the “real” Diamond lies alone in her bedroom “wasting time” online, wishing to cut through all the screens and “just meet at a party,” where sharing space with someone she loves might mean “great chemistry,” and an authentic connection.
But Diamond never gives up hope, and her body of work as a whole seems to oscillate between transcendent affirmation of our interconnectivity — like in “Make Believe,” where having her lover’s “face in a book,” means she’ll “never be lonely” — and at the opposite extreme, depths of isolated confusion — as in “Fade Away,” where she desponds “I always thought I’d be / The picture saved on your screen / Now it’s of something else / What does that even mean?” In “Hi,” as well, Diamond struggles to decipher the minefield of online signification, entreating, “You say you’re as real as it gets; what do you mean?”
Soon I Won’t See You at All, billed as a mix, but in many ways Diamond’s debut EP and her most substantial project following a steady string of singles, offers no clear answers to her confusion, but takes its drama to new heights. The security of Diamond’s relationships is more uncertain than ever, and the fragility of our connections resonates not only in her songwriting, but at the level of production itself. “Never Again” and “The Ending” open with gentle synthetic melodies that immediately evoke preset ringtones on a new cell phone, and each song on the mix resonates as a distressed voicemail message left at different stages of a drawn out breakup. Between Diamond’s fuzzily mixed vocals chiming, “Never wanna hear you apologize again” as if through a phone speaker in “Never Again’s” final bridge, and the vibration intruding as she sings, “got your text,” the entire mix almost seems to play out within a smartphone.
The PC Music signatures of impeccable production and hyperreal aesthetics are turned inside out, made to simulate their own failure at transcending our inherent disconnection.
Of course, for me, such is exactly the case, and before I reach the Soon’s final track, I catch on that my aux cord hasn’t really let me down just yet. The staticky crackles sporadically bubbling up under the surface of the mix, the eerie muted stretches interrupting “Concrete Angel,” the abrupt clipping at the end of “Never Again,” it turns out, are built into Soon: features, not bugs. Up to this point, Diamond and Cook have been loyal adherents to the tech vanguard’s broader push to create lossless immersion by rendering digital mediation invisible — in a 2015 interview, Diamond described her mission as keeping “as seamless a link as possible between my visuals and sound, so the two things come together to form an HD whole!” It is certainly no coincidence that her moniker shares its initials with “high definition.” But with Soon, the PC Music signatures of impeccable production and hyperreal aesthetics are turned inside out, made to simulate their own failure at transcending our inherent disconnection. Even if you’re listening through a top of the line Bose sound system, Diamond and Cook meticulously force you to acknowledge the digital seams that separate you from them — and Hannah from her lover. As Diamond reckons once again with the fading illusion of a real connection on Soon’s opener, asking “How could you give me something that wasn’t there?” soft static and the crackling of tiny electrical fractures begin to creep below her voice, allegorizing the distance inherent in the relationship from the beginning.
“Never Again” then tersely clips out into the mix’s centerpiece, a cover of Gareth Emery and Christina Novelli’s “Concrete Angel,” in which the faint, desolate intervals between verses suggest headphones partially unplugged, and Diamond’s vocals seem to slowly lose signal, blanketed under buzzing and glitching. “If you keep building these walls, brick by brick, towers so tall / soon I won’t see you at all,” belts Diamond as A. G. Cook erects walls of distortion around her. It’s the sonic equivalent of cracking your screen beyond repair in the middle of FaceTiming, before you’ve said half of what you need to say. “You think you know me / but what you know is just skin deep,” Diamond bites, but her heart aches as much for the digital edifice built up between them as it does over her lover’s distance. Her yearning for the fall of the “concrete angel” mounts over short circuiting beats, until Cook’s instrumental finally erupts into Galaxy Note explosions and collapsing cellular towers. As Diamond’s cri de cœur clashes with Cook’s surging razor-sharp synths, the stakes of her isolation register higher than ever. “Concrete Angel” is Diamond’s most vulnerable performance to date, but her distance is at its most palpable, and she remains unreachable, overwhelmed by the systems meant to connect us.
But sure enough, the ringtone opening of the following track chimes in, and Diamond is breathed with life, again hopeful at least for a moment that she’s made a real connection. “Boy stop pretending / this can’t be the ending,” she dismisses, unable to take the collapse at face value. She may think she can hold things together, but “The Ending” is premised on uncertain communication. After so much longing for her virtual love to be true, Diamond gets the text telling her it’s over and can just as easily convince herself that the words on the screen mean nothing. And like Lorde overthinking punctuation use, she’s in a space with ambiguous signposts, unable to tell if she’s “coming or going or coming or going or going or gone.” Offering a last goodbye, Diamond’s voice goes unheard, and after a final chorus, harsh, pounding synths bring the beat into menacing territory. Alone and unable to stop her heart sinking, with her vocals eaten away by noise or spiraling into cold, glitched loops, Diamond’s connection drops, and “The Ending” is realized as a “breakup song” in more ways than one.
As cliché as it has become to admit it, the themes central to Hannah Diamond’s work — Romantic hope for technology to enable loving connection across vast distances, and utter disheartenment when the pervasion of tech in our lives leads more so to anxiety, boredom, and loneliness than empowerment or community — are intimately familiar to most of us who’ve grown up making friends online just as often as IRL. Soon I Won’t See You At All is a monument to those unfulfilled hopes and the ensuing disheartenment. To the doubt triggered by one too many unanswered messages. To the wish that we can someday cut out all of the noise and really be together. To the times when we can’t seem to accept that someone is gone because we never got to look in their eyes and say goodbye. As Diamond’s voice cuts out after twelve and a half minutes, I want to believe that this can’t be the ending. Because, in a world full of fragile, messy connections, music is something simple and certain — even when the aux cord shorts out, when the stream stops to buffer, when the CD skips, when the record pops. Hannah Diamond and A. G. Cook, no matter how remote they are, or how apparent they’ve made their distance, have given us something real.