In her first appearance on Saturday Night Live’s season finale last May, St. Vincent performed “Digital Witness.” Apart from being struck by how great she sounded (more of an exception than a rule for SNL), I found it compelling how singer Annie Clark harnessed the televisual potential of her stage show by referencing her nervous tics in director Chino Moya’s “Digital Witness” video. In the clip, Clark punctuates the ends of phrases by stiffly nodding her head to the side as green-, yellow-, and blue- replicants march, tap, and roll pencils in a Futurist office space and business park.
On SNL, Clark and bassist/keyboardist Toko Yasuda elaborated upon the video’s dance routine—created by choreographer Annie-B Parson—so that it scaled for both television and the stage. Their movements were more exaggerated. They used dance as an opportunity to interact with each other and their instruments. Clark also took her pulse and performed other gestures that weren’t in the clip. The performance simultaneously recalled collaborator David Byrne’s “big suit” dance to “Girlfriend Is Better” in Stop Making Sense and the Supremes’ Ed Sullivan Show appearances. In truth, you can’t have one without the other. That’s probably why Byrne also commissioned dances from Parson. After all, punk bands learned how to dress alike and write short songs by playing along to the Shangri-Las and the Crystals.
St. Vincent’s choreography visualizes the song’s commentary on technology’s role in turning existence into a series of naturalized, performative gestures and interactions. Clark’s jerky execution suggests that these routines can cause us to short-circuit, particularly when we buckle under the restraint of isolated tasks or when people don’t notice that we’re doing them. Yet there’s also a ritual to mundane activities like checking email, browsing through a reader feed, and refreshing Facebook—things I do while sipping my morning coffee.
Though these gestures are not explicitly religious (though they could be, given Clark’s thematic convictions), they appear weightier and more deliberate when represented through choreography. In this way, St. Vincent’s “Digital Witness” dance recalls EMA’s routine for her apocalyptic 2010 single, “California,” a place vulnerable to a Biblical reckoning precipitated by menstruation, youth, loss, paranoia, and other human follies rescued by the divine. Through dance, Erika M. Anderson articulates the slippage between the sacred and the profane. In her hands, a weapon becomes the cross.
In Playing Along: Digital Games, YouTube, and Virtual Performance, Kiri Miller advocates the pedagogical utility of video games like Guitar Hero, as well as online instructional videos. By mobilizing “genres of participation,” a concept first advanced by cultural anthropologist Mizuko Ito in her co-authored book Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out, Miller convincingly argues that gameplay can help users develop their creative and technical skills as musicians. It also problematizes neat distinctions between amateur and professional instrumentalists.
I’m not sure how to apply “genres of participation” to choreography. I can. Learning to perform Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” dance requires more than rote memorization. You have to be able to count. You have to be able to contort your body in time to the music, anticipating every turn and kick. Dancing as part of a crowd also requires sensitivity not just to the recording, but to ensemble’s internal rhythm. Too much spin or stretch in one dancer’s steps can ruin the illusion of uniformity. But there’s also virtuosity at work in dance that blurs easy distinctions between who originated the routine and who imitated it. I remember seeing two female cheerleaders face off to Britney Spears’ “Oops!…I Did It Again” at a high school Sadie Hawkins dance. By the first chorus, I was so mesmerized by their precision and skill that I had trouble identifying where the Britney on television ended and the Brittany in the cafeteria began.
Jackson and Spears’ dance routines clearly exist as genres of participation. Fans demonstrate their commitment to pop idols by replicating their moves. For some, such performances also serve as an indication of their own talents. Spears became a performer by playing along with Michael Jackson. Historically, dance is how fans are perceived to participate in pop music. As scholars like Norma Coates have persuasively claimed, rock was legitimated through discourses that removed the genre from feminized leisure activities like dancing and situated it within hegemonically masculine cultural practices like criticism, collecting, and instrument instruction. In order for rock to function as a genre of participation, you could pick up a typewriter, a record, or a guitar. You couldn’t get down.
At the risk of making yet another facile comparison between contemporary concept-oriented female recording artists and Kate Bush, the gestural choreography on “Digital Witness” and “California” recalls how Bush used her face, hands, and body to represent Heathcliff and Cathy’s desire on “Wuthering Heights.” Of course, such comparisons require us to consider how Bush’s decision to train under renowned choreographer Lindsay Kemp might serve as indication that she first became “Kate Bush” by playing along to David Bowie.
Ultimately, what I find compelling about St. Vincent and EMA’s choreography is how it opens up rock as a genre of participation by reclaiming dance as one of its essential features. Most of St. Vincent and EMA’s fans might still show their appreciation by picking up guitars and raising their voices, which is great. I’ve never seen people dance along to “Digital Witness” or “California” in concert. I haven’t bothered to learn the routines myself, which I should reconsider. But as a fan, I cannot deny the importance of those gestures, what they mean to their corresponding songs, and how it allows fans different ways to play along with their heroines.