Reliquary for the Digital in Nine Key Words θ or VI. or □ / Endless January: Moses Sumney’s “Me in 20 Years” / Steven Shaviro

Moses Sumney’s “Me in 20 Years,” from his 2020 album grae, is a song that makes me cry. Sumney evokes the memory of a departed lover. “I’m still here,” he sings, but you are gone. I am left with “your imprint in my bed,/ a pit so big I lay on the edge/… a cavity by my side.” You have left me, but you have also left a trace of yourself behind. Your very absence remains with me; it is palpable, emotionally and even materially. I cannot touch you, but I also cannot escape your touch. Sumney defines a mode of being that is different from our consensus gender binary. He describes this mode of being in other songs as the “in-between,” or the “neither/nor.” Using a philosophical language that Sumney himself eschews, we might call this mode of being the virtual. “It’s the void. It’s nothingness,” Sumney says in an interview; but he quickly adds that “nothingness, to me, is not just an absence; it’s its own presence” (Pearce 2020).

“Me in 20 Years” explores this subtle persistence of nothingness and non-connection: this sense of loneliness and unrequited loss, this “endless January,” this emptiness that is somehow also “its own presence.” I am reminded of Wittgenstein’s strange cry, “It’s not a Something, but not a Nothing either!” (Wittgenstein 2009). This sense of lingering, of the persistence of what is not, comes through not just in the song’s lyrics, but even more in its means of expression: its vocals, instrumentals, and rhythms.

Sumney sings most of the song (all but the first chorus and the concluding outro) in his gorgeous falsetto. His voice is foregrounded over a lavish, romantic backing track of piano chords and washes of synthesizer. The melody hovers, unresolved, with lots of minor chords; it never quite settles into, or returns back to, the stability of the tonic. Melodic uncertainty goes together with gender indeterminacy. In pop music, male falsetto singing has long worked to unsettle fixed gender identities—which is one of the central goals of Sumney’s entire grae album. According to Anwyn Crawford,

the male falsetto is transgressive. His voice can go to places that his body cannot, or rather, his body produces a voice that makes ‘his’ a slippery assignation. (Crawford 2010)

In “Me in 20 Years,” Sumney’s falsetto resists stereotypes of masculinity, even as it doesn’t sound conventionally feminine either. It has an ethereal quality, but it also testifies to deep embodiment. It primarily expresses an unquenched longing and sorrow; and yet somehow, at the same time, it also conveys a kind of acceptance of loss. Sumney mourns the lover’s absence, but he also refuses to be overwhelmed by regret. He is not asking the lover to return; he seeks, rather, to persist in the lover’s absence. We might even call this a kind of Spinozian conatus. Sumney’s falsetto quivers and soars; its unrest expresses a continuing will to go on, or to “hold out for more time,” as the lyrics put it. But of course, you need to expend energy continually, even just to persist, or to stay alive. Over the course of the song, Sumney’s falsetto seems to be pushing towards some absolute limit of embodied vocal expression, both ecstatic and painful. Beyond this limit, it would either cease to exist, or else have to transmute itself into some other, scarcely imaginable form.

Sumney himself recounts in an interview that, when he first played an early version of “Me in 20 Years” for his collaborator and co-producer Daniel Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never), Lopatin

said that it sounded like an old lady screaming to herself in the middle of a Whole Foods. And I realized then and there that that is my brand… It’s just such an exaggeration. (Breihan 2020)

Though Sumney’s comment is humorous in a way that the song itself is not, it nonetheless points to a important quality of his performance. Sumney has no compunctions about using his falsetto in extremis. He remarks that millennials, the age group to which he belongs—he was born in 1991—are a “really melodramatic generation” (Breihan 2020). For Sumney, this melodramatic extravagance goes along with the way that millennials are “more open about sexuality, less ashamed, more open to acknowledging the spectrum” of gender positions than their parents were (Brown 2020). Sumney’s falsetto refuses to be reined in. It tells us, as the lyrics to many of the songs in grae also indicate, that he is open to bodily transformation, as well as to experimentation with gender positions, and with other aspects of his identity.

Sumney has made two music videos for “Me in 20 Years.” The first one, directed by Josh Finck, is part of a series of low-fi lyric videos, emulating the look and feel of VHS recordings, that he made for all the songs on the album. The camera seems to be set in a car, which drives over a country road at night, its headlights providing the only illumination. As the song reaches its first chorus, with Sumney singing in his “normal” chest voice, the car picks up Sumney in its headlights. He is sitting by the side of the road. As the chorus ends and Sumney returns to his falsetto, the car starts to move in reverse, back the way it came. Sumney springs up and runs after it. At the very end of the video, after the vocals have ended, there is a quick flash to a shot of Sumney running in the opposite direction, away from the car. This is followed by a shot of Sumney lying on the road, curled up in fetal position, as the car continues to move backwards and away. During all this, the lyrics are printed on the screen in an old-style monospaced computer font. This lyric video doesn’t illustrate the song in any direct way. But it gives off a slightly creepy vibe, both in its form (the VHS look of the footage) and in its content (the headlighs slashing through the darkness). It reminds me a bit of low-budget 1980s slasher films.

The second, “official” music video for “Me in 20 Years” addresses the song more directly and more complexly. The video is directed by Allie Avital, who made four previous videos with Sumney. Avital’s version both literalizes and hyperbolizes the song’s overt meanings. Avital herself describes the video as “a literal illustration of the lyrics,” made this way because “the feeling and the imagery was already there in [Sumney’s] words” (Promonews 2020). The video shows Sumney as an elderly man. Furthermore, it overtly depicts what Avital calls “a pulsing crater” (Promonews 2020): the imprint, pit, or cavity described in the lyrics is visibly right there, in the middle of Sumney’s bed.

But this literalism also means that the video—with its noiresque cinematography, and its combination of naturalistic details, prosthetic body enhancements, and CGI constructions—also pushes the song to its most extreme consequences. The video is dense, filled with telling details; as Avital says, recounting the process of making it, “everything was quite intentional every step of the way” (Promonews 2020). For instance, at the moment when, in the song, Sumney asks his future self, “does your milk still turn to rot too soon?”, the video shows us the elderly Sumney opening the refrigerator and taking out a bottle of milk. The milk sits in between piles of rotten avocados and lemons; the refrigerator is otherwise empty. Everything seems on the verge of decay. Sumney pours milk into a glass, and leaves both the glass and the bottle on the kitchen table.

Moreover, although in the lyrics the 29–year-old Sumney interrogates his future self in twenty years’ time, the video shows us, instead, a much older Sumney, who seems to be in his seventies or eighties. That is to say, the video projects something like fifty years into the future, rather than the twenty specified by the lyrics. Avital remarks, of this portrayal, that “I suppose it’s accurate in terms of young people’s projection of themselves when they age” (Promonews 2020). Sumney’s prosthetics and makeup give him a grayish beard, graying hair, and moles and creases all over his face.

At one moment in the video, just as the vocals present Sumney musing about a future when “I’ll burn alone/ Like a star,” the aged Sumney stares closely at his reflection in the mirror, and then removes something from his mouth—it seems to be a loose or broken tooth, but I find it hard to tell for sure. He puts it down with others in a glass on the edge of the sink. The next shot just shows us Sumney’s reflection; his virtual image, rather than his actual presence. The aged Sumney smiles, just for a moment. His remaining teeth look discolored in spots and worn down, but the smile is nonetheless warm and genuine. The elderly Sumney continues to shine like a star, even through the gloom of the video. He is still smoothly handsome, albeit in a decrepit sort of way.

The video shows the elderly Sumney living in a small, run-down apartment. At the start of the video, the camera is out of doors, and tracks across a series of high-rise buildings. This exterior is an actual location shot, taken with a drone, of a “Soviet apartment block” in Kiev; Avital says she chose this location because “we liked that often loneliness exists within close proximity to so many other people” (Promonews 2020). As the camera floats across these buildings, we hear a steady hum of what seems like background traffic noise. The song proper begins, with a piano chord followed by Sumney’s falsetto. In an apparent continuation of the opening single shot (but which was actually stitched together from three separate shots in post-production—Promonews 2020), the camera pushes inside, through a window on a high floor, to show us Sumney sitting on his bed.

When we first see Sumney, he is sitting stolidly in place at the edge of the bed, with his hands on his knees. He is dressed in all black. He faces away from the cratered hole, which hollows out a considerable portion of the mattress. The apartment itself is poorly lit; there is soft light from the windows, together with a few lamps towards the back. Sumney’s face is lit up at one point, when he opens the refrigerator. There is also a moment of bright illumination when Sumney passes in between the camera and a standing lamp. Aside from these two moments, the overall color palette of the video is extremely limited, washed out and tending towards grayscale. The footage also seems quite grainy; this was achieved, Avital says, by running the (digitally-shot) footage “through a 16mm scan” (Promonews 2020). Though the video shows Sumney in the future, the Soviet-style apartment, with its old furnishings, pulls us back into the past.

The elderly Sumney hobbles around the apartment; we see extreme closeups of his face, alternating with longer full-body or upper-body shots. After pouring the milk, and placing both glass and container on the kitchen table, Sumney goes across the room to a rack of clothes. He takes a long-sleeved shirt out from the rack, just as the lyrics voice a self-reproach, the singer asking his future self: “Do you still hoard souvenirs/ And make them mirrors/ Of sentimental veneer?” The shirt is evidently just such a sentimental souvenir. Perhaps it once belonged to the long-departed lover? In any case, Sumney avidly sniffs the shirt, then rubs it across his mouth as if he were trying to kiss it. Then he dances with the shirt as if it were his partner, twirling about in slow ecstasy. This is one of the most poignant sections of the video. The old man’s dance is intercut with two shots—the only ones in the video—of the young, present-day Sumney, also dressed in black, caressing the shirt, and swaying with it in his arms; he also stares at the pulsing crater in the bed.

This sequence helps to delineate the intricately tangled temporality of the video. The song is slow and rhythmically subdued; it is not particularly danceable, and it doesn’t produce the intensified sense of nowness that powerfully syncopated rhythms often do. But the falsetto vocals are insistent enough, and continuous enough, to create the sense of a single thick duration, an extended specious present that lasts for the entire 3 minutes 41 seconds of the song (or even for the entire 4 minutes and 14 seconds of the video, with its stretches that come before and after the song proper). On top of this, the video’s visuals both project into the far future of the elderly Sumney, and remind us of a long-distant past. This past precedes, and recedes from, not just the future of the aged Sumney, but also the present moment of the younger Sumney who wrote the song, and who is actually performing it as we listen and watch. The shirt is evidently a Proustian memory trigger that recalls the long-departed past; and that past is itself materialized—negatively, as it were—in the cavity in the bed, to which the camera keeps on returning.

I am thinking here of Gilles Deleuze’s denial of the cliché that “the cinematographic image is in the present, necessarily in the present.” Deleuze rejects this common formulation, because “there is no present which is not haunted by a past and a future,” so that “it is characteristic of cinema to seize this past and this future that coexist with the present image. To film what is before and what is after” (Deleuze 1989). For Deleuze, this temporal overflow is associated less with what he calls the movement-image, which keeps in the present tense through its depictions of action, than with the time-image, in which (as Deleuze repeatedly says, quoting Shakespeare) “time is out of joint.” This is all the more the case if we accept that, as I have argued elsewhere, the digital image is no more a time-image than it is a movement-image, but belongs to a third, post-Deleuzian category that I have called the rhythm-image (Shaviro 2015), and that Steen Christiansen calls the morph-image (Christiansen 2019). In this new sort of image, time is neither measured by movement (as in Deleuze’s movement-image), nor revealed in its “pure state” (as in Deleuze’s time-image), but rather becomes apparent as a pulsation or force (Shaviro 2015).

As he continues to dance with the shirt, the elderly Sumney inadvertently knocks over the still-not-entirely empty bottle of milk sitting on the kitchen table. In slow motion, the milk spills out onto the floor, and the elderly Sumney throws himself down to the floor next to it. This action coincides with the vocal climax of the song, during the bridge. The music swells to orchestral levels, and Sumney’s falsetto voice booms out, as he repeatedly exhorts himself to “hold out… A little bit longer, just a little bit more.” The extended present moment, suspended as it is between a lost past and a future of deprivation, is tenuous and uncertain, stretched to the breaking point, just barely able to maintain itself.

Sumney continues singing in falsetto, now with what sounds like wordless choral backing, as the song moves to its shattering, and nearly ecstatic, final chorus. Sumney wonders “how I’ll sleep at night/ With a cavity right by my side.” As the music reaches its most hyperbolic, screaming-in-Whole-Foods pitch, we see the aged Sumney painfully crawling towards the bed, stumbling, but finally pulling himself on to it. During this climactic sequence, the video’s frame gets progressively narrower: the aspect ratio shrinks from the standard 1.7:1 (with which it began) to something like 1.1:1. This straitening works to focus and intensify our attention, giving the video an almost claustrophobic feel. It’s an effect I don’t think I have ever seen before. It is also powerfully subliminal in its effect; I didn’t consciously notice until I had watched the video many times.

As the chorus ends and the song reaches its outro, the music finally calms down. Sumney sings the last lines of the song in his “normal” chest-voice range. He asks his final questions: “Is it laced within my DNA/ To be braced in endless January?/ Have I become the cavity I feared?” The weather of spring—the time, supposedly, of youth and of falling in love—has given way to the winter of old age. The elderly Sumney carefully moves his hand towards, and then along the edge of, the cavity in the bed. It seems as if he is trying to caress it. In the next few shots, he seems to be dragged downwards, or even to willfully evert himself into the hole. The last we see of him is one ringed hand, clutching the bedspread, but then letting go and sinking down into the abyss. Sumney sings the last line of the song, not answering his own self-questions, but instead telling us to “ask me in twenty years.” The video’s extended final shot tracks outwards from the hole in the bed, pulls outside the apartment, and finally moves in reverse across the same rows of buildings that we traversed at the beginning, accompanied by the same background traffic noise.

The crater in the bed, created by CGI in post-production, is the video’s center of gravity, the phantasmatic point around which all its naturalistic details rotate. No wonder the figure of Sumney himself is inexorably pulled into it. We see a number of shots of it in closeup, or in tracking shots that move inexorably towards it, following the line of Sumney’s gaze. The hole is of indeterminate outline, roughly body-shaped. It seems to be filled with some sort of swirling but viscous liquid, dark and highly reflective. The pit has no bottom, as far as we can tell. The material within it slowly pulses in and out, in and out. It is almost as if the hole were breathing, with its own alien metabolism.

In an interview about the video, Avital says that this hole in the bed is

about absence and negative space. One could interpret it as an absence of someone who was once there, or absence of an ‘other’ to begin with. It’s also the ever-present pulsing pit of your own mortality waiting to engulf you. (Promonews 2020).

Avital’s allegorical suggestions roughly correspond to Sumney’s own evocation of a non-existence that nonetheless “is its own presence.” Both of these descriptions point to something that is not actual, not part of the here and now—but that nonetheless exists in its own strange way.

The cavity in the bed—a CGI construction animated by Erik Ferguson, and then composited into the digital footage by the visual effects studio B.Art (Promonews 2020)—might be thought of as virtual reality in its usual appellation. But I think that it can also be understood as virtual in a stricter, more philosophical sense. For Deleuze, the virtual is a sort of potential, but one that can neither be described as an Aristotelian positivity (a capacity for realization, as the acorn contains the oak tree in potentia) nor as a Hegelian negativity (an impulse towards change, through undermining the limits of whatever seems fixed). Rather than either of these, Deleuze’s virtual is oddly “sterile” (Deleuze 1994) or “impassive” (Deleuze 1990). It is an odd sort of in-between, “real without being actual, ideal without being abstract, and symbolic without being fictional” (Deleuze 1994). The virtual is a kind of “quasi-being” or “extra-being,” something that “insists or subsists” within things as they are (Deleuze 1994). The virtual is never manifested within the actual situation, but it also cannot be eliminated from that situation. We might think of it as something like a black hole in physics. It is not directly present, as it cannot be seen or grasped. But it is also not entirely absent, since it warps its surroundings by exerting a sort of gravitational pull on them, attracting the aged Sumney into its abyss.

The hole in Moses Sumney’s bed is non-actual; yet it is entirely concrete, as well as symbolically telling, in the heightened reality of the song and video themselves. This reality is at once experiential and abstract; or, it is at once deeply subjective, and yet irreducible to subjective experience. Sumney cannot grasp or recover the body—which is to say, the person — who left an “imprint” on his bed; but he also cannot escape the terrible pull of that imprint. And similarly, as listeners and viewers, we cannot take ahold of the “pit” or “cavity” that Sumney and Avital evoke for us through digital special effects; but we cannot think it away, or doubt its existence, either. We might also say, more generally, that digital sound and image constructions do not detract from indexical reality, so much as they plumb it and reveal its additional dimensions, its extension beyond the here and now and into a past that we can never recover, and a future that we will never be able to catch up with.

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Steven Shaviro