History comes back to provoke us in New Order’s Singularity music video, which debuted in 2016 but has found fresh popularity. Its new viral status owes to deep quarantine viewing. Confined spectators respond to the video’s depiction of isolation, seclusion, and, finally, rebellion as captured in footage from West Berlin prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain.
The actions shown in Singularity provide a strong contrast to the daily 7 p.m. ritual by self-imprisoned New Yorkers who crack open their apartment windows to clap, bang pots and pans, and cheer. The ceremony, supposedly intended to encourage the city’s first responders, lasts only twice as long as a New York minute — shorter than Singularity itself (4:13). This timid, self-conscious group activity has inspired appreciation of Singularity’s nostalgia for genuine rebellion.
The Twitterverse is aroused by envy. New Order, the distinguished British dance-pop-synth band, had commissioned the Singularity video from designer Damian Hale, an expert in live-concert visuals, who compiled clips from B-Movie: Lust & Sound in West Berlin 1979–1989. That film was a fact-based chronicle of British music producer Mark Reeder’s experiences in Europe’s post-punk scene; its records frenzy, tumult, and chaos. More than a celebration of youthful uprising, it specifically exhibits live-wire reaction to silence and social obedience — a marked contrast to America’s orderly sequestration during the COVID-19 quarantine.
Singularity’s appeal raises questions about Millennial compliance — so different from punk-era rebellion — during this emergency. Does it set the stage for socialist dictatorship as newly ambitious mayors and governors, along with the hotly emboldened news media, control citizens’ behavior through fear? Singularity’s images of dissent and unrest, edited to New Order’s elegant dance beats, salute fearlessness and abandon by a generation that distrusted politicians and establishment media. Mark Reeder and his punk-culture cohorts sought to express their own sense of liberty. Scenes of close-quarters dancing and sex flout the seriousness of “social-distancing.” Repeated shots of various, vintage, flipped fingers seem aimed at 21st-century acquiescence itself.
Punk culture disregarded the maudlin fear of danger and embraced it — an outrageous, unexpected expanse of FDR’s idea that “there’s nothing to fear but fear itself,” which COVID-19 politicians don’t dare repeat. So Singularity commemorates fearlessness, and in doing so, it shames that 7 p.m. pseudo-civility. Compared with New Order’s scenes of disorderly conduct, the polite clapping and cheering come from people in New York’s most liberal, Hillary-supporting districts (from my neighborhood perspective, the nervously cracked windows are in swanky brownstones) that share a pampered sense of what “resistance” really means. Unlike those radicals in Berlin’s anti-Stasi youth subculture, the Manhattan noisemakers seem at a loss about what to do with themselves; they may well be of the ADD generation, former Ritalin kids who are now cautious homeowners and urban “stakeholders.”
The protests in Singularity haven’t yet happened in the U.S., tensely considering the reopening of the economy, but the fever of fed-upness (a better term than the now discredited “resistance”) indicates some underlying exasperation such as is inchoately expressed by the 7 p.m. bourgeois ritual. Singularity throws images of liberation back at a nation of sheeple. Baaing people. Applauding people. They really seem to be congratulating themselves for their own helplessness, for upholding government edicts during the clampdown, keeping quiet, and waiting all day for that brief moment when they can pretend to appreciate other people’s sacrifice. The typical liberal impulse is to mistake self-congratulation for altruism. A populace that disguises its own lack of self-awareness as gratitude demonstrates the essence of conformity and surrender.
This meek, docile applauding at 7 p.m. suggests a dire transformation of the American spirit. It’s as if rock ’n’ roll, punk, and hip-hop never happened.
Some skeptics have asked: Where’s that rebel spirit? Where’s Antifa now to protest the confining of the indigent and shut-in, in the interest of justice — the first steps toward fascism? Where are the Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movements when the republic’s freedom and liberty need to be restored, as those Cold War Berliners desired?
The popularity of New Order’s Singularity offers a last hope against restrictions that are not entirely based on science but come from the fiat of leaders who claim to know what’s best. The song “Singularity” mourns the loss of camaraderie, while the video supplies virtual, vicarious protest. It’s a reminder of the punk ethic buried inside.