The Hymn of Acxiom and the Uncanny Valley

The sylvan Ms. Teng
Joining such techno-dystopian songs as "Computer Love" (Kraftwerk), "Deep Blue" (Arcade Fire), and much of Radiohead's OK Computer, Vienna Teng's "The Hymn of Acxiom" addresses the increasingly intimate relationship between people and computers. But, more than some of its counterparts, Teng's song characterizes the creepiness of such cybernetic intercourse through its form as well as its content. 

Stemming from the title (Acxiom is the world's largest processor of consumer data, offering segmentation software with the ominous name PersonicX), the song interfaces with issues of big data, social media, and A.I.'s trajectory toward total emulation of human life. It starts off as reassuring, even seductive [somebody hears you / you know that...inside], but incrementally takes on the vaguely threatening persuasion of an invasive hard sell [keep your life open / you don't have to hide]. Teng first introduces dissonance to the perfect harmonies on "all" in the line "keep them all [every crumb you've dropped]," and the composition crescendos with the promise that "we'll design you a perfect love / or a perfect lust," the most unnerving, digitized vocal precision focused on the word "perfect." In the denouement, the invasion of privacy becomes more overt [now we possess you / reach in your pocket / embrace you for all you're worth], but the song ends with a hint that we're complicit in this digital devil's bargain: is that wrong? Isn't this what you want?
A logo that says "trust us!"
Teng has described the song's beguiling / unsettling sound as "robotic, twitchy harmonies;" she's singing the melody live, accompanied by a layered, digitized chamber chorus of her own voice. The result is aptly described as robotic harmony, pure and devoid of the detuned imperfections that we humans equate with "warmth." This analog / digital duet provides the perfect formal metaphor for the Hymn's theme of a stalking database threatening to replace one's biological, analog life.

Yea, though I walk through the valley...
Essentially, the Hymn is a musical rendition of the "uncanny valley" phenomenon--the term coined by robotics researcher Masahiro Mori to describe the revulsion perceived when an artificial being (robot or android) approaches total simulation of a human being. The "valley" refers to the pronounced trough of revulsion shown when emotional response to increasingly humanoid characteristics is plotted on a graph. The valley explains why R2-D2 is cute and whimsical, why C-3PO is somewhat less so, and why the android Ash from Alien turns out to be a schizophrenic killer. With her hymn, Teng has produced an aural uncanny valley. One might even plot the narrative of the song against Mori's graph to follow its course from lulling balm to enveloping menace.

For anyone who's done any choral singing, Teng's project is additionally insidious: she has effectively replaced Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass with digital simulacra of herself--a computerized choir that offers a pitch-perfect alternative the size of a keyboard. Of course, she's not planning on implementing the choral equivalent of Skynet, but the realization does give one pause.

Thankfully, arrangements of the Hymn for real, human choirs are available, as well as various videos by Teng and others. I think this Matrix-meets-Facebook performance by "Virtual Choir Friends" is particularly poignant. 


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