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Your Suburbs (Only)

by Brianne Mueller

Time waits for no man and, as it seems, neither does technology. Interactive music videos are now a reality, as I have recently discovered. Upon googling such embarrassing and un-profound phrases such as ‘awesome music videos’ and ‘coolest music videos ever’, I stumbled across an unfamiliar Arcade Fire project. The Wilderness Downtown is an HTML5-based music video that accompanies the band’s single, “We Would Wait” from their hit 2010 album, The Suburbs. It utilizes the new programming language in its fullest capacity, bringing in web interactivity and allowing each viewer to have a completely customized and unique experience.

Within recent years, the web has transitioned from a resource of endless information to a personalized experience. So much so that when two separate individuals google the same term, they get two different search results, specifically catered to their interests. It was certainly no small task pulling off a full-length music video in the same capacity. It took 50 producers, multiple production studios and dozens of animators, programmers, engineers and directors to bring this concept to life.

Ben Trickelbank, creative director of B-Reel who programmed the interactive media, spearheaded the project with the video’s director Chris Milk. When asked about his motivation for such an ambitious project, Milk had this to say, “Music videos are very concrete and rigid, they don’t allow for that emotional interaction…So these are experiments. I’m not saying ‘this is the way.’ I’m just trying to figure out if there even is another way.”

As is the case with most new technologies, The Wilderness Downtown has its operational sub-clauses and occasional missteps. It’s an amazing concept – you enter in your childhood address at the start of the video and using a combination of live action, CG, animation and Google Earth and Street View images, your specified address is inserted into the action of the video itself. As I found out first hand, there are specific technical aspects that must be met in order to view the video in the first place. First, you can only use specific browsers that can read the language, such as Google Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Second, you MUST have a fast Internet connection. Third, you must view it from the video’s original site – a third party site (like YouTube) doesn’t work with the programming language inserted into the hosting website.

Initial stipulations aside, there exists a host of problems bound to frustrate any technologically savvy viewer. For instance, I played the video for my boyfriend who grew up in a small town in Wisconsin named Vesper. It turns out that Google Street View hadn’t captured his street in this tiny town and promptly delivered a “sorry, we don’t have those images” message, abruptly halting his catered music video experience before it could begin. Aside from geographical issues, many of the other main issues concern things that are not at all physically manifested such as time, perception, and demographic marketing.

Time, like life, is unpredictable. One of the inevitabilities of time (and life, for that matter) is change. One very simple fact of inserting one’s childhood address into a current-time music video is that things have most likely changed physically and, in turn, emotionally. When watching my catered music video, I noticed that not only has my childhood house been remodeled, but also the entire block has been restructured to accommodate a new coffee shop and an apartment building.

Correspondingly, my emotional connection to the location pictured in my music video was far weaker than a photograph of my house as it was 10 years ago would have yielded. These changes also lent itself to the next issue of perception. How many people can honestly say that they are able to immediately recognize aerial photographs of their childhood neighborhood (especially in my case when major construction occurred)? Not many, I suspect. I originally didn’t recognize the aerial or street views of my neighborhood due to the camera angles chosen by Google and the fact that major physical changes had taken place.

My third significant issue with The Wilderness Downtown is not only embedded in the programming of the video, but in the branding of Arcade Fire as a band. Let’s face it: the stereotypical Arcade Fire fan is 25 years old, white and suburban. This is all well and fine, but this very brand-specific content has a much wider scope due to the technology it contains. The intent is to allow any person to have an emotional connection to the video’s content, but this is simply impossibile. The video’s protagonist is very clearly a young, white male running through a nondescript suburban neighborhood at dusk. If you happen to have grown up outside of this specific demographic, the effect is dulled or lost altogether, for more than one reason. However, the creators of the video may have set themselves up for failure, as there exists no typical childhood experience on a micro or macro level.

Beyond my many criticisms, there is no denying that this is an amazing piece of technology. It’s an amazing programming feat and really does add a level of personal and emotional interaction that is simply not present in traditional media. I was surprisingly responsive to a moment in the later half of the video where you are presented with the ability to write a letter to your childhood self who lives in the address that was entered at the start of the video. “It seems strange / How we used to wait for letters to arrive / But what's stranger still  / Is how something so small can keep you alive…”. It is certainly cheesy, especially as the words become tree-like to eventually house the animated birds that appear throughout the video. However, I found myself writing a steam of consciousness response that, upon reviewing and saving it after the video was finished, really spoke to my younger and current self.

Clearly the video’s original intent did have an effect on me, despite my initial frustration starting the damn thing and trying to keep the multiple windows in view. As far as the interactive web browser medium being “the future of entertainment”, we are certainly in the Beta version of the concept. However, other interactive music/video projects such as Bjork’s Biophelia have gained more credibility in the past year, regardless of technical confusion and audience-specific marketing. If this is the future of entertainment, we have a while longer to go until it will be able to truly reach a wider audience, but it’s a start. As Director Chris Milk said, it is an experiment to see what other ways exist in which art is able to really interact with people. If that truly is the intent, I am anxious to see the next generation of this art form and how they expand it’s reach by making it more appealing and less isolating of alterative, non-suburban demographics.

Bri Mueller is a life-long music enthusiast with a recent passion for film. An aspiring music video director, she is a theatre arts major (Psychology minor) from Lawrence University, currently employed as a Marketing Coordinator. Bri enjoys gluten-free brownies, parenthetical phrases and rock 'n' roll. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of Daniele Teodoro. Contact Bri at bri.mueller[at]theinclusive.net.