The Sneaky, Subversive, Anti-Internet Moral of Arcade Fire's 'Reflektor' Video

The band's Google-helmed interactive project critiques technology's seductive pull by telling viewers to "break free" from their devices—even as it asks them to plug in.
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On Monday, the Arcade Fire released two music videos for a new single, “Reflektor,” their first off the forthcoming album of the same name. One was a straightforward YouTube spot, directed by Anton Corbijn and featuring the band members wearing bobble-head masks.The other, more headline-grabbing one, was billed as a “short film” and “virtual projection” and made in collaboration between the band, filmmaker Vincent Morisset, and a team from Google helmed by Aaron Koblin.

The song is great: The toe-wiggling influence of the record’s producer, LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, is nicely evident, and the production’s stunning. But there’s an uneasy, fascinating, and probably intentional contradiction bound up in the Google-affiliated interactive clip for the tune. With it, the Arcade Fire has dramatized the central tradeoff of the Web as we know it.

You’ve got to use Google’s browser, Chrome, to view the video—and to get the full experience, you must click "Allow" to let Chrome turn on your webcam. You’re also urged to tether a smartphone or tablet to your computer with a cable and provided passcode. For those willing and able to jump through these hoops, it works something like this: The video begins to play, and the little green light of your web cam clicks on. Wave your phone around to control the contours of the screen, adjusting shadow, focus, and reflections with your movements. As interactivity goes, the experience is not all that thrilling—we play with light and filters across a static surface. But the music video has long been a fairly stagnant form, unchanged in its essentials since The Beatles’ first experiments with A Hard Day’s Night and “Rain,” so it’s cool to see the Arcade Fire offer (not for the first time) a responsive and dynamic take on the genre.

What’s strange about this high-tech, high-art visual experiment, though, is its Luddite soundtrack. “Reflektor” is a song about getting off the Internet. “We’re so connected, but are we even friends?” Win Butler sings, puncturing the notion that social media sites like Facebook bring us together. Though Mark Zuckerberg and his Silicon Valley friends preach the power of machines to promote kinship and closeness, it’s not a notion of intimacy the band is buying. Butler’s lyric “We fell in love at 19, and I was staring at a screen” sounds like a lament, expressing skepticism at the notion that two people in separate rooms, typing or Skyping, can be a worthwhile kind of love. 

The anti-tech bent of the lyrics are furthered by Morisset's filmic interpretation. For the clip’s protagonist, a female Haitian dancer played by Axelle Munezero, the Internet exerts a kind of control: She dances like a marionette while we tweak the way her body refracts light. When dozens of points of light pour from bright holes in her face—like a thousand little screens all wired to a single point of origin, and to one another—her face wears the screen gazer’s blank expression. There’s a simple magic here, and the permutations of the bright overlay we direct is a little like the old experience of watching shapes flare and disappear inside a bonfire.

But these points of connection—between the light points and her features, between her movements and ours—become sinister. A brigade of darkly clad men, their black suits reflecting constellations of a million little screens, swarm and surround her, beaming her with the same energy we played with moments before. All that connectedness becomes a tool for control, coercion, subjugation. And then comes the film’s least subtle critique. A shiny tablet is held out to Munezero, and she smashes it. On my tethered iPad, the words “BREAK FREE” appeared, and the touchscreen went all spiderwebbed with cracks. And after that, the tethered phone does nothing anymore—only hangs there on its string, a dead appendage, connection broken.

BREAK FREE. It’s an apt slogan for the Arcade Fire, whose successive records celebrate different aspects of the power of refusal. Funeral enacts a walking away from the crimes and failings of one’s parents; Neon Bible fused the slick tinctures of megachurch teachings with the militant declamations of the hawkish Right, and skewered both; The Suburbs rejected consumerism, scouring the strip-mall horizon for a peaceful place beyond the sprawl. Reflektor, then, may well turn out to be a record that derives energy from its attempt to break the digital manacle—a call to turn off, tune out, and drop off the Google Map.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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