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.
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.
The protagonist of the interactive “Reflektor” video does just this in the film’s finale, forsaking a dark and solitary room—a mise-en-scene that suggests the spiritual character of Internet use—for a gathered crowd of flesh-and-blood musicians. The light dances naturally off her spangled dress without us manipulated anything. The phone loses its power to project during this last movement of the video, its connection broken. As dancers groove in rhythm and blow through handmade instruments we remember that music unites, too, and without cameras or Ethernet cables. We see that she’s happy for the first time, when before she was only dancing solo in the dark.
But how to reconcile this message with its medium? An indictment of Internet-fueled lotus-eating, brought to us by Google? "Break free," really? After all, by connecting your tablet to your desktop by cable and passkey, you you’re giving Google highly specific information about your equipment and tastes. Since it links computers and peripherals, this particular experiment provides good metrics on a valuable demographic: Young, creative, tech-savvy types with money to spend (the kind of people who tend to listen to Arcade Fire). I’m not saying Google is definitely syncing computer and tablet data, though they certainly could—it’s right there in the policy you agreed to.
It’s tempting to dismiss this as another confused mash of rock music and corporate branding, which generally tend not to mix well. (Think of Michael Jackson singing “Heal the World” below logos for Pepsi, a product not exactly known for promoting human or environmental health.) But Arcade Fire’s records are so thematically fine-tuned, their press pushes so carefully orchestrated, that it’s hard to believe something so glaring would escape their notice. And if you give the band the benefit of the doubt, the video achieves the status of high-concept performance art, with the joke on either Google or the viewer or both.
When I heard the new Arcade Fire single was out, I didn’t care that I had to download Chrome to use it, or link my desktop to my phone. Every time we join a new service we sign away some rights in opaque but binding contracts, and we don’t care. People are outraged that the National Security Administration sweeps citizen emails, but this is what Google does to millions of Gmail users every day; we put up with it because Gmail is so well-designed that most people will trade privacy for a great user experience. People sign into browsers like Chrome, which associates your browsing data with you, the person, because—the story goes—doing so helps us connect with things we like and want. And when a brilliant band does something really exciting and new on the Internet, we sign on, no matter what we have to barter, because we want to take part. We want to stay connected. Privacy for access. We do it every time we fire up our screens. The video knowingly entwines us in another such bargain, before turning it back on its head—by dramatically severing the computer-tablet linkage it initially implores us to make.
The media reaction so far suggests that this bargaining has become so commonplace we barely notice it now, and as a result many viewers have missed what appears to be the video’s subtext. At Wired, an intelligent and thorough rundown of the film’s production history completely evades any mention of its subversive message. Mashable’s headline, considering what happens in the film, seems almost tongue-in-cheek: “Arcade Fire's Interactive 'Reflektor' Music Video Embraces Web Tech.” In articles like these, our society’s technology obsession—and not the artist’s own message—defines how the song’s been received. Which, in fact, goes right to the song's point: Online, we’re reflecting, not connecting.