MTV was mighty prescient when it began replacing its music video programming with pregnant teens and lusty co-eds, eventually shedding "music television" from its logo early this year. The network was hip to the moment. It knew that music videos were migrating online, where kids could watch their favorite artists gyrate on-demand without enduring a single 3.5 minutes of lame.
Youtube fully liberated the music video from its TV serfdom. Once distribution and consumption became free, the Viacom autocracy was inevitably and violently deposed. Popularity is now decided on a by-hit basis, not through backstage string-pulling, while ratings, comments and channels open up a whole new democratic dimension of user engagement.
But the music video is still a poorly assimilated immigrant in its new medium. Nothing changed in its form and content when it made the move from TV to laptop screens, until some recent artistic tinkering. Arcade Fire, with a little help from Google Chrome, Chris Milk and HTML5, have truly prophesied the music video's future with their new explosive cyberdream, The Wilderness Downtown.
There are two categories of online media. There is pure remediation, where things seen and done elsewhere, like reading a news article, are digitalized for our convenience without altering the analogue original in any significant way. Then there is transformative remediation, where things seen and done elsewhere, like being a social human being, are digitalized into a wildly innovative platform like Facebook.
Arcade Fire has pushed the music video into the latter camp. The visual experience begins by inputting the address of where you grew up. Windows begin to flower on screen, using Google Earth imagery and original footage to narrate a disorienting return to your childhood home. An interactive window then springs into frame, where you write a letter to that place, as three pop-up typewriters whirl in sync to your words. That text, in turn, becomes a nesting ground for a flock of birds.
It is a postmodern marriage of technology and art, as real-time compositing, 3D canvas rendering and other savvy swaths of code shatter your browser into misty watercolor collage. Yes, the window choreography is sometimes awkward and the image quality amateurish, especially at the climax, when a crudely rendered animatron races through your home street, while superimposed trees burst apocalyptically through neighbors' homes. It's an Inception-esque tour through your deepest subconscious, but Sim City style, fusing childhood nostalgia with memories of the vintage digital graphics that you played with way back when.
Even if "running down a street out of breath and crazy like" isn't a particularly original plot line, The Wilderness Downtown is a revelation about how music videos, like so many other media forms, have not fully understood or adapted to the platform on which they're now viewed. Music videos are still purely filmic, just like online newspapers are still mostly text. But Chris Milk and his Google pals used new software to make a video more personal, immersive, and resonant, that at the same time obsessively references its own mediation, asking you to create content, physically touch your computer, and chase the windows as they dance across the interface. It is high-tech 3D virtuality, while exposing all its 2D seams.
The Wilderness Downtown teases the dialectic at the heart of the Internet, hinting at new potentials for digital art, as well as for all the old media that are uncomfortably resettling themselves online. Maybe 30 Rock could stay fresh, if it winked at its largely online audience with some pop-up playtime. And maybe Americans would have donated more to Pakistan, if the New York Times online had borrowed Arcade Fire's imaginative manipulation of Google Earth, so that you could watch flood waters, and not just supernatural foliage, take over your hometown.