Thursday, September 2, 2010

Google Maps Is Not Art (Or, I Don't Give A Fuck About My Childhood Home)

Hey, remember what it was like to be a kid, all those years ago? Remember how carefree and energetic you were, how close your circle of elementary school buddies used to be? And then how you all drifted apart? And your parents, they used to be younger too, but now they're significantly older, their minds and bodies succumbing to rot and old age, a few miserable decades left to them at most? Doesn't that realization make you think of your own impending mortality? Doesn't that also make you sad? Don't you want to be a kid again now? Huh? Huh?

If you're a discerning Rockaliser reader, chances are the above questions strike you as banal and trifling, at best. And yet it's likely that, as a discerning fan of indie rock, the Arcade Fire remains one of your favorite bands, even though they've been harping on this same juvenile nostalgia trip for three albums and one EP. Their latest, The Suburbs, manages to literalize this misbegotten homesickness even further: it focuses on Win Butler's early life growing up outside Houston, and while it has significantly more chaff than the previous two LPs, there are still several songs I like a lot, such as the title track (previously reviewed here) and the spirited rocker (!) "Month Of May" (dunno how I feel about songs where the repeated mantra is "rococo rococo" however). Basically, it's a good album, even if it probably isn't enough of my bag to make it on my year-end list. As is the case with a lot of albums.

However. (This is a big however.) I'd like to direct you to a recent video, directed by Chris Milk, for the song "We Used To Wait." Or it's not really a video--it's billed as an "Interactive Film" that utilizes a lot of new HTML5 techniques to make each individual's viewing of the video a bit different. Optimally synchronized with Google Chrome, there's a note at the beginning asking you to type the address of your childhood home. Then the video is basically as follows:

A widescreen browser window pops up in the center of your computer monitor, featuring a set of feet moving swiftly down a dark, empty street. The feet are revealed to belong to a hooded, faceless sprinter who runs in time with the accompanying tune. The camera pans out slowly to show that dawn is approaching, or something. Then, another pop-up appears in the top left corner of your screen, this one featuring a bunch of featureless black birds clustered near a lonely cloud. The guy keeps running as the birds swoop down, and then you notice you're looking at a topside Google view of your neighborhood. Except, digital birds have been added, enough to make you wonder if Tippi Hedren is making a house call. At this point different pop-ups featuring the nameless runner move from corner to corner on your screen; the overhead camera zooms closer toward your house. Then, most terrifyingly, the viewer is treated to a series of shots of your old neighbors' cribs. Following that, the money shot: the runner finally stops to cool down...right in front of your house (in my case, it looked to be about mid-autumn when Google came cruising through my 'hood). The bird's eye zooms out again, and inexplicably another pop-up, this one a blank white space, tells you to "Write a postcard of advice to the younger you that lived there." So I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to write "This is fucking bullshit" in florid, distractingly branching type (drawing anything recognizable, on the other hand, is almost impossible). Then the runner dude pops up again, this time hoofing through negative white space, which leads to the grand finale: those birds perch themselves on your drawing, then fly back into your neighborhood, and together the runner and his bird friends leave a trail of trees that explode out of the ground like mushroom clouds, right in the middle of what is now your ecologically devastated neighborhood. The worst thing is that I already have a perfectly beautiful giant tree in my front yard that is apparently uprooted to make room for Whispy Woods from Kirby 64.

The point of this video couldn't be more clear if the filmmakers added blazing neon signs to every piece of symbolism: it's about your childhood, which is barely even a memory anymore, see? The idea, I guess, is that the viewer should be emotionally floored seeing a relic of his or her childhood, and will therefore be able to finally understand what Win Butler means when he makes inscrutable, Dylanesque points like "Sometimes, we remember bedrooms. And, our parents' bedrooms. And the bedrooms of our FRIENDS!" Freud would love this shit.

But I came away from this video wondering if I'd ever want to listen to the Arcade Fire's music again. I know for a fact that I can never listen to "We Used To Wait" again, period. Whatever value that song used to have in my mind, it has been completely supplanted by a revulsion to the basest form of marketing gimmickry. Is anyone else bothered by how lackadaisical indie bands seem to be about their songs being used as tools for burgeoning technology products and companies? I know that this has been going back at least as long as when U2 was shilling iPods (for free, granted), but this strikes me as a new low. The song becomes just as useless a piece of petty technology as all the cool Canvas 3-D engines and choreographed windows that supposedly represent the future of music videos.

I know I'm probably not the audience for this. Everyone has a relatively different idea of when MTV really started to suck, but I've always held it was from the very beginning: there's something about the music video form that, even at its best, doesn't do much besides sell products and rob people of the ability to think hard on the ineffability of great art. I don't need to tell you that music is an intensely subjective experience, but it's becoming harder and harder for anyone to be convinced that that should continue to be the case. Now all of a sudden, a certain song that was once a conduit for all different sorts of creative impulses is relegated to a particular gimmick or a particular actor. Not many people who watch music videos, I believe, does so because they want to listen to the music. It's a tool for promoting celebrity.

Now you could argue that the Arcade Fire video is a response to that, that by personalizing each viewer's experience the band and the director are bringing a bit of that lost subjectivity back. I don't think it works like that, however: it's even a worse type of imagination-hijacking. Personalized gimmickry is the worst type of gimmickry. What is to be gained by seeing your childhood home in the midst of all this CGI goop? What experience is being evoked other than a generalized Thomas Wolfe-whoops-there-goes-your-childhood malaise? There couldn't be any other reason for having the viewer write a letter to his or her childhood self, an act which should be right there in the dictionary, in big fucking bold letters, under "self-indulgent."

But beyond the goopiness of the premise, there's a sinister, more immediately pressing chewy nougat center. Even a few years ago, I feel it would make anyone uncomfortable to know that their home was being monitored for the purpose of a worldwide interactive map. The only thing the "We Used To Wait" video does relatively successfully is illustrate in Orwellian terms how this country is slowly becoming the world's biggest surveillance state. This isn't a criticism meant to slight the band specifically, since they are from Canada (where the process of monitoring its citizens is a bit more lax, I imagine). But it does suggest uncomfortable facts about the secret surveillance tactics our Executive Branch has been utilizing, unchecked, since 9/11. And if you think that this is less of a concern now that Obama is president, I suggest you read a series of investigative articles entitled "Top Secret America," all published a few months ago in the Washington Post. We as citizens have virtually no say over where the federal government chooses to put video cameras or whom it chooses to wiretap. I've seen the effects of this firsthand: a few days ago, I went down to Harlem by Columbia University with a friend of mine. The immediate area around the heavily-fortified campus looked like a ghost town, and it didn't take me long to realize the reason: there were video cameras pointed at every sidewalk, on every block, even in the alleyways. This was not the case at all five years ago. As one of the articles notes, government officials have to utilize specifically eavesdrop-proof rooms to prevent federal leaks; meanwhile, children are now being taught in elementary school that privacy doesn't exist, and everything they do from a young age will be monitored and judged well into adulthood.

And since this is essentially a Google Chrome project, we can't leave out Google's role in forcibly extracting our search histories, monitoring our e-mails and phone calls, and deriving that knowledge as a means to target our needs and desires with money-directed advertising. And speaking of Orwellian, Google CEO Eric Schmidt was recently quoted as saying that "if you have something you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." Is this the man you want to be teaming up with your favorite band?

All this may sound like a far cry from an innocuous interactive video that utilizes a few cool map features. Then again, maybe not. The thing is, it's hard to find a major indie band today that won't whore itself out as long as the cause is benign enough, or as long as the song is shilling for some cool gadget or marketing scheme. The uncool thing, now, is to take artists to task for doing bullshit Converse ads because, after all, there's degrees to selling out, it's all relative, and what's wrong with getting paid if you're essentially allowed to write the same music you would anyway? It's hard to argue with that viewpoint on an aesthetic level. How long until we just do away with albums altogether, and we just download the Arcade Fire app and instead look at the tweets regarding all the incestuous dealings of your favorite bands, see which rapper from Young Money cameos in the new Vampire Weekend video? MTV showed that the logical extension of music videos was doing away with music altogether--how long until our most beloved indie bands start following that same route?

I really don't want to sound strident. For one thing, I don't plan on blaming the Arcade Fire when this country completes its slow slide towards North Korea-type dynastic statism. But they are from Canada--they come from the same country that gave us Neil Young. Could you imagine Mr. Young using one of his song as a vehicle for compartmentalized, dehumanized nostalgia? Has it come to the point where our childhood homes are used as a commodity, sold and resold to us decade by decade, as our memory of what actually made childhood so enjoyable is replaced by visions of intrusive digital trees? As I said before, I already have a perfectly good tree in my old front yard. It has a tunnel. Sometimes when I go back, I eat lunch on its steps. I don't imagine it will be going anywhere soon. But fuck a Google when they come to bulldoze it down.

No comments:

Post a Comment