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Love

3 Ways of Looking at Arcade Fire

Dear Television,

EVERYBODY HATED “Bound 2.” I don’t mean the song. In fact, if you ask Yeezy purists, probably too many people liked the song (the lone example of Kanye West’s more mainstream chipmunk soul on an uncommonly aggressive album). No, everybody hated Kanye West’s video for “Bound 2.” (My favorite description of the background imagery is Andrew Goldstein’s suggestion that it’s the stock footage “playing under every Chinatown karaoke song I’ve ever sung.”) Critics and fans alike were upset by the video’s apparent lack of self-consciousness, its decadent embrace of cheese, its radiant narcissism. After months of bonkers interviews, groping publicity, and the greatest stunt-naming of an infant to occur in my lifetime, Kanye had finally lost it, and the result was his very first truly bad work of art.

Essentially, these criticisms were directed at West’s naivete. It’s terrible, but he thinks it’s good. Ha ha ha, what an idiot. From this perspective, Seth Rogen and James Franco released their wildly successful shot-for-shot parody, which parodied the video simply by reproducing it and adding in a tasty little bit of gay panic. The Rogen/Franco video assumes that, in order to turn a serious video into a joke, all that needs to be done is to call it a joke. In other words, what’s funny about this video is that Kanye West doesn’t know how funny it is. Rogen and Franco frenching and canoodling on that motorcycle mirrors the way they reach out their hairy hands to us. We exist, with them, on the side where people have self-knowledge. Kimye exist on the side of total, blissful, vulgar innocence.

What puzzled me so much about the reaction to this video was the public’s willingness to assume Kanye West is stupid. Kanye West whose albums basically have a time-share in Pitchfork Media’s top 5 albums of the year; whose production for Jay-Z and others defined the sound of the early 21st century; whose 2013 stage tour is literally bringing music critics to tears; and whose most recent album Yeezus dropped like the Second Coming on the popular music world this year. Despite this, Kanye West, apparently, has not earned our trust.

I don’t know what to do with “Bound 2.” Jody Rosen and Jerry Saltz have made convincing cases for what Kanye’s doing with visuality and the uncanny in the video. But, regardless of whether I agree with those readings, or whether I personally understand the video or not, it seems foolish to settle for a surface-reading of a video made by an artist with such weird, craggy depths. Upon closer inspection, “Bound 2” might not be anything, but a lot of critics went straight to assuming that it’s nothing.

Yesterday, Annie laid out, in grand fashion, a kind of aesthetics of music video emptiness. Today, I’d like to venture a read of music video ambition — or, put another way, music video fullness. To that end, I present three ways of looking at Arcade Fire’s “Afterlife”…

Afterlife #1: Black Orpheus


It’s not every year that “cultural appropriation” is on the public radar. This year, however, following the multi-stage debacle that was Miley Cyrus’s Twerkface Minstrelsy routine, critics have been enormously, unusually, alert to the dynamics of racialized cultural power onscreen. All of which is to say that I was shocked that this lyric video didn’t provoke more than even a small reaction in the online critical sphere. This video — the lyric video for “Afterlife,” released as a teaser for Arcade Fire’s new album Reflektor — is comprised of shots from Marcel Camus’s 1959 film Black Orpheus, which retells the Orpheus myth in the setting of Brazilian Carneval. The film was a huge hit upon its release — the music became a sensation of its own — and its infectious rhythms and brilliant color remain irresistible. In retrospect, though, it smacks of colonialism and somewhat uncomfortably portrays its Afro-Brazilian characters as naïve and superstitious. Arcade Fire here takes shots from the famous macumba ritual that occurs late in the film and cuts them together with shots of our protagonist Orfeu earlier in the film dancing and singing. The images are taken out of their context and recut to build the kind of vaguely sinister, vaguely danceable aesthetic Reflektor embodies. White people, black bodies, representation and control, authenticity and performance — why was this not a thing?

Rather than jump at the bait, this video made next to no impression on the critterati. Mashable, for its part, called the lyric video an “intensely romantic mini-movie.” The short piece does not mention that the footage is from Black Orpheus, but it does quote Arcade Fire’s Will Butler explaining that the song is structured around a Haitian percussion loop. This widely circulated pull-quote would explain a lot if the video featured any Haitians at all and was not, in fact, comprised solely of French and Brazilian actors portraying Brazilian characters. It’s not terribly ungenerous to say that this is a slightly wobbly rationale for what’s going on here. In any case, it strikes me as fishy that so few people were interested in asking a follow-up to this flimsy, potentially offensive, artist’s statement.

One notable voice for the minority of people who were at all interested in talking about this video was Hayden Higgins at The Atlantic. Higgins noticed this weird disconnect, in fact, and wrote a spectacular essay about Arcade Fire’s exploitation of Haiti and conflation, in the rhetoric surrounding this album, of a variety of African and Afro-Caribbean cultures. Arcade Fire, for Higgins, isn’t interested in these cultures so much as in the aesthetic they lend to whatever they touch. If we take Higgins’s reading seriously, it’s not hard to claim that Arcade Fire sought out a “black” sound just as much as Miley has been pilloried for doing. But Arcade Fire is smart, they know what they’re doing, and so we assume that they are the ethical, artistic, well-read folks here. (In fact, the Huffington Post headline claims that the lyric video, “acts as a Film Studies Course too.”) If it seems like nonsense, it must be because it’s over our heads.

Annie has pointed out that most music videos are all surface, and that seems to have led us to read only for surfaces. How are the dance moves? How little clothing is she wearing? What kind of shark is that? It took Miley bringing the minstrel tradition to the very top of the mix for anybody to notice it was happening at all. But just because we only practice surface reading of these texts doesn’t mean that some videos aren’t, intentionally or unintentionally, deeper. I suspect that the blatant artificiality, the fetishized surface-ness of “Bound 2” belies something more. Likewise, the surface of this lyric video — comprised almost entirely of dancing Brazilians, exotic-looking rituals, an ominous fellow in a skeleton suit, and, if you recognize the clip, a high-brow cultural reference — belies the work of appropriation and authentication Arcade Fire is trying to pull. Win Butler described the album’s sound as a “mashup of Studio 54 and Haitian Voodoo.” That statement only makes sense if you understand it as a description of a costume the band can wear, and that’s exactly, and all, that it is.

For their single “We Used to Wait” from The Suburbs, Arcade Fire commissioned a multi-media, Google Chrome spectacular — they also worked with Chrome to make a video for “Reflektor” — that essentially produced a personalized video experience based around the Google Satellite maps and Google Street View of each viewer’s childhood home. This was a video experience that dealt, literally, in surfaces. But the filmmaker behind it blended traditional music video footage with animation and the generic but intensely intimate images of Street View to create an experience of surfaces imbued with deep nostalgia. The video, even today, makes you feel, but not just through spectacle. It’s an admirable and beautiful experience, and it nods to the immersive possibilities of technology even as it bemoans the alienation of online communication. It’s a reminder that we ought to take Arcade Fire as seriously as they take themselves, if only because they don’t always get it right.

Afterlife #2: Greta Gerwig

What does Arcade Fire get from Black Orpheus? The veneer of intellectualism? The exotic groove of the African diaspora? Closeness to and superiority over ecstatic religious experience?

Ok. But what then does Arcade Fire get from Greta Gerwig? Indie chanteuse, post-mumblecore muse, gangly goddess Greta Gerwig has had, by some accounts, a pretty good year. In the spring, Noah Baumbach released his critically-acclaimed Frances Ha, a film starring and co-written with Gerwig. Regardless of whether you loved the film or hated it, it’s hard to deny that Gerwig’s aura is its reason for being. A satire of post-graduate malaise and Brooklyn hipsterism as well as a surprisingly conventional growing-up story, Frances Ha is inconceivable as a project without its star. It’s less a love letter from this filmmaker to his lover than an attempt to capture her spirit — capture like a picture and like a trap — to hold up as an amulet against the melancholy of aging. And so Frances Ha too is an act of appropriation.

Central to Frances Ha, in the same way that Diane Keaton’s singing is to Annie Hall, is Gerwig’s lurpy dancing. Both an object of ridicule and a thing taken weirdly seriously in the film, Gerwig’s technically bad, somewhat affecting (affected?) moves — she plays a struggling ballerina in the film — symbolize the protagonist’s awkward lunges toward connection, love, and adulthood. And the camera lingers on those moves, in practice, onstage, and even in the street. Gerwig’s dancing is the most honest thing in a film filled with dishonesties small and large (I would argue a fair number of those dishonesties belong to Baumbach). She can’t dance any better than she does, and that limitation is freeing. Each step is a statement of identity that can’t be either exaggerated or undersold or otherwise lied about.

Gerwig, despite the struggles of her character, has a blast in that film, and she brings that joyful energy to this, the best of the three videos. The video is — mostly — a long tracking shot of Gerwig dancing as Arcade Fire plays, and the video captures some of the same madcap intensity of director Spike Jonze’s great “Weapon of Choice” (is Greta Gerwig our generation’s Christopher Walken?). For a majority of the video, we are in a medium shot of Gerwig dancing to the camera, reaching out. It’s mesmerizing even as it’s maybe a little precious. The blazer Gerwig wears offers an additional physical constraint that, as those shoulders bunch up, becomes almost moving.

But this video isn’t good because Gerwig is Arcade Fire’s demographic or because it’s got a sense of humor, though the latter doesn’t hurt. Instead, this video is good because Gerwig is dancing to the song. Part of what makes the lyric video so uncanny and ultimately uncomfortable is that the dancers in the video cannot possibly be dancing to Arcade Fire. On a visceral level, the appropriation of their spontaneous, impassioned movements feels almost more invasive than the appropriation of their skin color or “exoticism.” The lyric video commits a low-grade historical fraud by forcing its subjects to dance to “Afterlife,” a song that is really only modestly, theoretically even, danceable.

And that’s what the lyric video is. It’s a theory, an aspirational collage made out of magazine clippings, a look book. This is what we want to be, this is how we want to sound, this is how we want people to respond to us. Jonze’s live video is exactly that: live. I don’t know whether it was Jonze’s direction that Gerwig should be suppressing an enormous smile the whole time, but whether it was intentional or not, it’s effective. It feels genuinely communicative with the music. And, oddly, that organic relationship — between the awkwardness of Greta Gerwig as a dancer and the awkwardness of “Afterlife” as a dance song — is made all the more tangible when Butler walks onstage behind Gerwig to croon the bridge. He’s all humorless sincerity — the shallow depth of the undergrad open mic poet — and Gerwig is all hysterical sincerity. They’re on a spectrum, but Butler sets Gerwig off. And a smile erupts because the beat is able to be separated from the band. Gerwig makes the song her own in a way that the dancers in Black Orpheus can’t — she’s given that control. And it really is a joy to watch.

Afterlife #3: ?

This last video, the official music video directed by Emily Kai Bock, is essentially a short film about a father and his two sons. The video begins with a dinnertable scene in which we’re introduced to a variety of tensions — between the father and his eldest son over what the father does for work, between the father and his youngest son over the son’s (presumed) Americanization, between all three over their seeming financial straits. The video then proceeds as three interwoven dream sequences (one for each character), all of which lead to the image of a presumably deceased wife and mother.

There’s no dancing, there’s no rapture, just beautifully shot longing, loss, and regret. On their last album, Arcade Fire aimed to represent the experience of the suburban teen. This album aspires to something maybe a little more universal, and so too do these videos. It’s clear the band thinks this song has legs, more precisely that there’s a profundity to it that can sustain multiple interpretations, multiple angles of entry: the primal energy of the macumba ritual, the awkward energy of Gerwig, now the experience of struggling immigrants.

There’s a lot to like about this third video as a piece of filmmaking, but it also feels a lot like overkill or overreach. Particularly, for a band that has thus far inhabited richly detailed worlds of intimate experience — the razor’s edge between childhood and adolescence, suburban ennui — this video reads as a kind of trick. Everybody experiences loss, right? Brazilian samba dancers, late-20s Brooklynites, the children of Mexican immigrants — it’s the Family of Man.

Except that it isn’t. More often than not, music videos revel in shallowness. What if the song is set in a high school? Hit me baby. What if she’s in love with a cartoon cat? Straight up! For two or three minutes, with the right song, a filmmaker can sustain any premise. Sometimes a nonsense premise yields a genuine emotion. Sometimes, however, a complex, dramatic, high-concept premise yields only the illusion of depth. At the end of the day, I get what’s going on in this video. I understand the narratives of regret and loneliness and class and pride because, however artfully made, they’re familiar. I’ll listen to the song, but I won’t watch this video again. I’ll watch Greta Gerwig dancing up a storm, or I’ll watch Kanye and Kim with my jaw on the ground, or I’ll cue up Black Orpheus and hear the sounds that made those people in the film really, actually move

Oh my God, what an awful word,

Phil.