I don’t know what Arcade Fire is feeding their music video directors, but it’s working.  For the last few months, Chris Milk’s ‘The Wilderness Downtown’ video has provided solid support to my insistence that music videos are far from dead, but rather have not been explored to their full potential.  “The Suburbs” has now given me the fitting follow up to my rambles about the possibility for real story and emotional feeling in video form.

I’m curious to see if other people think it’s as great as I do.

I’ve long thought that the approach this video takes is the key to truly moving the audience and perhaps more powerful than the song by itself.  Videos almost never engage in functional storytelling, but, here, we have defined and relatable characters, a thematic and emotional arc, distinctive style and even a challenging moral that evades didacticism. It’s not easy to do.  Spike has clearly picked up a few tricks from his days under the Hollywood sign.  What works for me, though, is simply that this isn’t just a short film grafted onto a song-  Rather, it takes advantage of the unique possibilities in what music video can do instead of struggling against what it can’t do.

We humans are creatures that live on storytelling.  It’s what we pay to do even when the economy collapses, it’s most of our compulsive chatting on the street, it may even be what tweeting is, and it’s been argued that it’s all that separates us from animals.  That may seem like an overstatement, but, regardless, it’s a pretty important part of our lives, and we do a lot of it.  So why should we put stories into music video?  What does it have to offer that the countless other forms, from classic campfire-style stories to big budget cinema to novels to blogs to television don’t?

What this displays best is the ability of music video to re-contextualize story.  This video may speak of some sort of police state or period of martial law, but it can never become political, because there is no explanation for why this has happened.  It may be about a friend who has changed and turned on another friend, but we can’t know who’s on the right or wrong side — Did he snitch him out?  His family?  Is it simply repressed, baseless rage?  We can’t have an answer to this, so we cannot judge them.

We live in a world of words.  It’s been proven that we are limited in what we can think, and even how we feel, by the limitations of our language and the way it enables our brain to frame the world.  Music video operates largely outside of this world, inherently full of feeling and impressionistic.  Can you imagine this video with the corny dialogue Hollywood would feel obliged to throw into it, literalizing and limiting it? Instead, we are forced to watch these developments from a new perspective.  This doesn’t refer directly to the daily black bagging of Iraqi civilians, so instead we are enabled to get a stronger empathetic experience.  This can’t call to mind minority gangs on the outskirts of urban jungles, so we end up with a less limited depiction of how light violence and a culture depending on force can escalate and set seeds for real violence.

Like poetry, a good music video should have a story and experience, but, as the words in a poem are free of the direct context that allow us to assume we know what they mean, the images here can be watched in a purer state with less expectation and assumption-  I was reminded of the Neruda poem “Ode to Bicycles”:

I was walking down a sizzling road: the sun popped like a field of blazing maize….workers and girls were riding to their factories, giving their eyes to summer, their heads to the sky…. I thought about evening when the boys wash up, sing, eat, raise a cup of wine in honor of love and life, and waiting at the door, the bicycle, stilled, because only moving does it have a soul, and fallen there it isn’t a translucent insect humming through summer but a cold skeleton that will return to life only when it’s needed, when it’s light

You can’t pass over the metaphors of the cold skeleton and the insect (which I cut out in the interest of your time) in that poem, or even just the words themselves, like ‘light’ or ‘blazing’, because that’s all that’s there- that’s what you have to go on.  If it was in a story, you’d gloss over it, but, here, as in the video, you are forced to think directly through metaphor, with only feeling.

Aside from all this lofty conceptual posturing, what I think really makes this work is that they’re not trying to make a massive video about kings or vampires, which they could never know about and so connect us to. The artists are writing what they know, and making that become, as the kids these days say, epic — Because the lyrics are written about the suburbs directly, a clear emotional and intellectual obsession for the band, it maintains real relevance to whatever our own experience of that world is, and those shared meanings.  Because Spike grew up making skate films and living in that world, he can connect us to that lifestyle as it actually is with memorable moments-  The tires toying with almost touching, running away together giggling from an angry trucker, the one guy with a girlfriend off in a corner with her.  He brings that world to life because he knows it, so we can really connect to something.

The final point about why this works (if you think it does), is the nature of the music itself.  That bouncy, joy of a summer’s day quality of the music, especially coming from a moment of silence and sirens, is almost inescapable and integral to our connection with these kids and what they are experiencing.  Interestingly, even when that feeling develops a darkness, the music remains beautiful in its enigmatic somber tension.

Watch the video without sound, and you’ll see a dark, somewhat boring, depiction of young punks in some kind of unexplained, unrealistic authoritarian state rebelling and getting what they deserve.  Listen to the song on your ipod on a subway while reading a magazine like I first did, and you probably won’t be moved by the mix of drive and lament in the music, and you may find a line like “When all of the walls that they build in the 70s finally fall” kitschy instead of poignant… probably because you weren’t really paying attention.

Together, I think it’s an engaging and powerful experience, and that power is achieved by connecting the strong feeling of the music to the ambiguous world of its characters. I really hope people make more videos like this.

I guess, this being a blog post, I should have put a little more cute observant irony into this, so let me add that Arcade Fire seems to only accept treatments with someone running down a suburban street.  But, hey, at least they know what works!

  • Extremely well written and poignant. Very interesting analysis with some interesting twists. The mind is limited by language but not by this format. Very interesting. Kudos to Arcade Fire and Austin Conroy.

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