Reflektions in a Webcam: Arcade Fire Takes Aim at The Social Media Age

1267639_10151875242180225_1717342691_o-1Reflections in a Webcam:

Arcade Fire Takes Aim at The Social Media Age  

 by Zachariah Kaylar

 Several weeks ago, the grey brick wall of a quaint framing shop in Austin, Texas was decimated—not by the spontaneous branding of a local gang or a Banksy-wannabe, but by Arcade Fire. At first, the Internet at large wasn’t quite sure what to make of the “Reflektor” mark popping up in major cities from Berlin to Sydney, but the Grammy-winning band did not let the quiet murmurs of Instagram go unanswered for long, unrolling a banner in Manhattan informing the world of something scheduled to happen on 9/9 at 9 p.m.

Even after the release of what turned out to be the lead single off the forthcoming album of the same name, the framing shop was not too pleased. You see, “Reflektor” was scrawled on their beloved wall not in the intended chalk, but black paint. The tiny detail had been lost in the execution of the globe-spanning project. It took hours to scrub off. And while a certain employee’s husband was content with graffiti scrawled by those with a radical social agenda, the ingenious guerilla marketing of a highly commercialized band failed to sway him.

But he missed the point. Arcade Fire does have an agenda.

From 2004’s Funeral to 2010’s The Suburbs, the lyrical musings of Win Butler and Régine Chassagne have been unified under a common theme: breaking free. Be it from the deadening impact of strip malls and cookie cutter housing or from the bright white light of a computer monitor, the latter being the emerging theme of the band’s first studio effort since stumbling onto the stage at the 2011 Grammy’s.

Self-proclaimed by Butler as a “mashup Studio 54 and Haitian Voodoo,” “Reflektor” takes a beautifully crafted direct, albeit somewhat ironic, aim at the emotional disengagement and distance brought on by the online mediums meant to bring folks together around a witty status or photo inundated with relevant hashtags.

While the interactive video for “Reflektor” may require the voodoo magic of the late-Steve Jobs—as well as a smartphone and the Google Chrome browser—the video itself orchestrates a slight of hand, mocking the very avenue of its distribution. In the video (directed by Vincent Morisset), the viewer exerts control over a female Haitian dancer (played by Axelle Munezero) with the aid of their smartphone. They merely illuminate the macabre scene, at first, holding their phones in the sight of their webcams, but soon, we tweak the way in which her body refracts light. She dances, much like on the strings of a marionette, while countless points of light pour from her dull, blank gaze—much like that of a consumer of Tumblr streams & repetitive Tweets.

These view-controlled streams of light, however, quickly transform from visually appealing to sinister, as a group of men clad in dark robes crowd onto the scene, surrounding the dancer while reflecting the same beams of energy we have been exerting control over. Our connection to the scene becomes one of direct coercion and control.

To really drive home the subtlety of the video’s critique, the dancer is handed a shiny tablet—which she promptly smashes. With that, the smart phone you were using the direct the refractions of light flashes with the words “Break Free” and becomes entirely useless—it’s merely dangling awkwardly in your hand, the connection purposefully broken, leaving you feeling strange. You are, after all, most likely in your underwear, alone in your bedroom and holding your iPhone above your head in front of your computer screen.

The immediate reaction—and Twitter stands as a testament to this—was a misunderstanding of Arcade Fire’s sense of irony. Why would they partner with Google to send a message about how dystopian the pseudo-connectivity of the Internet is?

Arcade Fire’s discography and aesthetic are just too meticulously curated for the group to have missed the implications of such a glaring corporate partnership. The swirling lyrics alone—“we’re still connected, but are we even friends? We fell in love when I was nineteen/ And now we’re staring at a screen”—allude to a false sense of connection brought about by “friendships” subsisting on “likes” and online chats. In conjunction with the Morisset-directed video, the joke is either on Google, the frame shop in Austin, the viewer—or all of us.

[The single, “Reflektor,” is out now on a limited edition 12”, which includes a b-side instrumental of the James Murphy-produced track.

The album drops on October 29th courtesy of Merge Records.]