First came the cryptic, diamond-shaped graffiti grids. Then there were the hand fans with the same printed image, distributed to fans at FYF music festival. The images were eventually traced back to the Canadian rock band Arcade Fire. The picture became clearer—“Reflektor,” the jumbled word that the graffiti grids spelled out, was the name of their new single.
When the big day finally arrived, the band released not one but two music videos. The standard one features the band in black and white, wearing large bobble-headed masks. But the second one is nothing short of a high-tech film project. By connecting your mobile device with the computer, you are able to mingle with the video itself by creating neon halo and water-ripple effects, directing the camera’s tunnel-vision, and drawing lines. The trance-like quality of these special effects merges into band member Régine Chassagne’s ethereal voice and laces around Win Butler’s vocals, creating a dreamy mural as the two muse on the changed nature of human relationships as Facebook and other social networking websites become the norm: “We’re still connected, but are we even friends?”
There is a story to the second video which stars a young Haitian girl who gazes listlessly into a screen. After some remarkably well-done special effects, the device is broken and the screen cracks into shards of glass. The effects die out, and the device that the viewer uses to manipulate the video is rendered ineffective. The girl is joined by more dancers, and she is finally able to live among people rather than behind a mere façade of interaction.
What’s so remarkable about the video is that its rather gimmicky features not only complement the theme but take it to a higher level, leading the viewer to reflect on the contradictory nature of using a device to view a video with Luddite undertones. But it raises the question: Was it really necessary for such a successful band to go to all that trouble to build up the hype?
Certainly, many other big shots have taken this approach. There was that strange publicity stunt with Lady Gaga, who stalked around West Hollywood with a paint-streaked face to promote her new single “Applause” last month. And the Columbia-frequenting Kanye West made quite the statement when he projected the video for “New Slaves” onto 66 walls worldwide.
Arcade Fire’s hype-building actions have already earned the band a dose of negative publicity. Texan Ian Dille recently wrote about how his “wife was vandalized by Arcade Fire.” It was not so much the art itself that disturbed him but the reason behind it. Upon Dille’s first glimpse of the image on his wife’s store wall, he though of it as “street art,” not “graffiti.” However, his appreciative attitude was reversed by the discovery that the “movement” was actually a marketing ploy. It’s not hard to see why some deplore blatantly profit-spurred motives, and are perturbed when musicians succumb to these forces.
Yet, in a capitalist world, who can fault the artist for putting in extra effort to sell more? As long as integrity isn’t forsaken, artists should be able to take whatever liberties they want in order to ensure more happy consumers of the culture they sell.
In fact, if one steps back to view these gimmicks as part of the work itself, one will find glimmers of artistic value. There is a quiet sense of beauty in mystery. There’s also something incredibly moving about standing in a public courtyard surrounded by strangers and hearing Yeezus rap about slavery, social injustice, and the pitfalls of wealth. If done tastefully, these gimmicks, while promotional, could even end up becoming an art in their own right. The messages the songs carry is transcribed onto the gimmicks, lending meaning to the street art and the video projections.
These gimmicks may simply be a way of injecting advertising with a shot of creativity. As long as it isn’t sapping the original work of its artistic value, though, I say it’s perfectly acceptable.