For as long as I can remember, the big knock on MTV has been that “they don’t play videos anymore.” And while that’s mostly true, and the network has shifted its focus to other kinds of “programming,” MTV is still a major outlet for (usually major label) artists on the verge of breaking through. But there are a lot more music videos out there than programming hours, and as a result, the Internet is taking over the medium. Initially artists and labels took to the Web because in a post-”Real World” world, they simply needed a place to go. On the Web, you can curse, you can run long films in support of a three-minute song, and you can distribute with the click of a mouse. OK GO’s now-legendary treadmill routine exploded on YouTube, not on television, and brought the band a new level of celebrity. But now, the Web is transforming the music video into something far more interactive and non-linear.
Case in point: the new short film entitled “The Wilderness Downtown,” is a music video of sorts for “We Used to Wait,” a cut off the new Arcade Fire album. The song is about an even older medium of expression – the letter, and the video prompts the user to write a letter to “your younger self.” At the homepage, the website asks you to start by entering your childhood address – which becomes the “where” of the film as it unfolds. Creator Chris Milk uses Google Earth and Google StreetView to take you through the actual neighborhood where you grew up. The protagonist, a hooded, faceless character presumably standing in for the viewer, furiously runs through the entirety of the video in time with the rhythm of the song. As the runner barrels through miles of generic streetscape, the viewer sees her own childhood home fly by in other pop-up windows. The video is about you, and no two users will have the same experience.
The Arcade Fire isn’t new to interactive video. Back in 2007, the band presented the haunting visual companion to their song, Neon Bible on a flash website. That time around, a mostly disembodied Win Butler sits in the darkness, and the user clicks on his hands, eliciting surprising changes to the page’s environment.
If “The Wilderness Downtown” is about building intimacy with an audience through real-word touchstones, the new interactive music video from Broken Bells is something far more abstract. “October” casts the user as a beam of light, a paintbrush on a psychedelic spacescape. Seemingly random objects fly by like constellations, as the user pushes the cursor-controlled-light-beam-paintbrush-thingy into the darkness ahead. Think Sulu taking the Enterprise into warp speed, on acid.
Also from the “flights of fancy” department comes the video for Placebo’s 2009 hit, “The Neverending Why.” In this case, the user pilots a Falkor-inspired dragon over a world that seems equal parts Coraline and Terry Gilliam. It’s a very kinetic setting, and the interface is certainly immersive, but “The Neverending Why” falls victim to an ill that even the best video can’t cure: A terrible, terrible song. If you could build your own tune, then we’d have a truly pleasurable interactive experience on our hands.
Enter: The Cold War Kids. The California foursome designed a video last year that gave the user control over both the video and the audio. At rise, we see the band members facing forward, leaning on their instruments, bored and waiting for something to happen. The user can freely click and un-click each musician which toggles their part in the mix. It’s like playing with the knobs on a four track, so if you want to hear an instrumental version, just un-click the singer. If you just want vocals and drums alone, you can activate just those instruments.
Interactivity is the Web’s strong suit, and it’s hard to image the future of the music video taking place anywhere else. MTV’s role in the recording industry changed years before this latest evolution in music video, and in those years there has been much lamenting on the part of critics and artists about the new direction. But now the Web can offer musicians something TV never could. As a medium for the music video, the Internet is infinitely more pliable than television, and the possibilities are manifold. The old media approach of the linear music video isn’t dead, but it isn’t the only way anymore, and it may not be the best way.
And while it’s truly great as is now, I’d still love to see a clickable version of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer.”