Arcade Fire’s “The Wilderness Downtown” is a hyper music video, or as their lingo suggests, “an interactive film” featuring a song from their new album Suburbs. The many disclaimers include “This is a Chrome Experiment,” “Made with some friends from Google,” and the somewhat eerie “This site was designed with Google Chrome in mind and is unable to render properly in your browser,” and “This film is processor intensive. Please shut down other programs and close unnecessary browser tabs. Doing this will enhance your viewing experience. Thanks.” In short, your computer’s RAM memory will be exhausted.
Upon, per their button, “try[ing] anyway” sans Chrome, one enters in their childhood address in the same drop-down search menu fashion as in Google maps. We then see a hooded young male adult running along an anonymous suburban street (presumably shot in southern California, owing to the palm trees in the background and smog-ridden subdued light) as the song begins. He may be running away, or passionately to his first tryst, or simply hoping to launch off E.T.-style w/o the bike. A pop up window appears with a swarm of birds silhouetted against the sky; then a street appears from bird’s eye and/or satellite view—your street—with the birds’ shadows on the ground placing the events simultaneously. Another pop-up window opens with a POVsweeping street view down the street. At the end of the song, the camera zooms out, higher and higher with subtle vertigo spin, into the endless sprawl of other streets and other towns, familiar yet foreign.
The aesthetics of suburban alienation in popular/alt music have long since been employed by The Smiths, Radiohead, Green Day, to just name a few—for that is what every kid wants: to feel alone (from their parents) yet somehow part of something larger (a culture). Short of a better generic phrase, “Rock & Roll” is essentially a romantic movement. “The Wilderness Downtown” plays into the fantasy that our collective adolescent experience of isolation is larger than us, that our “joint memory” of loneliness, confusion, and rebellion is profound and cross-generational. I personally have run down my teenhood street in various crying fits, embarrassingly not because of girls, but junk food.
Of course, it’s just a song, and just a music video, and some may suggest, just an advertisement for Google. I won’t be the bastard who says punk dies with the record deal, but I will say each time Google indexes the known world, our autonomy and imagination dies a little. Arcade Fire is an honest band who’s given me numerous chills with their hollow industrial yet swooning songs, so no fingers pointed at them. Just sayin’, the lonely hooded young man we meet running down the street doesn’t run away or kiss the girl, but rather, attends college and becomes a marketing analyst, his listless fingers forever tapping the conference table during some brain-storming session in which an idea about how to brand something was presented, thought upon, and accepted.