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An Internet Thriller

by Lila Allen

September 9,2010

Adolescents are famous for falling victim to momentary fads. Beanie babies, pet rocks, Frankie Avalon, whatever – every generation has one. Me? I like to think I was above these trends (read: a nerd). No, I was groomed for appreciating the real classics. More specifically, I was into “Thriller.”

The music, the narrative, the dancing – the very theatre of it all! – made “Thriller” my favorite, and the cultural icon it remains today. For 13 minutes and 43 seconds, I, 20 years late, was hooked, aping the zombie arms and circling hips for hours. (Fortunately, no footage of this phenomenon exists, so I can still run for President.) Michael Jackson took a great song and realized its potential to be equally driven by a strong aesthetic and rock-solid choreography, and struck oil. The music video was as legitimate an art form as any.

By the mid-2000s, though, the music video industry was borderline comatose, a casualty of the reality television explosion. Music videos faced ghettoization to satellite networks and late-night television, and were lost somewhere among the rotisserie oven infomercials and adult hotline ads. As much as I hated to say it, I wanted my MTV – back, this time.

But finally, some promise. Today, the music video form is back and ready to party. No longer regulated by network standards or the limiting nature of the television screen, the music video form has seen revived interest and creativity over the past couple of years especially. Music geeks were the first to realize that YouTube is a place to easily access free new tunes; why not free music videos as well?

Most recently, the indie-rock-group-gone-Billboard-chart-topper The Arcade Fire embraced and ran with the potential for online video in “The Wilderness Downtown,” where they abandoned the YouTube platform altogether. A standalone site, TWD is a marvel of HTML5, bringing teenage indie-goths and tech geeks alike to their knees. Playing off the trope of the suburbs explored in their latest album, the website prompts visitors to enter their childhood address. From there, the viewer is thrown into a fury of pop-up windows and video clips. The knee-jerk reaction may be “Virus! Virus!”, but just as soon, the viewer realizes that the video is not malfunctioning, but in an innovative form: a hybrid of web design, video, satellite technology, and music. As it explores the entered childhood address at birds-eye and street-view levels via Google Earth images, TWD frames the video narrative in the viewer's personal space, making each visit specialized and evocative.

What this now highly-discussed venture has signaled, even more than a reinvention of the music video, is a more general public appreciation of web code itself as a medium for art. If a semi-mainstream music act can catch the attention of millions through an inventive Web approach, what else is possible? Web-based (and therefore, completely disembodied) performance artists? New genres of writing? Groundbreaking approaches to advertising and fundraising?

All of this is occurring during the great net neutrality legislation debate, a conflict that could potentially reshape the way users access information on the Web. While the Internet is currently somewhat akin to the Wild West, a democratic space for anyone with a dream and a little know-how, it could soon become governed by data usage and a corresponding cost. Such a change could be crippling to certain start-ups or small users who manipulate data and coding in a way as innovative as the Arcade Fire site mentioned above. (Fortunately for The Arcade Fire, their application was in collaboration with the Web giant Google, so their site won't be going anywhere.) The risk in making this shift is what neutrality proponents call a “tiered” system of access, where media-driven websites without major bankrolls are forced into a bandwidth so slow that the sites can't survive. It's a Darwinian system, where being the fittest no longer necessarily implies creativity or innovation, but rather, having the most cash.

The longer we live with forms of media, the more creatively we can explore their potential for good, for art, and naturally, for capital. Re-imagining the music video form through Web engineering is just the beginning, but there needs to be an environment that fosters growth of big ideas with small budgets. Otherwise, who will save the little guys from the beasts about to strike?

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