It has been over four years since The Polyphonic Spree released an album, but they have come back with style. Last week, the band debuted the first single off their upcoming record in the form of an interactive music video iPhone/iPad app.
The Polyphonic Spree are best known for their positive music, large membership (concerts often feature twenty performers), and signature white robes. They had done little in utilizing new media in their previous music releases. Therefore, it was surprising to see not only a new single “Bullseye” after so long but one released in such an innovative way: a character-driven interactive narrative reflective of the song’s message.
Upon opening the app, the story immediately begins, with the opening chords of “Bullseye” playing over a scene of colorful circles hanging mid-air. If touched, these circles let loose soft floating lights. A larger set of circles finally emits a yellow seed, which floats softly down. The user can swing their device to alter its path somewhat, but the seed eventually ends up on the ground.
As other strange creatures pass by, the seed grows a single leg and foot, and attempts to follow them. The character, “You-Me,” passes little plants which will grow or small hills which become mountain ranges when touched, but it continues to fall behind the other creatures.
As it makes its way up a slope, it begins dragging along a new section that has grown off it. You-Me finally drops to the ground in front of a rising “sun,” and splits into two.
Realizing they can work better together, they join to create one seed with two legs, and quickly make their way up the big tree trunk. They finally catch up to the other creatures, waiting in the branches.
The last scene unveils the giant tree, with seeds dotting the limbs. When tapped, they explode into fireworks and give off small sound effects. Each creature briefly appears in the trunk, returning to whence they came, and will change shape upon touch.
The video app perfectly fits both the Polyphonic Spree and the message of the song. They are an upbeat, optimistic band, and the narrative fits with this image: although life can be tough, it gets better. The use of trees and seeds also hearken back to their nature-based spirituality.
The story calls out to lyrics in the song:
- The circles at the beginning are in the shape of bullseyes
- References to “leaves” and the line “we’re from the same tree” are clearly the origins of the app’s story
- “The balancing” is seen in You-Me’s struggle to advance with only one leg
- “No one’s alike, our struggles unite to keep us on the ground” is shown through the different but similar seed creatures of the tree trying to ascend
The overarching message of the song is that while we are all unique and different, we can empathize and relate to each other’s struggles. All of the seed creatures may take different paths and speeds, but they all came from and are heading back to the same source. As frontman Tim DeLaughter sings, “we’re from the same tree / ’cause I know this ’cause you are me.”
Is this transmedia storytelling? Absolutely. Could the app be improved on? Yes.
While the app is indeed interactive, the user’s behavior does nothing to change the course of the character.
As you can see, there are a number of actions the user can take throughout the course of the song. For the brief time the seed is falling, one can shake the screen to cause it to swing, but this has no real affect on the story or character besides changing where it lands within a small area. The user can also change whether You-Me uses a windmill motion or regular walking to move, but this also affects nothing.
The most interesting use of interaction is the ability to grow pieces of the background. Plants, mushrooms, and hills all become more upon the touch and attention of the user. Physical and spiritual growth of You-Me is important to the story, and this reflection of growth in the landscape is well done. The user is also able to see what the other seed creatures become once united with the trunk by touching them as they fade in and out during the finale.
It would not be wise to introduce different characters and their points of view, as You-Me is the perfect protagonist for this story. However, the user interaction could be improved by integrating some branches within the narrative’s path. For example, directing the falling of the seed would allow it to land in one or two other scenes that could lead to different paths to the tree. You-Me could struggle to swim across a stream or try to hop along a windswept plain. This option of choice allow for repeated use without altering the ultimate conclusion of the story/video; all roads lead to home, in this case, the tree.
This would also give the user a shared responsibility for the storytelling, which makes the tale more personal and valuable to them. By seemingly deciding where You-Me goes and how it gets there, it puts the power in the hands of the user, and the satisfaction that comes with it. Being able to tell a story is far more enriching than being told one.
Limited interactivity aside, the app does an excellent job of conveying the musicians’ and song’s messages and themes in a creative manner. Instead of repurposing the content, the app creates its own interpretation of the song with a new narrative and unique artistic presentation. App songs are slowly but surely becoming more prevalent, and if Björk’s app album (which debuted today) is successful critically and monetarily, it’s certain this platform will become a permanent part of the musician’s new creative arsenal.