"We cast this message into the cosmos . . . Of the 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, some - - perhaps many - - may have inhabited planet and space faring civilizations. If one such civilization intercepts Voyager and can understand these recorded contents, here is our message: We are trying to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope some day, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination and our goodwill in a vast and awesome universe."
- Jimmy Carter's statement placed on the Voyager 1 spacecraft on September 5, 1977
Thirty years ago, in 1977, America was at a pivotal moment in its political and cultural history. Following decades of disappointment involving assassination, war and Watergate, the people had just elected a Georgian governor to come in from left field and clean things up. The "hippie" counter-culture movement of the 60's was over, and a new breed of anti-establishment activists were sprouting up. In their song "1977," English band The Clash blasphemously declared "No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones" - symbolizing a rising global wish to start anew. Writer Roger Sabin went as far as calling '77, in reference to the birth of the punk movement, "year zero."
Of course by the end of Carter's presidency we had trained terrorists in Afghanistan, lost complete control over the Middle East through the Iran hostage debacle, and suffered a major energy crisis. It would be too easy to blame a single moment in history for our current woes, but it's fascinating to study how quickly that hope for change in '77 disappeared into an avalanche of problems that still plague us today. The recent renewed interest in the music of that time isn't just about back-to-basics rock, it represents a yearning for a new revolution - our own chance at starting over.
The Strokes latest video for "You Only Live Once," from their 2006 album First Impressions of the Earth, sets all this up in a matter of seconds. Director Warren Fu brilliantly flips through 70's television commercials and documentary footage of our rising consumption habits as an ominous slab blocks out the sun. Carter gives a speech on energy while all that gas guzzling and thirst for "more" everything leads us into an eventual nuclear holocaust - wiping away our entire civilization sometime in the near future. Yet it's no coincedence the band's name appears in the stars with the sun poking through the "o" in "strokes" - hope is in the music.
This is a band that led the garage rock revival of the early 2000's, and thousands of years in the future they are apparently going to lead the rebirth of the human race*. References to Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's iconic film abound, from the Hal-like artificial intelligence to the climactic colorful passage through space - but there are a number of differences here as well. Whereas 2001: A Space Odyssey has often been interpreted as a spiritual trip from birth to enlightenment, or a historical critique spanning the entire history of human civilization, Fu's vision is much more limited in scope. By focusing on a specific time period and a specific chain of events, his video forms a potent critique of our current cultural climate (via 4000 A.D).
And while "2001" has been said to allude to the coming of a new "god" via Byzantium (1), Fu's decision to take us backwards in history at the end signifies his faith in humanity to overcome its own problems. As the Strokes sing of "countless odd religions" the director portrays everything from the star of David to the Ying Yang symbol in a slot machine of random luck - "it doesn't matter which you choose." Kubrick ends his masterpiece with a giant fetus observing the Earth, but in this video the spaceship learns of the miracle of birth through transmissions emitting from a sunken time capsule. Despite all the ugliness, the beauty of human life and artistic expression is not completely buried.
In many ways Fu's vision isn't just an ode to Kubrick, it's his personal interpretation of 2001. The former LucasFilm employee wants us to revisit the classic from a fresh perspective, to apply its lessons to modern times. It's also a work that sheds new light on the Strokes much-maligned third album, which now emerges as a commentary on our self-destructive society. If machines were to find our relics in the distant future, would they have a positive first impression? What if they found only your artifacts, your time capsule? These are the important questions that linger after watching Warren Fu's beautifully realized music video - you only live once.
* The Strokes debut, The Modern Age EP, was released in...2001