“Menagerie” opens with a young girl watching a projection of ocean life accompanied by the soft strumming of a guitar. Lyrics appear on–screen as they are sung. For the first 30 seconds, it is serene and meditative, almost dreamlike. Then another voice emerges, deeper and more menacing. Throughout the song, these dueling voices coalesce to form a dissonance between youth and authority in a conflict that tweaks the child’s imagination.
Made possible by the Threadhead Cultural Foundation, “Menagerie” comes from The Vibe, an EP released by New Orleans-based indie rock band, Mighty Brother. In an exclusive interview and premiere with OffBeat.com, songwriters and vocalists Nick Huster and Jake Ryan discussed the creative process behind the song and addressed some existential questions raised in the video, which is directed by David Bear.
The projection watched by the young girl, Austyn, features clips of marine life, street violence, spaceships, lions, wildfires and skydivers to present varied perspectives of the natural and the manmade, the beautiful and the dark. “We wanted to present the viewer with a shifting balance of images, from unblemished nature scenes and peaceful coexistence to the foreseeable outcome of human conflict and greed,” Huster said. The projection was created by Huster himself, who sourced clips from YouTube creative commons, stock footage and public domain works. It was also his first time editing video. Pretty good, huh?
Austyn’s reactions to the footage were genuine, not rehearsed, making the song’s message even realer. Viewers observe as Austyn’s naivete is stripped by the violent footage on–screen. “The moment she covered her eyes during the first fighting scene, I was like ‘holy shit, this is heavy.’ That moment really encapsulates a theme we were exploring with this video: the impact of violence as it has been normalized in the media,” Ryan said.
To demonstrate the song’s complexity, the band used vocal layering, a technique borne out of their co-writing process. “Nick and I like to harmonize and accent certain lyrics while juxtaposing others using the different timbres of our voices,” Ryan said. “The dueling vocals overlap near the midpoint of the narrative, portraying, for us, how the external voice of society becomes internalized.” For Huster, the song’s structure harkens back to a poem he wrote years before in which the stanzas could be read together or separately to create different stories.
These shifting perspectives are woven throughout. For example, Austyn’s amazement at a majestic lion shifts when the following clip shows the same lion devouring the entrails of its prey. In regards to the overall message, Ryan and Huster likened the video to a zoo, consistent with the definition of a menagerie as “a collection of wild animals kept in captivity for exhibition.” For a child, a zoo is a place of wildlife and wonder. As she ages, it represents humanity’s dangerous power to keep animals in captivity.
“Menagerie” is a work of art that encourages viewers to inhabit the spirit of the young girl, as she experiences the world. When the song concludes, viewers are left with a collection of contrasting images. Through the juxtaposition of these clips, Mighty Brother encourages listeners to think critically about the narratives around us.
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