This is a longer version of an essay I originally wrote for The Living Church. I’m posting it here to contribute to James’s music series.
When the Grammy for “Best Album” was awarded to an alternative rock band from Canada for an album named The Suburbs over such mainstream acts as Eminem and Katy Perry, various electronic social webs were a flurry with outrage. Many people simply had never heard of them. This despite the fact that Arcade Fire is hardly a small band, regularly selling out very large venues and touring tirelessly. Critics claimed that the Grammy’s had lost touch with pop culture by making such a choice (a notable exception being Kanye West) – see for instance Steve Stoute’s letter to the Grammy’s. I take issue to this accusation. To be sure, Eminem is unquestionably more influential in the pop realm and more indicative of mainstream music in general, but Arcade Fire is among the most culturally aware bands now writing. Lady Gaga is a spectacle of contemporary culture but Arcade Fire is a mirror.
Their first record, Funeral, is a profound expression of unfettered youth, a polyphony of parts barely yet successfully held together by thunderous drums and a chorus of vocalists. It is considered universally to be a modern classic. The Suburbs, their third record (Neon Bible is the sophmore), is in many ways the negation of that record and a searching tale of the modern “Suburban” person. Their first two records abounded in movement, in running, in singing, The Suburbs struggles even to remember what movement was like (“Ready to Start” & “We Used to Wait”). Instead the “Modern Man” waits in a line, accepting with total passivity the hidden and pervasive authority of forces outside of their control. Suburbs are the erie realm of the endlessly flat “Sprawl” on the one hand, and the the rising peaks of “dead shopping malls” on the other. Such an oppressive space feels like “A City With No Children” in it, a space from which vigorous life has been drained, where there is “No Celebration” and where hours now are “wasted” and the “half-lit” nights are spent driving through the streets, recalling when friends used to listen to music together, grow their hair long and dream of getting out.
The album speaks of an exceeding aimlessness to life. Perhaps the suburbanite has a job, indeed perhaps they even have cars and a 70’s house, but there is no real life there. And this situation has been resigned to; there is no sense in which the narrator(s) show us any struggle against the powers, no anger, no zeal. This shows up sonically too. In previous records accompanying vocalists were infused in almost every song, but on The Suburbs they show up rarely and never have the effect of rallying the listeners. Likewise there is a near singleminded focus on the guitar which either drives a fuzzed and droning tempo or drifts listlessly above the chord structure, but the organs, pianos, violins and accordion that we’d become accustomed to are very rarely heard.
Does this sound nothing like a youth culture where there is endless stimulation but few job prospects? Where one might simultaneously be poor yet have several electronic devices and where college is still normed but where students remain skeptical that such education leads to a more prosperous future? Where kids live at home into their 30’s and change careers multiple times?
It is this uncomfortable clarity with which Arcade Fire sees contemporary youth culture that makes them so important. If what they say is true, then it poses the political and social question, to what extent are the politicians and the preachers adequately dealing with this widespread pessimism and skepticism.