I Kinda Like It: Tales of an Arcade Fire-Ambivalent Music Journalist

Apr 25, 2014 at 9:37 am

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Arcade Fire being interviewed backstage at Lollapalooza 2005 by John Norris of MTV - Jaime Lees
Jaime Lees
Arcade Fire being interviewed backstage at Lollapalooza 2005 by John Norris of MTV

It's still hard to wrap my head around what happened in this year where the band went from playing club dates to becoming major festival headliners. It was hard to process for them, too, no doubt. Arcade Fire had signed to Merge Records and its debut, Funeral, was released during one of the oddest periods in modern music. Merge pushed the band hard (the hardest I remember seeing a band, not a pop star, being pushed in recent history), and it managed to hit right at a time where an odd cultural shift was occurring with American youth. There were tons of young and college-aged would-be hipsters (for lack of a better word) who hadn't really found their place in music and weren't sure where to angle themselves and their tastes.

Arcade Fire's sudden and massive popularity also inspired tons of musicians to form multiplayer ripoff bands who were hoping to cash in and get signed. We had a couple of these type of groups here in St. Louis (don't worry, I'm not naming names), and they wore the outfits and tried to be way epic but didn't quite have the talent to pull it off.

During this time the rules of music journalism were also changing quickly -- with reviews (and photos) becoming more important than previews. Major music festivals hadn't quite fully become travel destinations yet, and girls didn't even know about "festival fashion" or the unwritten rule of wearing flowered headbands when in attendance. Mostly, it seemed that kids were desperate for something to grab onto, something to make theirs. This, combined with the sudden popularity of MP3-fueled music blogs, social media and every kid with Internet access on the planet striving to be the first to drop a link to the next cool thing caused a magical pop-culture moment, and Arcade Fire just happened to be there.

Nobody, and I mean nobody, could have predicted the insanely sudden and international success of the Arcade Fire. Not even the music executives who pushed the band. Yes, the band was good. Right away it was good. But it was also weird. There were a bunch of members onstage and they made all of this big noise with an intensity that was nearly off-putting. They dressed like they were bohemian Amish, and the songs they played were often lyrically obtuse and frequently sung in half-French.

Music journalists -- always feeling unappreciated and therefore quick to prove their intellectual qualities -- grabbed onto the band and projected shit-loads of assumptions onto its music. Arcade Fire has inspired some of the most tedious, over-written, uninteresting thesis-type "think pieces" in modern journalism. (Sorry, I know this is one of them.) We writers overthink this band with an amazing frequency. From pointing out deep literary references to deciphering coded statements about the September 11 terrorist attacks, these essays never seem to be completely off track, but they miss the point: Arcade Fire songs are about human emotions. That's why so many people like the band. Fans seem to feel them, for whatever reason.

This is where I start getting confused, though. I wouldn't say that baroque, dramatic art rock via Canada about partying with "the Haitians" is exactly my thing. Without a personal connection to the band I might have dismissed it outright as a bunch of art-school losers. But no matter how loosely associated you are, or how long ago it occurred, it's jarring to see someone you once played spin the bottle with on the cover of Spin with Bruce Springsteen. I think without a personal interest I would have only vaguely paid attention to the band, and that would've been about it. But because I was invested, I actually listened and was rewarded. Sometimes.

I've always found most of the band's music to be overly dramatic and semi-annoying, but, man, it also has a few really, really good songs. I loved "Wake Up" off of Funeral deeply and immediately -- it reminded me of the promise shown in some of the demos I'd had in the early 2000s. And Neon Bible is by far my favorite Arcade Fire album because it combined the band's trademark builds and blasts with more lush, subtle sounds. I caught the Chicago show on the Neon Bible tour and it was appropriately mind-blowing, and raised my expectations for the band. But then after that I thought The Suburbs was just OK and I've only heard pieces of the latest record, Reflektor, twice, both times while riding in someone's car. My verdict was a resounding, echoing "meh." It seemed as though with Reflektor the band had discovered the Talking Heads, and that was kind of my only thought.

I last saw Arcade Fire play in Kentucky in the fall of 2007. I took a friend who had just received a cancer diagnosis but had not yet undergone surgery. It was rough. He needed a road trip in the worst way, so we drove to Louisville to see Arcade Fire play on the riverfront with LCD Soundsystem. LCD brought the dance party, but AF's show put us on a bad track emotionally. Let me tell you: an Arcade Fire concert is not somewhere you want to be if you have something heavy hanging over your head. Arcade Fire's intensity can easily fuck your vibe if you're already in a bad place, which actually says more about the bands power more than it does about our emotional state that day.

Indeed, how I feel about the band seems to depend on my mood. When I'm feeling generous, its activism, earnestness and stage costumes can remind me of later-era R.E.M. When I'm not, everything about the band reminds me of the bloated, pompous arena monster that is U2.

As far as pop culture influence, the band's public image is also something to be examined and explored, for sure. There's always a backlash with any level of popularity and most of my friends who haven't really listened to the band think its members are a bunch of poseurs. I can't blame them, really. They look odd and the band has endured a series of PR gaffes and very public swipes. (A while back Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips went on the record about his distaste for the band. This must be a personal bummer for Butler and his wife, vocalist Régine Chassagne -- they took friends to a Flaming Lips concert years ago on the eve of their wedding.)

After that first huge rush of attention occurred, the band did the only reasonable thing -- went back to Canada and hid out for a while. It was a smart move. Arcade Fire had reached maximum saturation. But this kind of thing also has consequences. Because the band doesn't give many interviews, it has retained an air of mystery, and therefore it can be easy to make assumptions about its members' character or intentions. As cool as they may be, or sweet or funny, there's something whack with their media presence. To put it bluntly: They seem to always come off like douches. It's an easy leap for the public to make when all the public knows is the serious nature of the music and there's not much good information out there to counter all of the bad information.

The worst of the anti-Arcade Fire backlash came just last year when the bands Twitter account announced that to attend one of its shows: "Formal attire or costume MANDATORY. (Formal wear = suit, dress or fancy something...)" The request was also printed on tickets by Ticketmaster and the outrage was immediate. Young fans who were already strapped for cash because of buying tickets to the shows were now panicking that they had to go out and buy prom dresses and rent tuxedos -- thinking that they wouldn't be able to get into the show otherwise.

Like many others, my first reaction was something like, "Eh, fuck you, buddy!" What a bunch of bullshit. I was appalled, thinking, "No way. We don't tell you to stop wearing those Mennonites-at-the-disco suits or those horrible fingerless gloves, you don't get to tell us what to wear to your concerts."

Continue to page three.