Putting Out the (Arcade) Fire

By Elliott Sharp
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 11 | Posted Feb. 16, 2011

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Three hundred years from now, when quasi-mutant future generations are uploading information directly into their Spock-brains for a class on pre-Saturnite music history, they’ll learn that everything changed on Feb. 13, 2011. At about 11 p.m., a typical Sunday became a day of utmost importance for Earthlings when Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs was named Album of the Year at the 53rd Annual
Grammy Awards.

But wait. No. The truth is, The Suburbs' Album of the Year nod means nothing to the state of indie music.

Leading up to the big day, NPR pointed out that more than half of the Grammy nominees this year were artists on indie labels. Even Robert Plant, Herbie Hancock and Willie Nelson now make music for indies, and no one could plausibly argue they are making indie music. The reason seems obvious: There’s a difference between indie music and indie labels.

This is not a fresh insight. But as soon as Barbra Streisand confusedly announced Arcade Fire the winner, general consensus from the indie world was that “we” had achieved a monumental victory. That, after years of paying dues and spilling blood in the trenches, indie music finally earned the much-deserved recognition it had been denied since birth.

It was a head-scratching moment: Who are “we” and what have “we” won, anyway?

In a pre-Grammy interview, the co-founder of Merge (the venerable indie label Arcade Fire calls home) Laura Ballance claimed “whether something is on a major label or an independent label doesn’t matter.” With the rise of the Internet and the gradual dissolution of the traditional music industry the playing field has been leveled, the Thomas Friedman-inspired argument goes.  Ex-Zeppelin frontman Plant is not jeopardizing his chance of success simply because he switched to an indie: he’ll still get the sales and recognition that previously
required a major label.

Among others, Esperanza Spalding and Hancock both won Grammys this year for indie label releases. But they’re not included in the indie “we” because they’re not making indie music. Their wins show that indie labels have been victorious, but do nothing for the elevation of indie music. The indie “we” refers to something about the music and not the status of the label.

Arcade Fire hold a unique position within the indie music category. Their 2004 debut, Funeral, was championed by indie overlords Pitchfork while also earning a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Album and a few dates opening for 22-time Grammy winners U2. The same happened with 2007’s Neon Bible, which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200.

It isn’t shocking that they received both indie and mainstream praise given how easily digestible their music is. The comparisons to Bruce Springsteen Neon Bible garnered were strengthened with the release of 2010’s The Suburbs, where the band’s ability to create anthemic arena rock was on full display. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Charts. Soon after, they sold out two consecutive nights at Madison Square Garden, the second of which was watched by international viewers through a live webcast directed by award-winning filmmaker Terry Gilliam (with the support of American Express, YouTube and VEVO).

Considering the band’s high level of institutional and consumer support, it makes perfect sense that they’d give an acceptance speech this year.

Both musically and conceptually, The Suburbs is a perfect choice for the Album of the Year. It’s an agonizingly dull and excruciatingly long classic rock drag about throwing in the towel, entering the yuppie kingdom and romanticizing a vague, yet more idealistic, past. Simply put, it fits right in with the Grammy aesthetic. The win is far from proof that indie music has broken down the previously impenetrable barriers of mainstream institutions.

Instead, it shows that indie labels, if they release music that appeals to mainstream
audiences, can earn approval from mainstream institutions. This is a win for indie labels and businesspeople, perhaps, but not by any stretch of the imagination is it one for indie music. Shitgazing indie rockers Times New Viking, also on Merge, should definitely not get their hopes up.

If we’ve learned anything, hopefully it’s that the “indie” category needs a complete
overhaul. Just as there’s an inarguable distinction between “indie label” and “indie music,” the latter must be further broken down and reconstructed.

The 90 percent of indie artists who share nothing in common with Arcade Fire don’t benefit at all from their recent Grammydom. If anything, those less accessible bands are harmed as more indie labels begin to realize they can earn mainstream recognition by signing more conventional, less daring acts. The claim that “we” have been victorious is a deceptive
declaration that anyone other than indie publicists, labels and accountants should resist.

“Sometimes the panel behind the Grammy Awards likes to throw a massive wrench into the system and completely surprise all of us,” wrote Andrew Martin for Prefix magazine.

Really? Is it surprising that a band that sounds like Springsteen, tells a story about the suburbs, and sells out sports arenas won a Grammy? It shouldn’t be. Truly surprising is how quick and thoughtlessly the indie “we” accepted its absorption into an institution it once raged against. But maybe indie’s us-against-the-system days are long gone. Maybe the roles have shifted and the Grammy panel is the new wrench-throwing system-destroyer.

Perhaps we should all move to the suburbs and give up.

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Comments 1 - 11 of 11
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1. Anonymous said... on Feb 16, 2011 at 01:07PM

“Thank you for saying just how overrated this group is. However their music doesn't come close to Springsteen's level, people like that don't make Arcade Fire's bland sort of music.”

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2. Anthony said... on Feb 16, 2011 at 02:39PM

“Throughout a night where Justin Bieber, Usher, and Eminem's angry garbage was touted as the center of the musical universe, it's actually a really cool thing that Arcade Fire ended up with the highest honor. If you don't like the group, it won't mean anything to you. And you obviously don't. Cool. We're not pushing some epic "victory" here; we're just happy that a good band who has produced good music for a while that we enjoy actually won something. Moreover, it was the only album nominated that sold under 1 million copies, which means that they are not the commercial powerhouse you seem to think. Really, who gives a shit about other indie music winning awards? "We" = Arcade Fire fans. If you're not one of them, just leave it be.”

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3. Anonymous said... on Feb 16, 2011 at 03:21PM

“I agree with Anthony said. Also, you're thinking of Indie in the wrong sort of context. Indie less a genre, but more of a classification. If a band's on a minor label, then it's indie. If its on a major label, but isn't exactly "mainstream" its an alternative band. In regards to people like Robert Plant being on indie labels, look back at how Led Zeppelin was one of the biggest bands on the planet in their prime, and look at how much of a difference there is between the sales of say, IV and Band of Joy. Plant, as well as Hancock and the others listed above are alternative, not indie. As for Arcade Fire, as long as they have the indie sensibility (Not sacrificing artistic integretiy for monetary gain) they, and we also, can stil think of them as indie.

Also, The Suburbs is not overlong or boring.”

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4. Anonymous said... on Feb 16, 2011 at 07:23PM

If you can't tell the difference between Bruce Springstein and Arcade Fire you probably shouldnt be writing articles about music. However, I've decided to help you out anyway. Here's the breakdown:

Most music today is directed at tweens and teens because they are the demographics with the largest amount of expendable income. The majority of this music is about a lust for money, drugs, sex, violence and other concepts considered "adult" or "mature". These kids emulate their favorite artists as role models. Kids feel pressure from society to be "grown-up". They're taught to exploit they're own sexuality even before they even understand it. Meanwhile, theyre idea of a "grown-up" is a money-grubbing, drug addicted, sex-crazed gangster devoid of any deep, meaningful thoughts.

This album is the opposite. It's a warning to kids to stay young at heart. It's also directed at those kids who've already felt the pressure to hurry up and become an adult. Now that theyve gotten older they realized they were duped. And now all they want is their childhood back. It's a regression that moves away from greed and back towards purity and honesty and that is why I seriously can't believe it won a grammy.

The album is about many things, mostly related to childhood and adulthood. Kids being divided into niches based on what type of music they listen to.
Kids wanting to grow up so quickly when really they should be relishing their time as children.

As far as Indie vs. Non-Indie goes... that's not even the issue. I'll be the first to admit that Arcade Fire's musical stylings don't sound "radically outside the norms". Its blues-based rock and has mostly 4/4 time signatures. Yes it is popular, so that makes it mainstream. But their message and their unwavering humility make them the exception to the rule of mainstream music. Whether its Indie labels or Indie music it doesnt matter. Its an issue of Integrity vs. Greed. If anything, this goes to show that the power is being turned back on in the heart of man. This isnt a victory for Indie music. Its a victory for music.

How did a band win album of the year without gimmicks or shiny suits or shameless promotion? That's what really surprised me. They did what I thought was impossible. Arcade Fire relies solely on their music to speak for itself. They don't really have an "image" and that's why "music fans" who rely on "images" have no idea who Arcade Fire is. I consider Arcade Fire to be underdogs because of their humility and purity, not because they're on an independent label.

By the way.... The Suburbs is an absolutely incredible album. It's the most nostalgic piece of music that I've ever heard. But it requires a brain and a heart. So obviously I can't expect you to understand. I do, however, ask that you respect the fact that other people enjoy it.

To all the fans out there: Don't worry.
Us kids know.”

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5. Anonymous said... on Feb 17, 2011 at 09:48AM

“"Unwavering humility."

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6. Anonymous said... on Feb 17, 2011 at 11:34AM

“LOL @ "purity" and the Arcade Fire "not having an 'image'"”

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7. Jason said... on Feb 17, 2011 at 05:05PM

“Pretty sure he meant their MUSIC was humble. Was it intentionally misinterpreted to mean they each have humble personalilities?

So they were mean to poor little Wayne Coyne and he got butt-hurt. (Lets call Rolling Stone magazine and whine about it.) They can all be jerks for all I care. I won't invite them over for a cup of tea. But I'll sure as hell buy their albums. Even the fact that Wayne Coyne whined to Rolling Stone won't deter me from enjoying Flaming Lips music (I really liked Embryonic). Two different issues.”

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8. Jenny said... on Feb 18, 2011 at 08:49PM

“The Suburbs is not about "throwing in the towel," nor is it about becoming a yuppie. It's about growing up in the 'burbs and what Anonymous #4 said. I'm sure no one would argue that the suburbs themselves are strange little bubbles of existence. I, too, thought the album was overwrought and boring except for the five or six jams, but a few more listens has changed my tune. You should pop it in again, too, 'cuz you misheard some of the lyrics.

I don't think the Grammys mean anything. The awards are given to people who make music only in the most abstract, distant sense of the word. I don't think Suburbs is their best, but they won, and not only did it give us whoisarcadefire.tumblr.com, it was pretty fucking cool, too.”

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9. Anonymous said... on Feb 18, 2011 at 10:54PM

“This whole notion of "indie" music vs. "mainstream" music is antiquated and irrelevant today. I would urge Mr. Sharpe to read a truly brilliant article from the February 2010 edition of Paste magazine entitled "Is Indie Dead". The days of indie music being about the anti-establishment and representing underground culture ended a long time ago. Gone are the days of Black Flag and Minor Threat representing the underground "indie" music scene. Today "indie" acts are selling Honda's, i Pod's and even Cadillac's. They are featured on hit TV shows like Parenthood and are entrenched in mainstream culture. Warner Bros. Records now owns 49% of the uber indie label Sub Pop. "Indie" acts Vampire Weekend, The Decemberists and Amos Lee are debuting at #1 on the Billboard Charts. Indie has now become a genre of music similar to alternative, classic rock or hip hop/ R&B. Personally to me the term "indie" for the most part represents real, honest, good music.”

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10. Anonymous said... on Feb 19, 2011 at 10:01PM

“if i had the option of listening to the suburbs or reading this article, I'd totally read this article because it's fucking hilarious!!!

It's fine if you admire the album, and the band, and their grammy accomplishment but I really do think there is some kind of harmless and hilarious truth to what Elliot is saying here. It's not like it's something new for wee little indie bands of back in the day to get famous either. It's nothing to be bitter about, but there does seem to be some kind of regression, if not stagnancy, for truly independent diy bands to go anywhere because of AF's win. and there's especially some kind of regression away from admiring what "indie" music was synonymous with, and that's experimentation, i like to think. Arcade Fire aren't progressing a sound any more, they did that once with they're first album which set the standard, and now they're a sort riding along that becoming a sort of one-trick-pony that makes really catchy anthemic rock songs. whatever.”

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11. backwoodsterrorist said... on Feb 21, 2011 at 04:49AM

“the fact that it is "blues-based rock in mostly 4/4 time signatures" and still dull and apparently preachy, i get that only from your description, is enough to make me never want to hear this crap again. since when is mediocrity and banality a good example for the kids? i agree with what anthony says as well, but personally can't stand this bands music or aesthetic.”


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