Monday, November 26, 2007

Some Further Thoughts Re The Arcade Fire, and of the Importance of Irony in Rock Music

The recommendation I made below was sincere. The Arcade Fire is one of the best live acts I've seen in a while. But as much as I admire them, when the subject of this band comes up, I always feel as though I'm the least admiring fan in the room. Critics call them the second coming of U2 and Springsteen, their roster of celebrity supporters (the Edge, David Bowie) is impressive and apparently growing by the day. And as I say, wherever I go I feel like a bit of a heretic among The Converted.

I've wondered why this is, and I suppose it's because I'm a sort of heretic by nature. Naturally suspicious: "You say this is the best grilled cheese sandwich you've ever had. Why? Do you remember them all? When you can't account for all your sandwiches — and you certainly can't compare them under controlled conditions — would you stake your honor on so dubious a proposition?" And so on.

I'm pretty sure it was exactly this sort of heretical (maybe agnostic is a beter word) aspect of my character that drew me to rock music to begin with. There are so many repositories of sanctimony and earnest in the world. We create institutions of all kinds — nations, churches, ideologies, even sports teams — and we invest so much idealism in them. These institutions carry imperfections. They have to: they're the work of imperfect people. And when they inevitably rot, when they become corrupted and disappoint, we're torn to pieces. We get bitter.

Rock music, to me, lives outside that paradigm. Or it ought to. Because rock, more than any institution or art form (and let's call it what it is: an institutionalized art form), is founded on irony. Not so long ago Sasha Frere-Jones wrote a piece for The New Yorker in which he himself grappled with The Arcade Fire Problem. Frere-Jones concluded that The Arcade Fire is simply too white: his thesis is that the band has no soul because, well, it has no soul. Maybe he's getting at the same point I am, but I'd like to come at it from a different angle. Yes yes yes, the band is half-Texan and half-French Canadian. There's a lot of light reflecting on that stage, and not a lot of funk in their music. Maybe "blackness" or some derivative form of it is an important active ingredient of rock 'n' roll: I'll leave that to Sasha to hash out. My focus is on another such ingredient: irony. Irony makes rock not serious, and therefore worth taking seriously. Irony is the privilege of the young. It's a mark of sophistication, humility, and good humor. And The Arcade Fire don't have it.

Read this compilation of lyrics from Neon Bible, and tell me (1) if you could actually make it to the end without barfing, and (2) whether or not you did, if you agree with me that The Arcade Fire is comprised of 100% earnestness and 0% irony. This breakdown, if you can call it that (and I intended the double entendre), is just not suitable for a rock band. Let's have our cult leaders, our Dr. Phils, our Bolsheviks 100% earnest. But not our rock bands.

There's a time in life — as I wrote below, when you're around fourteen — when you're looking for conviction and depth of feeling, and the only medium you're in a position to explore is rock music. If you grew up in the 1980s, you found "answers" and "sympathy" in U2 and the Smiths. As you got older, you remember how ridiculous you were. You put those old Smiths albums back on, expecting to cringe in embarrassment, and you're pleasantly surprised because ten years later you're glandularly capable of identifying and appreciating Morrissey's irony. He meant every word of it, but he didn't mean any of it. As a result, the Smiths were geniuses.

U2 less so. The first half-dozen or so U2 albums, from Boy through Rattle & Hum, are so god-awful earnest that you have to be in a nostalgic mood to tolerate them. I'm not saying The Joshua Tree isn't a terrific album, or that "Sunday Bloody Sunday," performed live with the white flag at Red Rocks, wasn't brilliantly conceived and executed. But you just can't help looking at Bono (or yourself, as you sing along — "NO MORE! WIPE YOUR TEARS AWAY!") and seeing a complete naïf. To their credit, U2 recognized this and tried to correct it. They spent the 1990s recording "ironic" albums like Pop and Zooropa, and Bono began prancing around in gold lamé, with devil horns on his head. This was not brilliantly conceived and executed. As a result, U2, in my estimation, are not geniuses. You can't decide, mid-career, to add irony. You have to mix it in with some subtlety.

R.E.M. is an interesting example, because R.E.M., of course, cheated. R.E.M. recorded Top 40 pop songs with irony self-consciously written into the package — they even called one of the songs "Pop Song." So the record goes gold, and half the buyers like R.E.M. because it's catchy and upbeat, and the other half applaud R.E.M. for the great moment of satire. "Shiny Happy People" is the "My Name Is Earl" of pop music. R.E.M.'s doctrine was that they were earnest about being ironic. It was enough to tie you up into knots.

John Lennon, of course, was irony incarnate — the Primal Source From Which All Rock Irony Flowed Thereafter (although some will point to Elvis almost a decade earlier: note the smirk on his face as he did his signature hip-swiveling during "All Shook Up"). Lennon's mother lode of irony made him the perfect counterweight to McCartney's jaunty tunesmith character. Beatles? Genius. Punk rock was genrified irony. The bands of that era had the irony written into their DNA; they only had to conceive and execute, and those that did became signature rock 'n' roll acts. Compare the rock "street cred" of acts like the Pistols, the Clash, and the Damned to Yes, Genesis, and Rush: it's irony that made the difference.

I could go on at length, but I need to get back to The Arcade Fire. At some point, one or more of the hundred people in this band need to show me something — something that says they don't really mean to be taken as seriously as they are. It could be something as easy as a well-timed wink from Win or Regine. Or the drummer could get hammered and crash his car into a swimming pool. Or in an interview one of them could go off-message and declare that it's just a frickin' riot being a famous rock star. I just need something that will register the slightest bit on my irony-ometer. My worry is that so long as they have every fan, every critic, every rock band peer fawning over them like fourteen-year-olds, it's not going to happen.

And that's how I feel about The Arcade Fire.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That must be why Third Eye Blind rocks so much. I mean I saw them on The Tonight Show tonight (well, rebroadcast from 2000) and they were just oozing with.... Wait, what? You mean they were earnest.... with.... oh, nevermind.

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