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

photo by Jaime Lees - Win Butler of Arcade Fire in 1999 or 2000. (No, he didn't always dress like Brendan Fraser in Encino Man.)
photo by Jaime Lees – Win Butler of Arcade Fire in 1999 or 2000. (No, he didn’t always dress like Brendan Fraser in Encino Man.)

I Kinda Like It: Tales of an Arcade Fire-Ambivalent Music Journalist
By Jaime Lees
Fri., Apr. 25 2014

We music writers are often encouraged to argue our musical tastes in black-and-white terms. Not only does it make for a more interesting article, but hard-stance or scandalous opinions prompt conversations and an interesting, interactive online comment section.

One band that every music journalist seems to have a big, unalterable opinion on is the Arcade Fire. Love it or hate it, this band seems to have prompted the most spilled ink and fevered nerdy debates of any modern group.

I consider myself an Arcade Fire agnostic — after all of these years of exposure it’s like I still need more proof before I can commit to an opinion. Not only do I feel pulled in two different directions when I think of the band, but my views are wrapped up and twisted in my own personal history and the kind of “full disclosure” experiences that journalists are meant to avoid when writing objectively.

See, I spent a decent amount of time with Win Butler, singer for Arcade Fire, when I was just a teenager. He attended Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, with a friend of mine whom I visited frequently. (I mostly scheduled my trips around when I’d be able to attend Echo & the Bunnymen concerts in Manhattan, just a short train ride away. I’ve always been weird.)

I visited SLC a few times in a two-year period during 1999 and 2000. Sadly, the friend I was visiting seemed to always be ill when I arrived. (Once because she’d had surgery and a couple other times because of what I now recognize as probably alcohol poisoning.) In any case, when she wasn’t available I spent a lot of my time on the East Coast being babysat by her excellent friends and dorm-mates who were kind enough to let me tag along with them. They took me into the city and offered to be my guides so that my seventeen- or eighteen-year-old ass wouldn’t get into trouble.

Sarah Lawrence was (and probably still is) a school for the freakishly ambitious, the insane and the insanely privileged. It was one of the most expensive colleges in the country during the time that I visited, and it has maintained that standard. (Total undergraduate tuition and fees are currently estimated to cost over $66,000 per year.) Honestly, it’s one of the most ridiculous places I’ve ever been. The school was known for not giving grades, working on a pass/fail system and letting students “explore” and invent their own “concentrations” instead of committing to a major. This meant that most SLC students basically blew through around $200,000 of their parents’ money while they fucked off for four years.

Everyone seemed lonely and bored on that campus, too, but this worked in my favor when I’d hop off a plane and needed a companion — and one of my favorite babysitters was Butler. I liked him because was a total sweetheart and a big Cure fan. He sometimes had the Robert Smith hair and everything. He seemed to wear mostly black, and despite what the picture above might indicate, no, he didn’t always dress like Brendan Fraser in Encino Man. (I took that photo at a dress-up dance party.) He was geeky, shy and mega nice. And very, very tall. Whenever he took me into the city I’d always be jogging to keep up with him because my short legs had to take an average of two and a half steps for every one of his. Our adventures were always exhausting.

He left SLC sometime in around 2000 and took off for Canada. The next time I saw him was when his new band, Arcade Fire, toured the Midwest in 2004. I saw the (now-legendary) St. Louis show at the Rocket Bar and another one in Columbia at Mojo’s. I’d heard his demos and liked them, but I still thought I was going to see some stupid college band. To my surprise, they arrived in town fully formed, and the music was impressively passionate. Arcade Fire was opening for the Unicorns and played for a very small audience at both of these gigs, but by the next year the band was on a main stage at the revived Lollapalooza festival in Chicago.

photo by Jaime Lees - Arcade Fire performing at Lollapalooza 2005
photo by Jaime Lees – Arcade Fire performing at Lollapalooza 2005

The vibe backstage at Lollapalooza was intense. Gone was the joyous, silly kid who had shown me around New York City. He’d been replaced by a guarded grown man under intense scrutiny. The pressure was palpable. It was the hottest Chicago summer in decades and Butler sat at a table under a white tent, and we all tried to enjoy some delicious catered pumpkin ravioli while his handlers were attempting to pull him away to do this or that. None of that tension was visible from the stage that day, though. The band played in the blazing heat and impressed the thousands in the crowd. They all seemed more relaxed after they played, but the responsibility was still great. I watched the band be interviewed by MTV and realized that their lives had completely changed.

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.

photo by Jaime Lees - Arcade Fire backstage at Lollapalooza 2005 with John Norris of MTV
photo by Jaime Lees – Arcade Fire backstage at Lollapalooza 2005 with John Norris of MTV

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.”

Worse yet, the band waited nearly two months to issue a formal “apology” via its Facebook page, posting in part, “To everyone really upset about us asking people to dress up at our shows… please relax. It’s super not mandatory.” Hm. This seems like the wrong approach, entirely. They said it was mandatory, but then they said it’s not and then they seemed to imply that the fans were stupid for getting “really upset.”

If the band wanted to inspire a sense of spontaneous community in fans by getting them to dress up and have fun, this was a whack-ass way to go about it. Here, it seems, the band could take some advice from the Flaming Lips. Instead of encouraging fun, AF tried to make it mandatory. It’s hard to defend something like that and this is where the bands’ aloofness again works against them. It might not seem fair, but people can only go on what you show them. And when all you seem to show them is crap like this, they’ll respond accordingly.

The only, and I mean only, good PR move I’ve seen Arcade Fire pull in the last few years was appearing on Saturday Night Live. The song performances were okay, but the band members participated in a comedy sketch that showed the public that they might actually have a sense of humor about themselves. A few members of the band participated in a scene that was fully at the expense of their egos, with Butler taking the brunt of Tina Fey’s ribbing. (She said he looked like, “Some kind of hipster Paul Bunyan. Could be a Civil War reenactor or some kind of Serbian basketball player,” and that the band’s old-timey instruments look “massively stupid.”) Butler even did an impersonation of Robert De Niro on-air — it was the first public display of levity or humor I’d seen from him in years.

I was laying in bed a couple of weeks ago with my dude friend and we were talking about the special releases for this year’s Record Store Day. I was going on and on about how great R.E.M.’s MTV “Unplugged” recordings were and forced him to listen to a bootleg copy of a song that I had on my phone. He was patient through the song and then took a deep breath and said, “Every R.E.M. song sounds like it’s trying to break my heart but it just never can.”

As soon as he said it I realized that’s how I feel about Arcade Fire: It is trying to break my heart but it just never can. I can feel the intensity but it just doesn’t sway me. I think the band is good at what it does, it’s probably just not for me. I’m glad that the generation just younger than me seems to enjoy it — I really think they could (and do) like a whole lot worse. But with Arcade Fire, I just don’t know what to think anymore. Am I letting my fondness for a dude I hung out with as a kid sway my views? I don’t know. Music appreciation and tastes are so personal and complicated, even sometimes for those of us who get paid to have an opinion.

With this band it’s not like I feel that I don’t care, it’s more like I’m just not sure how to feel at all. I have strong feelings in both directions. Am I missing something here? Persuade me either way.

link: Riverfront Times