[17 February 2011]
Some cities make you lose your head
Endless suburbs stretched out thin and dead
And what was that line you said
Wishing you were anywhere but here
So states The Suburbs, the third album from Canadian wunderkinds Arcade Fire. The album, a bildungsroman-ish lament about the state of teen angst in our nation’s more anonymous regions, is by turns preachy, obnoxious, and frantic – and ultimately disappointing. The album’s failure is noteworthy for two reasons: first, the previous albums from the band, Funeral and Neon Bible, were minor masterpieces; second, the album’s aesthetic is driven by a cultural stereotype rooted solely in myth. This belief, that the suburbs are the repositories of all things dull and lifeless, home only to sprawling acres of big-box stores and homogenous subdivisions – while the cities remain dynamic epicenters of individualism and creativity – is overwhelmingly false and disappointingly unoriginal.
The snippet of misguided lamentation (from, tellingly, “Wasted Hours”) quoted above is but the prelude to the album’s condescension. Elsewhere, suburbia is a place where you’d “never survive”; a locale where structures built “in the seventies/finally fall,” but which never “meant nothin’ at all”; a home of Biblical imagery like “a millionaire quoting the sermon on the mount,” and “a garden left for ruin”; a place where “dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains”; indeed, you can “never get away from the sprawl.”
Pitted against these stultifying settings of sameness are the semi-mythical and undoubtedly pure “kids” of lead singer Win Butler’s creation. The kids – and it’s worth noting that the term appears on The Suburbs with an eventually comical frequency – are always trapped, caged inside buses or unchanging cul-de-sacs where they are “longing to be free.” Free from what, exactly? Well, perhaps free from rote songwriting: in addition to the insufferable usage of “the kids,” Butler et al. have deviated tremendously from the orchestral pop that made their first two albums glorious to behold. The hook to “Modern Man,” for example, sounds like nothing so much as a Maroon 5 track.
Its sonic failings, though, pale next to the album’s central sin: the perpetuation of the suburbs as a tedious, prosaic place whose merits cannot compare to the hip, dynamic cities. This attitude will not be new to people on the American coast, where the vast middle section of the country so many of us call home is frequently dismissed with the snobbish term “flyover country” and the simplification-cum-pejorative “heartland.” It’s routine, it seems, for this basic assumption to take hold: everything cool happens in the cities, where everyone is different, and everything lame happens in the suburbs, where everyone is the same.
Taking such a reductio ad absurdum approach to cultural descriptions isn’t new, but it’s also wholly incorrect. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of Americans live in suburbia, depending on how you define the term in question. Half the country’s congressional districts are suburban. During the economic boom times of the 1990s, 90 percent of all new office space was built in the suburbs. Even when cities like Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis saw massive population declines in their urban cores, the amount of developed land in their metro areas increased exponentially. Kansas City, MO, whose suburbs I call home, saw residents decamp across the state line to Johnson County, KS, whose higher tax rates offered both excellent schools and unrivaled city services, both of which were glaringly absent back in the Show-Me State.
And these places to which people are fleeing are far from homogeneous. According to census data and On Paradise Drive, David Brooks’ 2004 exploration of the suburbs, married couples with children make up just a third of suburban residents. Neither are the suburbs uniformly wealthy; nearly half of suburban residents live below the poverty line. The myth of unvarying whiteness is similarly shattered by fact: 40 percent of African-Americans, half of Hispanics, and 60 percent of Asians live in suburbs. The suburbs in 2011 are more diverse than they have ever been.
The structure of the suburbs themselves does not hew to the crude portrayals of coastal pop culture. Yes, there are Wal-Marts and Best Buys set amidst huge oceans of asphalt – but so are there small, progressive live-work communities and many examples of what’s variously called “new urbanism” or “smart growth.” Where I live, in a suburb of about 20,000, residents have two small shopping plazas, both within easy walking distance of much of the city, featuring cafes, coffee shops, grocery stores, clothing boutiques, art galleries, and drugstores. These places exist because the suburbs are most definitely not the way they’re usually portrayed: as sleepy bedroom communities whose residents clump en masse to the cities each morning and flood back each night. These days, the services required for everyday life have followed the people. As Brooks observed, “we have a huge mass of people who not only don’t live in the cities, they don’t commute to the cities, go to movies in the cities, eat in the cities, or have any significant contact with urban life.”
Literature also knocks down the thesis that nothing interesting happens in the suburbs. Scan the postwar bestseller lists and you’ll see book after book set in the suburbs – where the modern American individual confronts the problems of the modern American system. Updike, Roth, Yates: these men wrote (and still write) books about charting your way in the new American frontier, which they recognize in suburbia. Both of Jonathan Franzen’s massively popular and critically acclaimed novels, The Corrections and Freedom, have dominant storylines in the suburbs. Meanwhile, the coasts are left with Jonathan Lethem and Gary Shteyngart, whose Gotham-centric and inside-baseball prose, while stylistically impressive, alienates huge swaths of readers.
The oppressed “kids” of The Suburbs are longing, we are told, to escape that very place – presumably for the individuality and creative-class liberation of the cities, where the alleged conformity of the suburbs is the lingua franca. But is there any group more conformist than those who decry conformity? The reason hipsters are so easy to parody is because the uniformity among their clothing and tastes is almost risible. The style of the urban youth is at least as capable of mimicry as the style of the suburban frat guy; favorite bands among these allegedly unique “kids” are equally easy to predict. People are easy to caricature because we tend to associate with those who look, think, and act like us – regardless of location. To state otherwise is to indulge in a formulaic sensibility.
And that’s what makes the album an eventual failure: it relies on unoriginality to drive its message. It uses a tired artistic trope whose durability has been strained by half a century of overuse, and whose veracity has never been weaker. How could Arcade Fire, whom I still count among my few favourite bands, have erred so egregiously? Where is the symphonic majesty we heard in “Wake Up” or the sheer passion of polemic on display in “Intervention”?
Improbably, and to the shock of many top-40 devotees, The Suburbs won Album Of The Year at Sunday’s Grammy Awards, besting Eminem’s redemptive journey, Katy Perry’s glitzy synth-pop, Lady Gaga’s traveling roadshow, and a highly praised disc from the superbly named Lady Antebellum. It’s debatable whether the band deserved the award on the merits of the music, and reaction has already leaned to the highly negative in that respect. But in terms of originality, of breaking new artistic ground and presenting new ideas in a beautiful and poetic form, the album fails. There is no more unceasing homogeneity in the suburbs than there is in the city, and the band would do well to turn that cultural gaze inward for its next effort.
Win Butler with his Grammy