Broken Social Dreams

Depending on which version of the story you trust—and part of Broken Social Scene’s charm is that there are so many different versions of the story—the band began as either a deliberate joint venture between Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning, or it was something that evolved (and continues to evolve) spontaneously and with little premeditation. Given that the buzz surrounding the group’s two major releases since You Forgot It in People (2002) has had at least as much to do with how many new members have been pulled into the fray of the band’s activity as it has had to do with their music, it’s pretty evident that the consensus leans toward spontaneity—the idea that the group is a democratic collective, one in which new musical directions are always embraced and where the central creative force driving the band is always spreading out and enveloping each member, new or old, equally. Everything’s communal, in short.

This is an appealing narrative, no doubt. And if I’m being honest, I approach it much like the venerable Agent Fox Mulder: I want to believe. The problem is that the very same media outlets that have lent a hand in writing this narrative have simultaneously, and somewhat paradoxically, emphasized the opposite—the notion that BSS is in many ways not the sum of its assorted parts but is rather the creative vision, primarily, of its two founding members. Though this conclusion might not seem particularly profound, it is one worth examining (especially in light of the praise for the band’s latest release, Forgiveness Rock Record) because it is necessary to consider the limitations that the narratives we ascribe to the band poses for it, if not for its fans as well.

One possible way to contextualize Broken Social Scene is to see the group as part of the (slightly) larger pool of bands that gained prominence in the early part of this decade and that configured themselves as, well . . . collectives. The Arcade Fire, Godspeed You Black Emperor!, and, of course, Animal Collective immediately come to mind. Another way to frame BSS’s music is to attach it directly to the development of music blogs and online fanzines, both of which have proliferated over the course of the past decade. And, of course, there’s the argument to be made that Broken Social Scene exists entirely out of context, because they’re spontaneous. Take your pick. Each option is admittedly oversimplified, but not, I’d contend, wholly inaccurate.

Since Ryan Schreiber’s review of You Forgot It in People is often viewed as the press that broke the band, it’s hard for me not to see BSS as perpetually entangled with the World Wide Web and the various online music publications that have championed the group over the past eight years. Heck, you’re even reading about the band right now, on this very website.

And this, in my mind, is the biggest obstacle facing the band.

Since the cyclone of online reporting, sharing, blogging, tweeting, and publicizing news information of all kinds continues to increase in intensity (and of course with more fingertips being able to determine what constitutes news), it has become increasingly difficult to maintain a sense of control over the circulation of information. This much we know. On the one hand, this displacement of top-down control mechanisms stands as the fulfillment of the democratizing potential of the Internet. On the other hand, this displacement has, arguably, substituted one form of control with another—an argument that the bulk of the press coverage on Broken Social Scene bears out.

Despite the increasingly large volume of articles on BSS’s work, the image—the public face—of the group with which we are presented over and over again is that of Kevin Drew. Sure, there are plenty of pictures of the band in its various permutations out there. Yet, when it comes to disseminating official BSS updates, news, and even spinoff releases, Drew’s name, if not his face, is the prominent one, with Brendan Canning’s being a close second. Even This Book is Broken (2009), the official Broken Social Scene story compiled by Pitchfork’s own Stuart Berman, is framed—authenticated—by Drew and Canning’s foreword.

This overemphasis on Drew, Canning, and even Charles Spearin may or may not be deliberate. It might even be quite logical to direct so much media attention on these three, particularly since they have consistently been at the center of the band’s activity all along. Nevertheless, the intense focus on the creative vision of these three members renders the mythology surrounding Broken Social Scene—the idea that the band members “break all codes”, as they once scrawled on their cover art—impossible. In its place, we are left with a narrative that is fairly traditional: after starting a band, its founding members remain, from a media standpoint, the most significant ones in the lineup. Gone is the emphasis on democratic collaboration—that sense that creativity was always and forever unfolding in the spontaneous immediacy of the moment. What remains in its place, despite the endlessly swelling membership, is the image of a social scene that has been telescoped down to just a few “core” members.

As I channel my inner Mulder in this posting, I should be clear that I don’t see any conspiracies here. However, I do read the When-Drew-Met-Canning narrative sketched by so many of us in the blogosphere, whether intentionally or not, as a controlling cover-up that restricts attention to the boundless spontaneity that is, in many ways, the most compelling feature of Broken Social Scene’s music and legacy.

Still, Drew and Canning, the band, the Collective–whoever is in studio at the time have an undeniable knack for writing, to recall Schreiber, endlessly explosive pop songs. Therefore, even if dreams of democratic collectivity are imperfect, potentially unattainable in their execution, we can forgive Broken Social Scene for that.