Broken Social Dreams

As I channel my inner Fox Mulder, 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.

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.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.