Arcade Fire and H.G. Wells: The Lies Machine

Before turning 30, H.G. Wells had predicted the helicopter, the airplane, and the tank. The much harder feat — and one for which he still doesn’t receive his proper due — was this: H.G. Wells predicted Arcade Fire. Except he called it something else, something slightly less catchy. He called the band Tono-Bungay. I don’t know if anyone warned him that people would make fun of the name. Maybe not. Maybe he had a temper. After writing some of the world’s most riveting and enduring science fiction, Wells became one of Britain’s best-known and most outspoken socialists and essayists. In Wells’ lifetime his non-scientific novels — such as Tono-Bungay — were read more widely than The Island of Dr. Moreau ever was. Poor H.G. Wells. There’s something about monkey heads shrieking out of ostrich haunches that continues to speak to the ass inside all of us; satirical critique of dishonest marketing and advertising practices in Victorian London proved to be a passing fad. Too bad. Tono-Bungay is the most prophetic work in Wells’ oeuvre.

The novel documents the rags-to-riches story of a provincial chemist who makes a fortune “bottling rubbish for the consumption of foolish, credulous and depressed people.” The tonic “Tono-Bungay” is slightly bad for people’s health, but not criminally so. To critics suggesting that its marketing is unethical, Tono-Bungay’s maker responds: “I’d like to know what sort of trading isn’t a swindle in its way. Everybody who does a large advertised trade is selling something common on the strength of saying it’s uncommon.” Later, when being asked to admit that he knows there is absolutely nothing of redeeming value in the tonic, its inventor demurs, “How can one tell? How can one venture to tell?…”

Author: H.G. Wells
Book: Tono-Bungay
US publication date: 2005-06-28
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Contributors: Editor, Introduction: Edward Mendelson, Editor: Patrick Parrinder
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 0141441119
First date: 1909
Length: 384
Price: $14.00

The hope for authentic pop music lingers because for too long now, that hope has gone unfulfilled. The language common to popular music — and degraded by it — endures. We hope for change, for revolution, for societal and personal transformation. We hope for what John Lennon and Little Richard and Bob Dylan and Public Enemy delivered. We want the Clash and Kurt Cobain. We hope to have our minds blown. Yet for decades the only thing getting blown away, like answers in the wind, is the belief that pop music can do anything but mollify dissenters, flatter non-conformists, and sustain the belief that a good life is possible while around us, the rest of the world rots because of us.

“Wrong life cannot be lived rightly.” That’s Theodor Adorno. For critiquing the industry of popular culture 50 years before it occurred to anyone else to do so vigorously, Adorno earned himself a place of scorn amongst the academy that decided popular culture might be the site of resistance to the onset of corporate capitalism. All around you hundreds of assistant professors and their grad students still believe audiences of American Idol are forming “active readings” that give them the strength to resist the man. It’s hard not to hear in the complaints of cultural studies practitioners the defense of Tono-Bungay. Does closing my eyes in rapture when Arcade Fire thrash the living wolf parade out of each other’s motorcycle helmets with sticks make me a better person, the world a better place? “How can one tell? How can one venture to tell?…”

Culture which is not critical of society must be affirmative of it. The fence so many artists imagine they straddle does not exist. Arcade Fire is not an evil like the Iraq War or a cultural nadir like American Idol. But because of this, the band, like Tono Bungay, is more insidious. The Iraq War we know to oppose. But Arcade Fire doesn’t really hurt anyone, does it? They might even provide good examples. For instance, it’s good that Arcade Fire is independent, just as it’s good that the vegetable stand where I shop is independent: it’s nice that more money is going to the people who put the work in, rather than some corporate office in Phoenix. But this means only that Win Butler is a shrewd businessman. In what other area do indie kids champion business acumen as proof of artistic greatness? It’s important that Arcade Fire emerged from a communal, Mile End artistic scene for in such local and regional scenes things of value thrive. Choosing to live lives unattached to a country’s economic engine and learning that cooperation is more important than competition may tend to make us better citizens.

Perhaps a critical mass of such citizens might tip — or shame — our society at large in doing more with its tremendous wealth besides sewing it up in cottages, Sea-Doos, and RRSPs. But if you imagine the $45 price of admission comes with this, you’ve just bought Tono-Bungay. You’ve just sustained the myth — the by now indefensible myth — that popular music might change the world. Maybe that myth doesn’t hurt you. But it doesn’t help you either. It doesn’t help any of us.

What is wrong with Arcade Fire has little to do with Arcade Fire. They are an enjoyable and derivative band produced from a neighborhood that cherishes an image of itself as bohemian, a band that likes to write and play songs, even if those songs are about nothing in particular and sound like so much else before it. What the elevated claims made on the band’s behalf show us is how emaciated the promise of pop music has become, how anemic its hopes. When your champion is Bruce Springsteen, there is hope, for the anger in his lyrics palpitates and the fire in his eyes speaks of desire to do real damage to the men who closed down factory town. What of the world when the champions look and sound like lesser versions of what came seven years before them, except with less humor and a more elevated sense of their own cultural importance? What of the world when most of us must know this yet let ourselves get fibbed to by otherwise respectable critics like Frere-Jones?

It’s easy to understand why Bowie, Byrne, and Bono do not want to face that their fame rests on projects that have enriched their bank accounts but may have impoverished the world. It’s easy to understand the hysteria that sees them collectively offload this responsibility onto a bunch of well-meaning Montrealers in their mid-20s, who clearly want just to play music. It’s always easier to say change is just around the corner. It’s a reversal of all our modern assumptions to say the cherished notion that pop music matters for anything other than entertainment is a myth. Doesn’t all modern evidence tell us that in allowing youth to feel good about itself without doing anything other than buying product and attending shows (especially the supposedly authentic popular music) all we are accomplishing is the delay and prevention of change? If popular music is so accepted by all facets of the society that is the source of the world’s ills, then isn’t it time for all of us to hang up our guitars, pack up our mikes and work towards accomplishing change in other forms that might still be able to accommodate it?

Change was once the promise of popular music. If swinging guitars can’t do what it was supposed to do no matter how dearly we all wish it could, at what point do we start swinging real axes? Tono-Bungay maybe didn’t hurt people. But the people who took it stopped their exercise, neglected their diet, and imagined that sugar water was the answer. Holding fast to the notion that independent music is important allows us to pretend we’re making a difference. Even a two-second glance through the newspaper or a seminar course on modern history should be able to tell the daftest among us that this could not possibly be true.

If you are a (Western) human being you owe it to your eternal soul to be so outraged about the things being done in your name to the rest of the planet by the same industries that benefit indirectly by the mass inoculation afforded by popular music. The myth of Arcade Fire confirms what a recording industry needs to sustain itself. It confirms what aging messiahs want to believe about themselves, what those who want to change the world, one pair of front row tickets at a time, want to believe also. In the words of Arcade Fire: “Lies, lies!”

Colin Snowsell is a PhD candidate at McGill University and teaches in the Department of Communications at Okanagan College. He is currently finalizing his dissertation and book on Morrissey.