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

Arcade Fire
Neon Bible

Even if you’re happy to concede that David Bowie in Berlin represents a pinnacle seldom replicated across the sprawling history of popular music, it’s hard not to want to punch the Thin White Duke in his thin white face every time he shoots off his famous mouth about the majesty of Arcade Fire. This was David Bowie on his web site about Funeral, the band’s 2005 debut release on Merge: “You must, simply must, buy it now, today, pronto. Quite the most beautiful, moving and passionate piece of brilliant song-writing and quirky performance I’ve heard in YONKS.” He’s hardly shut up about the band since. The final page of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents America (The Book) contains a cease and desist letter to Sean Penn, on the grounds that, though his heart may be in the right place, everything else about him seems to rub people the wrong way. One wonders if Win Butler has discussed a similar course of action against Mr. Bowie. He should.

To be fair, although Bowie remains the most egregious offender, the problem of effusive praise entirely out of proportion to the more humble contours of the band’s actual contributions is not limited to him alone. The release of the band’s second major release, Neon Bible (2007), occasioned a follow-up rash of blabber. This is a blogger quoted in Sasha Frere-Jones’ adulatory New Yorker profile on the band: “If you are a human being, you owe it to your eternal soul to love the Arcade Fire and see them play live.”

Enthusiasm. Nothing wrong with it. Nothing wrong either with liking things enough to evangelize on their behalf. Wanting people we like to like the same things we do is central to human existence. In validating our own tastes, we validate our own humanity. In linking us to others like us, we establish webs of communication, thereby turning Descartes if not, precisely, on his head, then at least recumbent on his side. Not, “I think therefore I am”; rather, “I communicate therefore I am.” Sharing tastes, convincing others to share them, shows us we do not live alone in a Cartesian vacuum. It allows us the relief of knowing that things external to us afflict others the same way they afflict us — with admiration or awe, with beauty or wonder or urgency. If each of our own past artistic accomplishments allowed us a bully pulpit, maybe we’d use it to champion our favorites also. If not, we’d build our own pulpit and call it a blog. Or, if we had more taste, we would devote ourselves to world conquest, one mix tape at a time, the indie rock Trojan horse.

There are things to like about Arcade Fire. Independent, communal, original: Arcade Fire has returned popular music to its roots — life-affirming yet critical of mainstream popular culture, willing and able to appeal to the masses, but only on its own artistic and economic terms, influenced by past masters yet not derivative of them. By now the band’s claims to indie authenticity have been amply documented. The band retains full artistic and financial control of its recordings through a contract signed with Merge, a small label with impeccable credentials. Its commercial stance is consistent with its indie past. Arcade Fire emerged from Montreal’s Mile End neighborhood, the Anglophone artistic hothouse of an economically depressed city. More artistic collectives are formed here on a Sunday afternoon than anyone reasonably knows what to do with. Partially, in recognition that many of its fans cannot afford the current price of its tickets, the band stages free concerts at uncommon venues. In Montreal, the city of 700 steeples, you sometimes get the sense that Arcade Fire has soundchecked each sanctuary thrice.

The eerie unanimity around the claims made for Arcade Fire’s artistic greatness and the indie pop community’s investment in the band as keepers of the sacred flame may be understood in terms of a cyclical model of popular music. Bowie, Byrne, and Bono each define a moment when popular music was the centrifuge of a broad cultural critique of modern society. All come from eras when popular music was the greatest — some might say only — outlet for voices of working class youth or those defined as “Other” in other ways, by virtue of gender or sexual preference or color or even just general dorkishness. All came along at moments when mass-manufactured industry-developed cultural product was polluting the world. All helped strangle the careers of these pop impostors, and give back to people what was rightly theirs — popular music.

That’s the cycle: periods of popular, regional, organic ferment give way to industry-engineered movements of highly commodified product. Elvis Presley infuriates American industry. Voila Pat Boone. Backed by big industry and all its subsidiary branches — the record store chains, the airwaves, the music media — these simulated artistic moments are not, as anyone who has studied Pat Boone’s hair will understand, always successful. When they are, they endure until some new organic movement manages to speak to an audience tired of the manufactured and ready once again for the authentically popular. Given the intuitiveness of the cyclical theory of popular music, it has always seemed to make good sense to just grit one’s teeth during the periods of Aguilera ascendancy and wait for the Interpol or Bloc Party or Arcade Fire to come along and return pop music to its proper social function. Bowie, Byrne, and Bono point to Arcade Fire as validation that the ground they broke still promises to lead somewhere vital or revolutionary. But in singing the praises of Arcade Fire so loudly and so frequently they actually may do the band a disservice; Arcade Fire can withstand no such degree of scrutiny. Pop music may still travel in revolutions, but not along a fixed course maintaining an even degree of distance from its point of origin. Like a moon intolerant of its gravitation pull, each cycle drifts us further and further from the cycle before it.

What if pop music has no critique left to offer? What if we are back in the authentic cycle and no one in the industry, no one in society, feels in the least bit bothered by the brand of pop music the band wields? What if the industry has just finally learned that organic recording artists emerging from regional scenes are just a better way for it to make money? When is the last time we can point to pop music and say, “There! Something changed”, not just in music, but throughout society because of music? Because of this artist and this record, we as people changed, how we view the planet changed, how we view each other changed? What if this never happens anymore? What if the wheel is still turning, but more in the matter of a rear tire stuck in mud, unable to get forward, unable to find traction in reverse either?

Bowie, Byrne, and Bono tell us Arcade Fire is something new in the history of popular music, something in the old vein of authentic and independent, yet something new for a new time. They have told us this so many times, it’s hard not to feel like we are being sold something. The last time we were subjected to such a concentrated blitz by high-profile public figures the product was the Iraq War and Bono was named Rumsfeld, David Byrne Dick Cheney and, I don’t know, I guess that makes Bowie Condoleeza Rice. Coldplay’s Chris Martin, a Johnny Come Lately to the “I Love Arcade Fire Most” sweepstakes? Scooter Libby. Why were their voices so insistent? Because they knew there were no WMDs. It’s as though three pop stars are trying to oblige us to ignore what anyone with a passing familiarity with pop music knew from the outset: that Arcade Fire emerged as an artistically inferior yet more commercially viable collective in the mold of 1998-era Belle & Sebastian in the same way 2002 Coldplay was 1997 Radiohead with less confrontational sonics and more feel-good politics. When the function of the authentic cycle becomes the same as the manufactured cycle it replaces — making money off one set of kid or making money off another — what does it matter? When none of it aspires to change the world, in a world so desperately in need of change, is attendance at Arcade Fire show a triumphant union of kindred spirits united by beauty and loss? Isn’t it just a group inoculation allowing people to think being down with Arcade Fire is in some way a meaningful act, even though popular music no longer seems capable of anything at all except separating people from their money?

Asking a pop band to change the world through its music is setting the bar so high even Javier Sotomayor might complain. But this was the threat, the promise, the brilliance of North American popular music. It was, in some way, the goal of the scenes from which Bowie, Byrne, and Bono emerged. It’s understandable why they need to feel they’ve left this as a legacy — even though the shrillness of their insistence suggests they know full well they have not.

Photo (partial) © Anders Jensen-Urstad

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.