WE DIDN’T START THE FIRE
On their latest album, Arcade Fire lament our current digital dystopia. But they may also be its greatest beneficiaries
TAKEN OUT OF CONTEXT, the lyrics to “Everything Now”— the first single in three years from Montreal’s hugely acclaimed indie rock overlords Arcade Fire — sound bleak. “Every time you smile it’s a fake,” goes one line. “Every room in my house is filled with shit I couldn’t live without,” reads another.
Yet, the song itself — in a smart, enjoyably absurd twist — is closer to an ABBA song than a dirge. Strings swell. Pianos tinkle. Throughout, frontman Win Butler preaches earnestly about the dangers of sensory overload in the Internet age: “Every inch of space in your head / Is filled up with the things that you read / I guess you’ve got everything now.” Arcade Fire’s upcoming shows in support of their new album, also titled Everything Now, are being called the “Infinite Content” tour, in case the band’s target was unclear.
Most of us will be able to relate to Arcade Fire’s concern. (How many browser tabs do you have open right now?) But there’s also a certain irony to the band’s lament: few acts have benefitted more than Arcade Fire from the Internet’s disruption of the music industry. The “everything now” fragmentation that Arcade Fire wants to escape is a key part of their success.
That’s not to imply that Arcade Fire have used the Internet in a cynical or opportunistic way. Mostly, they’ve had lucky timing. When the band released their masterful debut album, Funeral, in September 2004, it was a happy coincidence that the Internet’s indie music
ecosystem — which loved the album — was just reaching maturity. Had Funeral received its rave review from Pitchfork, arguably the most important Internet tastemaker in indie music, a year or two earlier, it would have been a nice compliment. In 2004, it was a game changer. According to a 2005 Chicago Tribune article, the Pitchfork review prompted a spike in sales so large it caused the record to (briefly) go out of print.
That enthusiasm soon spread beyond Arcade Fire, sparking an indie rock boom in Canada and especially in Montreal. Fewer than six months after the release of Funeral, the New York Times had already dispatched a reporter up north: “At least a dozen Montreal acts are reversing the normal United States-canadian cultural polarity, producing records that have American audiences and record companies paying rapt attention.” The relationship between Arcade Fire and the artists cited by the Times — including Sam Roberts, the Unicorns, Wolf Parade, and Chromeo — is of course more complicated than “leader : follower” (some mentioned acts, like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, long predate Arcade Fire). But having a record as good as Funeral emerge from your scene never hurts.
Meanwhile, the music industry as a whole wasn’t in great shape in 2004, as CD sales began plummeting from their late-’90s peak. Things had gotten much worse by 2011, when Arcade Fire became the first indie group to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year for their third album, The Suburbs, beating out much-higher-selling releases from Eminem and Katy Perry, among others.
The Grammys are a useless benchmark for quality, but they do tell you something about what the recording industry itself considers relevant. The fact that Arcade Fire’s modest sales and sustained critical acclaim were considered more noteworthy than the commercial might of their fellow nominees seems directly related to the way the Internet has revolutionized the way we listen to music. When the idea of a single “mainstream” market has become obsolete — when every audience is a niche audience — maybe the idea of rewarding the little guy (relatively speaking) seems less risky.
This is what makes the digital skepticism of “Everything Now” so amusing: Arcade Fire has had the exceedingly good fortune to benefit both from the Internet’s elevation of indie subculture and from the Internet’s gutting of the old music industry model. The Internet might be the best thing that ever happened to them. “Every song that I’ve ever heard / Is playing at the same time, it’s absurd,” goes one of “Everything Now’s” better lines. I get the feeling, but if the Internet has indeed permanently ruined my attention span, at least so many of Arcade Fire’s songs are so good that it still feels like a fair trade.