12 months ago
Last Saturday’s episode of SNL featured musical guests Arcade Fire performing two cuts off their latest LP, Everything Now, the band’s major label debut on Columbia Records and purportedly subversive screed against society’s current obsession with fetishistic, ever-accelerating content consumption patterns. We’re chewing through media faster than ever these days, retaining less and less, and Arcade Fire thinks that they have something to say about it.
Their second performance of the night, “Put Your Money On Me” was decidedly high-concept, as the band performed behind a set of synchronized slot machines branded with the logo for a fictitious, eponymous Everything Now Corporation, created to promote the rollout and release of the new album.
As Win Butler and Régine Chassagne crooned the lyrics to “Put Your Money On Me,” the seeming earnestness of their delivery suggested that Arcade Fire really do want you to put your money all on them. Buy our overpriced vinyl, secure your verified, premium tickets to our arena shows. Rinse and repeat.
Everything Now is chock full of similarly disingenuous songs purporting to challenge the idea that “a band is a brand” while simultaneously asking that listeners thoughtfully subscribe to the band’s half-baked, stream of consciousness lyrics about the ubiquitous stranglehold of corporate influence on art and culture.
What happened? When Arcade Fire began to gain attention, there was nuance in their thematic explorations. 2004’s Funeral was rich with elegiac thematic lyrical meditations on youth, death and the impermanence of family that were appropriately accompanied by maudlin, baroque strings and French horn arrangements; 2007’s Neon Bible artfully explored religious evangelism, culture and fame through thick walls of organ and hurdy-gurdy.
As they began to pack arenas while touring 2010’s The Suburbs, Arcade Fire’s music went deeper into understanding the urban/rural culture divide, the immediacy of communication and growing distant from your past.
Showing true spectacle and prowess, they radiated the belief that your ideas about society and culture belong in your creative output, that your work is an appropriate outlet for those ideas.
2013’s Reflektor, with its double-disc bloat, embraced electronic sounds (thanks a lot, James Murphy) and melodic repurposing of riffs that you could’ve sworn you’ve heard before ( “We Exist” sounds an awful lot like “Billie Jean,”) contributing to this high-concept album wherein Arcade Fire fashion themselves into conscious conduits of pop milestones. Performed live, these songs quite literally held a mirror to the history of pop music.
Now that Arcade Fire has forgone the catharsis and lyrical complexity of their early records to make a full-on commercial pop album, the satire ought to be pointed and profound. Instead, we get a bloated synth parade of recycled Hot Topic-level lyrics about fame and money.
Maybe that’s the point. Leading the Everything Now release was a fake, planted Billboard story about the band trademarking the “millennial woops” that describe the wordless, anthemic yelps on their signature hit, “Wake Up”. It was eventually revealed turned out to be a viral farce along with branded fidget spinners and other dreck, and when they gave their own record a mixed review in Spin, a question eventually emerged: is the substandard quality of this album, and their seeming awareness of it, evidence that they’re in on the joke? We can’t tell anymore, and for longstanding fans, that’s troubling.
Win Butler’s smugness about all of this ought to piss you off. “Obviously the French are not going to have as much of a problem understanding a meta-news campaign; you don’t have to explain any of this to a French journalist,” he told Vulture after being questioned about the backlash. “Everything we’ve done has been pretty obvious if you read past the headlines of the stories, which is something else we’ve learned people don’t really do.”
Butler seems to be saying that, in uncertain political times such as these, satire should walk the line between what’s real and what’s farcical. But what he fails to ever address head-on is the question of why and to what end he’s making that satire. If it’s so on the boundary of plausibility that some fans can’t tell, then the problem isn’t that they don’t read properly—it’s that your work doesn’t put forward any ideas or takeaways strong enough to resonate past the cynical facade of disposable content wrapped around it.
The night before Everything Now’s release, Arcade Fire threw a show streamed live on Apple Music from Brooklyn’s Grand Prospect Hall. Add this evening the band’s ‘art project’ rollout for Everything Now—the fake corporation’s Twitter bickering with the band, music videos littered with endless faux popup ads, and a press release written in cold, stoic prose of B2B jargon.
Through the Mobius strip logo advertising their “Infinite Content” tour this old fan has to ask— are Arcade Fire really calling out “Infinite Content”, or just making more of it?
Forget that this is the band’s first album for Columbia, or that they own a stake in music streaming service Tidal, you’ve got to address the fact that Apple Music live streamed their private album release party, telling attendees where to stand so it looked good on camera and controlling all angles of the production.
Was this an environment that allowed for honest exploration of the lofty, ambitious theme of criticizing the media landscape? When Win Butler asked that the only lights in the room for set-closer “Neon Bible” be the flash of our iPhones, was he making a statement, or facilitating product placement for Apple’s live stream?
The great punk Joe Steinhart, founder of New Brunswick’s Don Giovanni Records, firmly believes there are no Trojan Horse media critics, that you can’t criticize an infrastructure from inside of it. Last year he told me that he’s seeing the big music institutions fold into the big tech, and worries this is dictating our consumption of creative work instead of allowing for organic discovery. But my qualm is a bit less wide-angled, and perfectly evidenced through this spectacle of “Infinite Content.”
To be clear- there are several thoughtful, independent artists asking these questions better. DC punks Priests and I talked at length about new media theories in the documentary Hypernormalisation and the long but worth reading Accelerate Manifesto, both of which suggest that our rate of consumption is speeding up at a pace that’s lessening the impact, and power, of the art we used to foster long-lasting connections with. There are some invested in those changes simply because it’s easier than facing up to the real complexities of the world.
“As this fake world grew, all of us went along with it, because the simplicity was reassuring,” narrates Hypernormalisation filmmaker Adam Curtis. “Even those who thought they were attacking the system—the radicals, the artists, the musicians, and our whole counterculture—actually became part of the trickery, because they too had retreated into the make-believe world, which is why their opposition has no effect, and nothing ever changes.”
The band Prince Rama, meanwhile, has a whole wild gonzo art theory based on the work of artist Paul Laffoley that involves a high-concept album, Extreme Now, envisioning a future where Extreme Sports are the new high art.
These ideas are a far more substantive way of engaging fans in this heady dialogue. Stranger still how Prince Rama structured their last release around their theory of “The Now Age”, releasing merchandise ranging from energy drinks to shirts with “Now!” Scrawled across the chest in self-aware Day-Glo garishness.
Arcade Fire’s Everything Now Corporation shirts, as worn by the band and crew, are stunningly similar, as is their extreme sports approach (Apple Music announced the band onstage as basketball players, and they drinking water out of branded Everything Now sports bottles between songs. It seemed as if Arcade Fire co-opted Prince Rama’s aesthetic without doing the heavy lifting to cultivate a profound stance on the very things they proclaim to be railing against.
Maybe that’s why they’ve reportedly been playing to half-filled arenas on this “Infinite Content” tour. Maybe that’s why, if you dig deep enough, you hear stories about Win Butler being so not about community or creative exchange as to charge touring bands that open for them to use Arcade Fire’s PA during their set just hours earlier at the same venue. There’s a gut disconnect worth acknowledging when a band that ties its values so deeply to its own artifice actually gets called out for not separating the two, and instead throws their art on the pyre of bullsh-t that burns ever higher in times of mass confusion.