Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Who the hell is Arcade Fire?: The Aftermath

For those of us who like the band, Arcade Fire's Grammy win the other night was quite a treat--an unexpected bit of recognition for a good album.  But, like many people, I was struck by the meta-story that quickly supplanted the good news: the story that there are lots of people out there who had no idea that Arcade Fire even existed.

This is related to my previous post about the new NYT bestseller list, which makes a distinction--an arbitrary one, I think--between physical and virtual books.  Both items call attention to the weird divide between those people who get most of their information by reading it online, and those people who don't. That is, the divide between people for whom the virtual is not any less real than any other reality.

For people whose cultural knowledge comes from the internet, Arcade Fire is a famous band--indeed, for some of us, they're an overexposed band we're sick of hearing about.  (Not me, btw, I still like 'em.)  If you buy music on iTunes (or steal it from Mediafire, for that matter), learn about new music from YouTube, or read music blogs, you know Arcade Fire.  For those who consume music in the more traditional ways--listening to the radio and buying CD's at record stores--you probably don't.

It's the former people, I think, who have also digested the idea that the ebook is roughly equivalent to the physical book (at least by quantitative, if not aesthetic, standards), and don't really get why the Times should separate the two.  This isn't necessarily an age divide, or a political one, or even an educational one.  It's cultural.

We've reached the point at which hip obscureness is large enough to no longer be hip or obscure--indeed, it's a new, parallel mainstream, one that Rosie O'Donnell didn't appear to know about.  And was offended not to have been informed of.  That she expressed this emotion via Twitter is an added complication I don't think I have the mental energy to even contemplate.


James (Mr. 5Redpandas) said...

I think this story is complicated by the fact that Arcade Fire's album topped the Billboard charts on its first week of release. I mean, it's not as if a truly underground act like Deerhoof or the Dirtbombs just grabbed the trophy. Arcade Fire have been on Saturday Night Live, opened for U2 on an arena tour, and appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone. If Rosie O'Donnell or Dawg the Bounty Hunter haven't heard of them, it's not for lack of opportunity.

The aspect of all of this that fascinates me is that Suburbs is, as far as I can tell, the first album on a fully independent (non-corporate) label to win album of the year, which says a lot. I've been a fan of Merger Records since buying my first Superchunk album in 1994, and if you had told me that the label would one day release an AotY winner, or that any act on Merge would get this kind of mainstream exposure, I wouldn't have believed it (even Nirvana had to sign to a major to get into the mainstream).

I can't say I'm surprised that this element is not being discussed much in the press. There's a lot to be said about the Internet providing an enormous advantage to non-corporate labels competing with majors (and I do believe the Internet is at least partially responsible for Arcade Fire being where they are right now, including the Grammy win).

Anonymous said...

See, I had no idea that The Suburbs was a chart topper. Does it get played on AOR radio? Or does AOR radio no longer exist?

The way I feel is, if you liked Aerosmith or Springsteen or Tom Petty when you were 13, you might well like Arcade Fire when you're 40. But maybe I'm unusual? I don't think so, though.

I continue to be surprised at how tone-deaf NPR, for instance, still seems to be about the internet. They talk about it as if it's this thing that's separate from all the other stuff--or that it merely reflects real life, rather than being a place where real life is lived.

BTW, James, did you get that new Superchunk? It is actually really terrific, I think.

5 Red Pandas said...

I know who Arcade Fire are but am not a fan. Maybe it's because I never really liked Springsteen, Petty, or Aerosmith when I was 13 :-).

That said, I'm surprised their fans cared that they won the award. At this point I just assume I don't have a horse in the Grammy race and that's fine with me. It's not like you need the Grammys to validate your taste in music. (Or any award to validate your artistic preferences.)

A friend made an interesting comment on twitter- does this win mean she should reevaluate her dismissal of the band, or does the Grammy win validate her dismissal of the band.

The last time I care about awards like this I was about 12 and I read something in the Daily News by the music critic making fun of the rock bands on the MTV awards. I cared enough to write an angry letter and they printed it in the paper the next week. It was pretty funny. I think I defended U2 and Pearl Jam. Maybe even Van Halen. Yeah, it was the early 90s. After that it was clear I didn't have any horses in the races so I just went about my business in my parallel world.

Dylan Hicks said...

The Arcade Fire has also gotten extensive exposure through commercials. "Wake Up" was the theme song, or something to that effect, for the 2010 Super Bowl, and I've seen them on some sort of beer commercial about self-expression. I think it was beer, at least. Perhaps these deals have been more important to the group (I too like them quite a lot, by the way) than radio airplay, though they do get some of that. Here in the Twin Cities they get played on the public-radio alt station and on a station that falls somewhere between genteel AOR and "adult alternative." (Doubtless these terms are no longer in wide use.) I'd say that in addition to bona fide kids and young adults, the group gets a lot of support from folks around forty who may wear or know someone who wears those Converse low-tops without laces, and who get a similar feeling from the band: it's like my youth, but different. Surely this demographic is well represented among Grammy voters.

The Merge success story is indeed a wonderful thing.

Of course it doesn't take as much these days to top the Billboard charts. According to Wikipedia, "The Suburbs" has sold a half million copies. Even before the internet, a good number of hip hop and metal albums topped the Billboard chart with little or scant radio support and light or dismissive coverage in the mainstream press.

I wouldn't dispute that the Internet has been hugely important in growing the Arcade Fire's audience, since after all their core audience uses the internet all the time. But I'd also say that their success certainly has pre-internet precedents in their lineage. The Pixies, for instance, who also opened for U2, sold loads of copies of "Doolittle" but would have been seen as goofy no-counts or a critic's band by the era's Rosie O'Donnells (wait, I guess that was Rosie O'Donnell herself). And it seemed like every fifth kid in my high school had a copy of the Cure's "Standing on a Beach," and the band wasn't notably on commercial radio till a few years later, though of course they were exposed elsewhere. Obviously bands like the Pixies and the Cure were marketed as being in opposition to the mainstream, but I think all but their most naive fans, along with too-cool-for-school detractors, saw them as members of, as you say, a parallel mainstream.

Matt said...

"We've reached the point at which hip obscureness is large enough to no longer be hip or obscure--indeed, it's a new, parallel mainstream"

You've written perhaps one of the best summary statements about the matter. For all the people out there posting weird-assed WTFs to Twitter about Arcade Fire's win, I say: "Wake up and smell the changed paradigm."

rmellis said...

It makes me feel old to like an album that won a Grammy. And not just because it's called "Grammy."

Dylan Hicks said...

I know what you mean; Grammy voters have after all contained a number of Christopher Cross and Toto fans. But I like and even love quite a few of the album winners: three Stevie Wonders, Lauryn Hill, Bob Dylan, OutKast, Beatles, John & Yoko, one of the Sinatras, Judy Garland, "Saturday Night Fever," Paul Simon, Carole King, Michael Jackson, George Michael, Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, this latest one, and some others. Hell, I even like some of the Billy Joel, Glen Campbell, and Babs Steisand.

Anonymous said...

Billy Joel!

Sung said...

It must be kismet or something, because I just listened to "The Suburbs" today on my drive to my mom's. It's a nice album, different from The Neon Bible, a more mature work. My favorite song of theirs is still "Keep the Car Running," because it reminds me of the movie about Eddie and the Cruisers (listen to "On the Dark Side" -- it's eerily similar to "Car").

And the other reason why I like them is because after listening to their music, I really want to listen to Joy Division. Especially "Transmission."

- Sung

Alicia said...

"We Used to Wait" has a very subtle remix by Mark Ronson. It's amazing. One of the best songs I've ever heard.