On the matter of delicious ironies, few attain the heights of the blithering, blathering, raving reaction to the Arcade Fire’s success in achieving its best album Grammy this year for The Suburbs. An album that is in no small way about the fragmentation of culture and music within suburbia, and the tribal allegiances and subsequent belligerence that this provokes unified a set of tastemakers distinctly out of kilter with the indie world the Arcade Fire inhabits … only to cue mass indignation and rabid toolbaggery from fans of Emimen, Lady Gaga and even Arcade Fire fans themselves as documented on the hoot-a-minute-hootenanny that is the Who Is Arcade Fire tumblr.
Thus is the world of a universal commentariat firing off pensees via Twitter, plugged into a 24-hour loop of frenzied, opinionated, self-regarding, exponentially spiralling rage via the Internet (which, in the spirit of appreciating ironies, this author fully admits to enjoying). We champion the explosion of digital media for democratising information and legitimising voices that have no presence within the old flat earth mainstream media, and rightly so. However, what was meant to be an instrument to facilitate the exchange of information and to build communal bonds so as to bring greater coherence to how we come together as a public has, by and large, mostly degenerated into a scorched ether of incessant flaming and ubiquitous trolling. While various faddish idiocies and celebrity sex tapes are the most obvious cases of how the online world has disseminated information via the process of ‘going viral’, perhaps the most profound viral development has been the spread of Richard Hofstadter’s ‘Paranoid Style’.
For Hofstadter the paranoid ethos arises from a “confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargaining or compromise”, something exacerbated when “the representatives of a particular social interest - perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands - are shut out of the political process.” As such, “having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed.”
Through suburbia, and the wish-fulfilment of the web, with its capacity to indulge confirmation-bias at every click and elevate truthiness to the height of epistemological sophistication, paranoia sprouts irresistibly, running roughshod over cultural dialogue and steering the communitarian ethos that is supposed to underpin the suburbs far off track. With how we live and how we encounter one another fragmented by ‘sprawl’, the sense of a coherent, shared notion of ourselves as constituting a ‘public’ has diminished even further than the erosion Richard Sennett observed in The Fall of Public Man. If the way we conducted ourselves as a public historically provided a theatre for conveying our good faith with respect to matters of public concern through codes of dress, speech and manners, then the sprawl, and the retreat of public discourse into ones and zeroes has undermined that good faith through instituting a sense of the private self as sovereign. Enclosed in a world of its own anxieties, likes, desires and prejudices, entrenched and validated through an online environment which insulates one from having to acknowledge contending claims to truth and authority, the “empty rooms” Win Butler and Regine Chassagne sing of throughout The Suburbs breed an endemic assumption of bad faith and the the “sinister and malicious” will spoken of by Hofstadter, such that public spiritedness is fatally eroded.
Such assumptions of bad faith, where every motive is second-guessed, give paranoia, as described by Hofstadter, a chance to take hold and become the prevailing cultural attitude. If paranoia is literally “the mind alongside” (para-, beside + nous, mind), then its relationship to assumption of bad faith is telling: paranoia, as fostered in a fragmented, distrusting media landscape, identifies within all difference a malign intelligence intent on thwarting the good and true. Where a sense of comfort, well-being or freedom hits up against a natural limit, this is not because we are inclined to treat those concepts as absolutes before maturity asks that we adjust them, but rather because there is a vast conspiracy set in motion to deny and persecute us. And when vast conspiracies born of an apocalyptic malign intelligence pulling the strings of people and institutions everywhere are in motion, it funnily enough calls for exceptional, heroic efforts, not ordinarily countenanced in a society with a pretence to civility to be enacted: the paranoid are almost always found to be engaging in special pleading, and almost always there is a hint of violence and authoritarianism found behind that pleading.
It is against this backdrop that The Suburbs unfolds, with its images of bucolic, unhurried childhoods contrasted with a desperate adulthood laboured under the spectre of debt, isolation and impending financial, spiritual and just plain old good-fashioned literal armageddon. The suburbs, as a concept, represent an uneasy truce, a social contract realised in a bland, whitebread world of strip-malls and sprawling bungalows and cul-de-sacs, holding together seething passions cultivated in private, the grudges festering in the paranoid mindset. In Win Butler’s world there are intense human connections to be forged here, but they are often realised in the shadow of tribalism and defiance, a youthful rebellion at once sweet and silly as on ‘Ready to Start’ and ‘Rococo’. At the same time that it cultivates friendship and connection, such tribalism and defiance also fractures and alienates. ‘City With No Children’ and ‘We Used to Wait’ undercut the cult of self-realisation and self-gratification to observe just how our sympathies are narrowed and how our ability to connect with others is impoverished by the sprawling, angry world we’ve built for ourselves. Butler’s characters all thirst for a rootedness which is difficult to come by, and one which goes deeper than the “walls that they built in the 70s”; they desire a rootedness built on the good faith gestures through which a public, that thing by which we look out for one another and encourage our better selves to come to the fore, comes into being.
This attains even greater pitch where Butler vaguely and ominously refers to a raging “suburban war” throughout. The impending financial meltdown of Neon Bible has come to pass, with Butler’s waifs and naifs bearing the brunt of the fallout, while banks, the media and politicians are “afraid to pay the cost of what we lost” as “Half Light II” would have it. Afraid to pay the cost, they socialise the damage through fomenting paranoid fantasies of how the waifs and naifs comprising some vague “inner-city elite” have created the crisis to the suburbs, dividing and conquering when a level-headed assessment of the situation would find that the jig is most certainly up. The special pleading of the paranoid mindset finds an audience and its undercurrent of violence and hostility is unleashed.
As such, the waifs and naifs are cast out from the suburban social contract, soldiers of fortune zigzagging east and west in an attempt to find a foothold in a maelstrom of bad faith. Some cling desperately to nostalgia for the suburban friendships of youth when the “music divide[d] us into tribes”. Others, such as the “you” of many of Butler’s songs, a long lost friend and devil on the shoulder who always counselled a belligerent stance in the face of the coming cataclysm, choose to inhabit the ‘war’ more unhesitatingly. It’s a cold realisation of this state of affairs when Butler sings “you choose your side, I’ll choose my side”, a tart resignation of just how human beings who brought so much good to each others’ lives have been able to drift, and then assume hostility to each other.
"My old friends, they don’t know me now" laments Butler’s protagonist on ‘Suburban War’, trying to move beyond that hostility and the years of bad faith that have made a young adult desperate for connection and closeness remote from everyone that mattered to him. This extends even as far as searching, with an ache that cuts to the bone as it is sung by Butler, for their old confidants in every passing car as the universe is blasted further and further apart by the social and cultural upheavals that have taken hold of the cast of the album.
And yet, in spite of all of this, Butler’s vision remains a hopeful one: the bucolic and unhurried childhood invoked throughout the album recurs again and again as a contrasting motif, a vision of how our lives might be different. “If I could have it, all the time we wasted, I would only waste it again … I would love to waste it again with you,” sings Butler on ‘The Suburbs (Continued)’ by way of signing off, indicating that it is the good faith gestures of childhood and the capacity for children and adolescents to look after one another that will renew the lives that are lived at such desperate pitch throughout the album - we can’t build or fight for a better, radically altered world, at least not without horrific collateral damage, but we can keep the ways of being together that foster happiness alive, such that they endure no matter what upheavals the universe throws at us. The images of childhood, friendship and family throughout the album are perhaps a reiteration of Voltaire’s conclusion to the catastrophes of Candide whereby one is urged to “tend your own garden”, not as a retreat from the world, but as a way of inviting it in, of a world not understood through grand, overarching ideologies, theories, conspiracies and other paranoid zaniness, but through simple, human gestures, the things that show us some beauty beyond the damage we do, the things that constitute us as a public that is brought together through kindness and good faith. In that search through every passing car lies an attempt at restoring relationships that have been ground down in the atomisation, sprawl and dilapidation of the suburbs, an attempt to restore the spirit that exceeds the ugly morphology and the even uglier ideology that grew out of the suburbs.
Who is Arcade Fire? Just some indie band who urged us all to live and appreciate in this world while we still have it, rather than rant on in our insulated, tribal, bile-steeped, cliquey universes. And for that they should be universally applauded.