After dinner we drove the short distance from Urban Belly to the United Center for the Arcade Fire concert.
First I should say that my wife and I are not regular concert attendees. We had conceded that form of entertainment to the young. We didn’t want to appear to be middle-aged adults trying to be cool by attending a concert by a band that had performed at Lollapalooza last summer. History works one way in popular music. Vinyl records may be cool to the young, but that doesn't mean that cool extends to people who grew up with vinyl. Past musical styles regularly serve as source material for new music, but audiences are not expected to be so free-ranging in their tastes. More freedom is given to objects than to subjects—a cultural condition of our time.
As it turned out, however, we were far from the oldest people in attendance that night. Some people even brought their children, opening up the horizon of age. Why not teach children how to listen to music? If you don’t, the culture industry will do it for you.
The opening act that night was The Breeders, a band from Dayton, Ohio, my wife’s home town. The band had its creative and popular peak in the 1990’s when they were known for their restless approach to the pop-inflected music of the time. They performed perched on the very edge of the stage, crowded out by the headliner’s equipment. The space was so crowded that when Sarah Nuefeld, Arcade Fire’s violinist, joined them onstage for one song, Kelley Deal had to play her guitar crouched miserably against an amplifier.
The Breeders seemed anxious and overwhelmed by the space. Either self-consciousness at being literally and figuratively on the fringes of rock stardom or simply because she had a cold, Kim Deal, the lead singer, made several awkward attempts to connect to the crowd. “Are you doing okay?” She asked after every song, as if she expected them to wander off at any minute to the vendors selling Arcade Fire tee shirts in the concourses. They played a forty-five minute set before announcing, with evident relief, that this was their last show with Arcade Fire.
Black-clad stage hands moved in sweep away the Breeders' equipment and to construct the spell that would be Arcade Fire's Everything Now live show. As they worked images from the album's controlling metaphor flashed on the screens. The United Center is a hockey and basketball arena, so it offers a lot of pixels for information and promotion. The arena's monitors were busy with phony commercials, currency symbols and other images from an imaginary consumer culture–perhaps North Korea's a few years after the fall of the Kim regime. The question, of course, arose: Where to place Arcade Fire in this image flow? Inside it? Beside it? Trying to escape from it?
A simpler and easier to read metaphor was taking shape on the arena floor. The stage hands were setting up a boxing ring in the center. The stagecraft was a conceit to transport the band members through the crowd to the stage. The band was introduced like boxers (“Weighing in collectively at two thousand one hundred pounds.”) and once on stage, they pulled off their robes. (A few songs into the set, the stage hands discreetly ripped the ropes away, dematerializing the boxing ring metaphor.) The band opened with the title song and thematic centerpiece of their new album. Before settling into the music, I wanted to capture the freshness of the spectacle with a video.
The Breeders had constructed an audience in their own anxious image ("Are you doing okay?"), and so Arcade Fire constructed their audience as a collective that gazed upon itself as much as the band.
The Breeders dressed like the audience in the United Center–blue jeans and ugly sweaters. Unlike rappers, who generally embrace theatricality, alternative rock band members prefer illegible styles, rarely straying far from the stylistic template of the record store clerk. Rock bands don’t have foundational myths any more (“four lads from Liverpool”). Instead, they have genealogies of working relationships. The Breeders started as a side project for Kim Deal, who played for the Pixies. Rock musicians choose anonymity because they may find themselves in another band at any time.
Arcade Fire has had some lineup changes, but they present themselves as a collective. Their sound is de-centered, with no instrument dominating over the others. They avoid solos. For the Everything Now tour the stage was designed so that the musicians were distributed evenly around the stage so that each band member staged their own more or less self-contained performance.
Like any collective, Arcade Fire has a lot of resources, but in the vastness of the arena there was a disconnect between sound and presence. Arcade Fire is known for their diverse instrumentation, but, in the United Center at least, the band’s music came across as an undifferentiated wall of sound. Sounds from individual instruments—a short melodic line here, an exotic instrument there—burbled up from the mix, then disappeared back into it. The band’s presentation strategy meant that Win Butler didn’t function as a normal front man, as the visual and sonic focal points of the band. He can be an expressive singer in the studio, but on stage his vocals were another element in the band’s wall of sound. He played mostly to a quarter of the audience, stepping onto a pair of amplifiers on the southwest side of the stage, rooted in place by the prolixity of the lyrics and the fragility of the stage conception. From where we were sitting his presence had to be tracked by his wide-brimmed hat and orange boots.
In their best songs Arcade Fire have found room in their big sound for intimacy. “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels),” from Funeral, their first album, evokes a shared experience that’s clearly adolescent while trying to imagine the forms of adult experience. It begins with a lovers’ escape fantasy.
You climb out the chimney,
And meet me in the middle, the middle of the town.
And since there's no one else around,
We let our hair grow long,
And forget all we used to know.
Then the song worms its way back to home and an unexpected (for a rock song) place.
But sometimes, we remember our bedrooms,
And our parents' bedrooms,
And the bedrooms of our friends.
Then we think of our parents,
Well what ever happened to them?!
By their most recent album, however, the singer, now an isolated"I," restages a return home. What had been an imaginative space in their first album is now filled with commodities. Instead of an escape into (and from) possibility, "Everything Now" is empty repetition.
Every inch of road's got a sign
And every boy uses the same line
I pledge allegiance to everything now
Every song that I've ever heard
Is playing at the same time, it's absurd
A few verses later we find out what happened to the parents in “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)."
Every ancient road's got a town
Daddy, how come you're never around?
I miss you, like everything now
Mama, leave the food on the stove
Leave your car in the middle of the road
This happy family with everything now
This constricted, despairing vision rests within a studio production drawing extensively from disco and new wave–musical forms dedicated to the pleasures of repetition. Those forms are logical choices for the band's big sounds, but they're an uneasy fit with the band's thematic obsessions. Every time they performed a song from their latest album the disco balls would drop from the ceiling, visually reducing the size of the United Center while referencing the dance hall experience of being a single body in a crowd.
Arcade Fire has been roundly criticized for Everything Now album and tour, suggesting that the band embraces the cynicism of the larger culture. It doesn't help that arcadefire.com now redirects to everythingnow.com.
But for me and my wife, the Arcade Fire concert in the United Center was both pleasurable and familiar. In other words, it was rock and roll. We had seen this show many times before: a rock band with a deep emotional connection to its audience daring to venture into new artistic territory only to find themselves in a land of dead signifiers. Win Butler's curled-lip delivery of the lyrics in the "Everything Now" video enacts the semiological dead end not just of the band's music, but rock in general.
For all its promise of escape and rebellion, rock music has long been about regression and return. Arcade Fire has understood this from the beginning. Their debut album was called Funeral and it featured not one but three songs called "Neighborhood." Despite the motor revving of "Born to Run," Bruce Springsteen has never left New Jersey. Tom Petty's whole career was a shuttle between LA and Gainesville, FL. Bob Dylan moved on stylistically a few times in his career, but the transitions weren't always smooth, and for a long time he was just as prickly and remote as Win Butler is now. The only rock star who ever successfully dropped one style for another was David Bowie. He pulled off multiple changes because he was a solo act and therefore more in control of himself as a brand. He also dared to fully embrace even the silliest of his personas, i.e., Ziggy Stardust. But his real secret was that he never wore blue jeans, never anchoring himself even for a moment in rock authenticity.
When the ringside handlers reappeared to escort Arcade Fire from their stage at the end of the show, my wife and I, clad in blue jeans, left the arena before the encore. We had enjoyed every moment of the show and we had had exactly enough. We found our car and drove home.