Musicians are cowards

Arcade Fire, or rather the popularity and critical esteem of Arcade Fire, mystify me. I mean, they’ve got that big, soaring, early-Springsteen-ish thing going on, but… well, is that it? The other day I looked at some of their performances – well, a couple: I watched this performance from Jonathan Ross’s programme, then I watched one of the Glastonbury performances, and then I just got tired. (Nice to see a hurdy-gurdy on stage, I’ve got to admit, although playing it in heels was surely a bad idea.) Partly I wanted to stop before I was tempted, even out of morbid curiosity, to click on the link that said

Arcade Fire & U2 – Love Will Tear Us Apart

Ugh.

A couple of years ago I wrote a parody of the ballad of Sir Patrick Spens. I sang it at a local folk club a while ago, and found myself introducing it with a version of one of Tom Lehrer’s lines – “And if you get the urge to sing along, would you please repress it.” I got the laugh, but that phrasing stuck in my mind afterwards. One of the great things about singing with other people is precisely that you don’t repress the urge: you let rip. It’s easy to assume that there’s something regressive or infantile about this. Certainly it feels as if there’s something sophisticated and adult about sitting in silence and not joining in, but the reverse isn’t necessarily the case. What you’re singing when you let rip isn’t necessarily “la la la”, or “no nay never” for that matter; it can be

With my hump along, jump along,
There drives my lad along:
Pretty, Sparkle, Berry!
Goodluck, Speedwell, Cherry!
We are the lads that can follow the plough,
We are the lads that can follow the plough.

(The tune is equally fiddly.) To be part of a roomful of people singing that is an accomplishment, and takes a bit of practice, but when you get there it’s deeply satisfying – in a way that’s not at all repressed. (We are not the lads that can follow the plough, clearly, but I don’t think this is much of a score against folk music; the crowd at a Queen gig was not in fact going to rock anyone, after all.)

What’s this got to do with Arcade Fire? I believe that rock music is deeply involved with the kind of repression I’ve referred to: it challenges it, but in a very compromised and uncertain way. In other words, a lot of rock music has an anxious quality which isn’t contradicted by, but goes hand in hand with, a certain kind of soaring exultation: Can we (and you in the audience) break down our self-imposed expectations and make a hell of a lot of noise together? No we can’t… no we can’t… but right now you and me We Can! Hell Yeah Yes We Can!… and rest. And repeat. If you can wrap it all around some vague transformative rhetoric – Can we make the world a better place? No we can’t… but right now We Can! – then so much the better.

There’s something deeply spectacular about this, in the sense of grafting a sense of active – and rebellious – participation on to a state of passive spectatorship which is never really challenged. This, I think, is the real fraudulence of presenting Bono or Chris Martin as a political figure: their entire career rests on acting out the impression that repressions are being triumphantly overcome, in a performance which by its very design challenges nothing in the outside world. To take this as a basis on which to mount some sort of rhetorical challenge to real oppression and real injustice is deeply confused, and self-deceiving on the part of everyone concerned: it’s as if Peter Falk and Telly Savalas were holding press conferences demanding better crime detection.

That U2 collaboration tells its own story; it seems to me that the sound of Arcade Fire is very much the sound of imagined triumph over imagined repression, in a style that goes back to “Born to Run” and beyond (even in 1975 I remember thinking that this Springsteen person sounded awfully old-fashioned). Arcade Fire really remind me of someone else entirely, though. I mean, look at them: there’s about twelve of them on stage, most of them playing un-rockish instruments, several of them female, and they make a lot of use of choral vocals and drones. And their album art looks a bit eccentric and home-made, and their songs seem to encapsulate unsettled states of mind, with a vague radical edge. And they’re from Canada. Specifically, French-speaking Canada. More specifically, Montreal. In short, what Arcade Fire really made me think was that there was a market for something like Godspeed You Black Emperor!/A Silver Mt. Zion* – something a bit like that, only upbeat, marketable, radio-friendly: a Lloyd Cole to their Orange Juice, a Kasabian to their Primal Scream.

What’s interesting here is that GYBE!/ASMZ never do that repression/release/exultation thing: the sound they make is loud, challenging and exhilarating, but there’s nothing apologetic or anxious about it, and no sense that We’re Changing The World Right Now! It’s just a great big sound, and it’ll sweep you away. The music’s powerful in an honest, unpretentious way – something that GYBE!’s ‘post-rock’ shares with equally uncompromising forms of music like thrash, or most kinds of dance music. But even so, there’s a lingering sense that the music is there to overcome your resistance: listeners are envisaged as those willingly repressed audience members, holding it together and not letting down their guard, with a lot of the pleasure coming from an almost masochistic submission to the overwhelming power of the music. As I get more involved with folk music – and, probably not unrelatedly, as I get older – this seems like going a rather long way round: wouldn’t it be simpler just to drop your guard, willingly and cheerfully, and take the risk of looking a bit stupid for the greater good of unself-conscious pleasure?

To put it another way, is there anything in the world better than what these people are doing? Take a look at this. We’re still in Montreal, the instruments are not rock and it’s a big group (23 people including two dancers), but you could never mistake them for GYBE! – let alone Arcade Fire.

Anyone who doesn’t smile during that clip deserves to have Laughing Len quoted at them – “You don’t really care for music, do you?” Music you’re actually making, with or without a clogger in a white mini-skirt calling the tunes: there is nothing like it. (And, as that clip illustrates, it actually does change the world.)

*I love them dearly, but there is no way I’m going to follow them through every twist and turn of The Re-Naming Of Thee Bandes. GYBE! and ASMZ to me they will always be. (And let’s face it, you’re not going to think I’m talking about anyone else.)

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8 Comments

  1. Posted 2 September 2011 at 20:45 | Permalink | Reply

    But did you see Krugman?

    On the point about music you make yourself – bloke asked me the other day if I’d consider teaching his daughter chess some time, I said yeah probably. But I also said, you know, far more important that they should learn to play an instrument, because they’ll get so much out of that in their lives.

    Now that’s something I wish I’d known when I was a kid.

  2. Posted 3 September 2011 at 00:15 | Permalink | Reply

    I do find them fraudulent and boring, but I’d rather Krugman was listening to Arcade Fire than Coldplay, or whatever the alternative would have been (Simply Red? the Groundhogs? I don’t think he’s a man with a punk past). You have to turn particular corners to get into traditional music, and not everyone gets the chance.

    I wish I’d tried harder with chess – as a child I found the basics ridiculously easy (I read straight through Chess for Children & only noticed two things I didn’t already know), but then found anything beyond the basics incredibly daunting (I got a couple of chapters into More Chess for Children and gave up). I was temperamentally unsuited to the idea of a standard opening, apart from anything else – why did they want to confine me to a d4 or an e4? hadn’t I just learnt that White has 20 different moves available at the start of the game? A bigger book might have pointed out that the other 18 have been tried, and that some of them are also good in their way – in other words, it might have presented the information as the accumulated wisdom of thousands of people playing tens of thousands of games and seeing what worked. But I would probably have rebelled against that as well.

    • Posted 5 September 2011 at 11:10 | Permalink | Reply

      That’s quite a feat of memory, recalling that, unless you’ve got a coy of it close to hand (as I have).

    • Phil
      Posted 5 September 2011 at 11:38 | Permalink | Reply

      More CfC, in the green jacket?

      • Posted 5 September 2011 at 11:49 | Permalink

        Mine is orange (hardback, no jacket).

      • Phil
        Posted 5 September 2011 at 19:30 | Permalink

        I’m sure the one my father got from the library was a green cousin of the red-jacket edition of CfC, but it doesn’t seem to be preserved anywhere on the Internet.

        How did you get over the hump from wow-a-zillion-possible-moves-at-any-time to playing this-then-this-then-this, out of interest?

      • Posted 7 September 2011 at 10:05 | Permalink

        Well, sooner or later that play that, instead. And then you have to think of something else.

      • Posted 7 September 2011 at 10:06 | Permalink

        Gaaah. They play that. They play that.

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