Monday, August 9, 2010

Arcade Fire: Fuck 'Em

For those of you out there in the Knicks-related blogosphere not up to date on the latest happenings in grandiose chamber pop, Arcade Fire played a pair of shows at Madison Square Garden last week.
The indie darlings of high-brow publications throughout North America just released their third album, The Suburbs, to much acclaim. During their first night at MSG on Thursday, just past the midway point in the setlist, lead singer Win Butler paused before launching into Neighborhoods #3 to address the crowd.

"This is my favorite part of the Garden, right here," he said. "Because it's right here where Hakeem Olajuwon blocked John Starks' shot so the Rockets could beat the Knicks in the 1994 Finals!"

What? Wait. Really? Did you just pause in the middle of a show to taunt fans of the local sports team? About something that happened more than 15 years ago? You did? Oh, OK. I see. That seems to be just about the worst way to engage the audience by including CITY NAME into your on-stage prattling. But perhaps you felt like saying it because you're a super die-hard Rockets fan? And assumed that's a fact that you have made people sufficiently aware of so as not to seem like a jerk. Maybe. Because you wouldn't act like a dicknose to your fans just because you know you can? Would you? Did you say something bad about Ernie Banks at your next show in Chicago? Or will you perhaps wear a Michael Vick jersey when you take the stage in Atlanta?

Mitigating the sting of the seemingly needless antagonism is, of course, the fact that Game 6 of the 1994 NBA Finals when Olajuwon blocked Starks' potential series-winning shot took place not in the Garden but in Houston and that the Rockets didn't win the championship thanks to that block. There was another game to be played. Which also took place in Houston. Which is where "Win" was raised. Or, should I say where Edwin was raised. Because his name is Edwin, which most people would shorten to Ed, while a handful of folks (as well as characters in coming of age novels written between 1948 and 1966) would opt for Win. Because, you know, it needs to be made explicitly clear that he is a winner. And, you are not. Neither is Starks or any of the Knickerbockers. Are we clear?

Forgetting the location of Game 6, who asks to be called "Win'? For starters, both types of pubescent bad guys from '80s teen movies: the blond toughs who wear weight lifting gloves to English class and the sons of rich real estate developers who sneer at their father's side as the hero's parents receive an eviction notice. Also, this guy. It seems a stretch to call yourself Win and then want me to take your poetry seriously.

Well, Win, Game 6 was in your backyard. If you're going to go out of your way to lob a sports grenade into a crowd of paying customers, putting aside that it's potentially one of the more painful fan memories for those in the age group that buy your records, then at least be sure to get your facts straight. Such a glaring oversight would seem to torpedo the theory that Butler is some sort of crazed sports enthusiast, wagering on college water polo matches from the tour bus and incapable of controlling such outbursts. And if he's not particularly knowledgeable about the '94 Finals then that sure makes it seem like he was just making such a remark to remind himself that he could say whatever he wanted to those who'd paid to see him sing and that nobody could really talk back as long as he launched into the next song soon enough. And, the groans and boos elicited by the Knicks jab did turn to cheers as the next song got underway.

This wasn't Flea, a staple at the Staples Center, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who had a song entitled "Magic Johnson" on Mothers Milk, sharing some light-hearted onstage banter about the Los Angeles Lakers during a show in Boston. In that situation, the band is thoroughly identified with California as well as known for having a sense of humor. This was, on the other hand, the lead singer of a self-righteous band from Montreal that is full of poetry students, who go out of their way to signal to us that they make IMPORTANT and MATURE music, who more or less said "Oh, hey, do you guys remember when that thing happened a while ago that sucked for people from your state who care about the civic institution most associated with the venue that you are standing in? Remember? Good. I thought that was awesome."

Now, it's possible that I'm taking all of this out of context. That Win was making a joke at the expense of a local staffer or a friend standing on the side of the stage. And that everyone who has encountered this guy thinks he's just the cat's pajamas. Or not. Because when asked about Arcade Fire by someone from Rolling Stone, Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne opened up about how he thinks that the band regularly behaves in a way that is unnecessarily mean-spirited toward those who work for them and/or buy their records.

For those of you not familiar with Wayne, just know that while he may ramble between songs during a concert their may not be anyone alive this side of the Lama's place in Mcleod Ganj who more wants everyone to be experience joy, freedom and beauty in their lives. Literally and metaphorically, he wants to free all the animals at the zoo. The interwebs are littered with two kinds of pictures of Wayne. In the first, he is in this clear, inflatable man-sized hamster ball rolling around over elated crowds at Lips shows. In the other, he is giving the peace symbol. It's important to note that he really, really, really means all those peace signs. You might find that endearing or sappy depending on how you feel about the band's music. But please realize that he means it. That's just how he rolls. Except, of course, when he is literally rolling around over your head.

“I’m a fan of them on one level, but on another level I get really tired of their pompousness … We’ve played some shows with them and they really treat people like shit. Whenever I’ve been around them, I’ve found that they not only treated their crew like shit, they treated the audience like shit. They treated everybody in their vicinity like shit. I thought, ‘Who do they think they are?’ I don’t know why people put up with it. I wouldn’t put up with it. I don’t care if it’s Arcade Fire or Brian Eno. If either of them walked into a room and treated people like shit I’d be like, ‘Fuck you, get outta here.’

… People treat Arcade Fire like they’re the greatest thing ever and they get away with it. Those sort of opinions change my view of their music. They have good tunes, but they’re pricks, so fuck ‘em. Who does Arcade Fire think they are? I’ve been around groups. I’ve been around the Edge from U2 and he’s the fucking sweetest guy ever. I was around Justin Timberlake when he was young and he was just a normal, nice, kind person. Anyone can be polite and kind and people who have the privilege and money and attention should understand that. If they don’t, then fuck ‘em.”
-Wayne Coyne to Rolling Stone

Although the Flaming Lips make music about death, madness, isolation, and track-mark abscesses masquerading as spider bites, they do so in an inclusive way that assumes those themes are part of our shared human condition. By the Lips' logic, since we are all mad and alone and doomed by vice and searching for transcendence and going to die then we are actually all together. Which may explain why being at a Flaming Lips show is one of the most jubilant experiences that I have ever had. It's the rare concert where you really lose yourself in the moment. Even without drugs. Probably. There is so much light and confetti and balloons. Perhaps even a few furries up on stage. And most importantly, Wayne loves playing his music for all of us. And he loves that we love it. Sharing songs and the few hours of each show with other human beings is something that the entire group revels in. Everything that Wayne says and does during a show is meant to help connect him with the fans and the fans with one another.

The Flaming Lips consider themselves lucky to have that opportunity as opposed to thinking that the ticket holders are lucky to be there. The idea of an artist feeling just as lucky as the audience seems novel when thinking about the random Starks-related remark of Win from Arcade Fire or the Byzantine demands that other headlining performers make at each tour stop. But the possibility of such a symbiotic dynamic feels so natural when a few thousand people are singing "Do You Realize?" at the close of Lips show. The band sings to the crowd. And the crowd sings to the band.

While the Arcade Fire's first three albums owe a debt to The Soft Bulletin and the anthemic-era Flaming Lips, the two bands couldn't be more dissimilar in the feelings they foster in person. The Lips want everyone to feel the joy they feel in making their music while they want to feel the joy that you feel in hearing it. Joy is the operative words here. On the other hand, Arcade Fire seem more intent on making it clear that they are smarter and more talented than you. On making you admit that they're pretty darn good. Which they are. Arcade Fire seems to be a band composed of the kids who gravitated toward music because they disliked everyone else and were perchance disliked in return. Now, I admit that I don't know these guys and gals and am just dealing in broadly-drawn types, but that is how they seem based on the information I have available. They seem like they don't want to play at your party and only agreed to because you're paying handsomely.

It also seems that while Wayne and the Lips were out in the wilds of Oklahoma City (their hometown, where they still reside) eating mushrooms and working day jobs at Chinese restaurants and dreaming up mad parking lot boombox experiments (go check out Zaireeka) the members of Arcade Fire were in grad-student populated coffee shops drinking overpriced lattes dreaming up song cycles that would allow them to regularly use roman numerals in their setlists, thereby impressing the judgemental MFA kids at the literary review. Perhaps. But who knows? And who cares? Not me. Because I have a sports blog that bi-annually compares NBA playoff teams to works by Shakespeare. And if I'm all for navel-gazing, hyper-literate sportswriting then it would be hypocritical of me to have a problem with self-consciously intellectual pop songs. Their studious posturing never bothered me (even if it never really piqued my interest). And I didn't care that they seemed to want to be the smart band for people who aren't that clever. Sort of like a rock and roll equivalent of Crash. Or, at least I didn't care until they came into the Garden and took a shot at Starks and any Knicks fans in the crowd like a prep-school educated in-law from Connecticut who wishes that his sister had never started dating you.

All of that aside, I still think that Rebellion (Lies) from Funeral is a kickass song.

It's probably unfair to compare the demeanor and range of Arcade Fire to the Flaming Lips, a band with whom they have not chosen to identify themselves. Perhaps it would be more fair to look at an artist that they have acknowledged being an influence. Someone like Bruce Springsteen. Aside from the obvious way in which each artist gave in to the trends and included accordion players in the band, there may be an epic quality to Arcade Fire's brand of mostly melancholy rock, that recalls some of Springsteen's work but with them it seems born of a persecution complex and the narcissistic notion that their experiences are weightier and more fraught with drama than anyone else's. Heavy hang the heads that wear the delusions of grandeur, I guess. The first-person narrators of Arcade Fire lyrics are being chased or otherwise singled out. They are being picked on, probably because they're so special, or are very self-consciously imparting lessons to children. On a song by song basis it works but over the course of an album I find myself getting bored.

The Boss wrote songs about characters from his working-class neighborhood in New Jersey and he never looked down on the subjects of his songs regardless of their station in life. In fact, he went out of his way to give them dignity For him, there was an opera out on the turnpike. And in the auto plant. And in the neighborhood dive bar. And in the audience. He wanted everyone to feel that their lives were as epic as anyone elses. Win, however, seems to think that his life is an opera and that we should count ourselves lucky to be able to view it and that if his chaufered car ever happens to come up behind us on the turnpike then we'd best move to the right lane and let him pass by. After he passes I can only assume that we'd notice that he has vanity license plates.

There may be notions of small town malaise and expressed desires to escape a mundane life shared by Arcade Fire and Springsteen but the huge difference is that Springsteen imbued these impulses, fears and dilemmas in coarse, everyman characters. In highway patrolmen and dock workers, in guys laid off from factories and old-before-their-time teenagers one mistake past the point of no return, whereas Butler gives these feelings to himself. And, even worse, he seems to want to escape from the rough-hewn townspeople that populated Springsteen's work. He thinks they are violent and uncouth and will ultimately ruin what is so special about him. And he may be right about those folks. They may be less sophisticated than him. But that doesn't make him better. And it certainly doesn't make him Springsteen.

For all the sonic and substance (abuse) differences between the two acts, there may actually be more in common between Springsteen and the Flaming Lips. Empathy is at the heart of so much of what each band does. Especially in their intense live shows (that critics deride as being too reliant on schtick of one sort or another). And empathy is just the sort of benevolent impulse that would keep either of those artists from taking the stage at Madison Square Garden and taking a (factually incorrect) dig at the crowd and John Starks.

Having risen from bagging groceries in Tulsa to being an All-Star and fan favorite at Madison Square Garden in New York City only to fail in what should have been his finest moment, Starks is the sort of tragic hero that Springsteen might construct a song around. And Starks' 2-for-18 nightmare performance in Game 7 could be the entry point to a feedback-drenched Lips' meditation on the futility of intention and the randomness of results. For Win, though, Starks just presented a chance to kick someone who was down and not present in front of the only crowd likely to care about him. Had Win referenced Sam Cassell's huge effort (outscored Knicks 7-1) in the final minute of Game 3, which actually took place at the Garden instead of incorrectly referring to Game 6 then this is a whole new ballgame. Either way, though, the Arcade Fire frontman would have been revealing something of himself. Had he made an informed, Knicks-Rockets reference then he would have shown himself to be a genuine sports fan and worthy of some grudging respect regardless of how much he would have rubbed me the wrong way. Instead, he showed himself to be a prick.

As per usual, Wayne said it better than I will. He concluded his comments to Rolling Stone by saying that "Anyone can be polite and kind and people who have the privilege and money and attention should understand that. If they don’t, then fuck ‘em.”

Agreed. Fuck 'em.