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An open letter to two WLUW student deejays trying to figure out which Bruce Springsteen song “Keep the Car Running” by Arcade Fire reminds them of

March 6, 2011

The short answer is: probably this one . . .


. . . but I’m gonna venture to guess that “Dancing in the Dark” is not the song you’re really thinking of.

There is, I suspect, a human tendency—chalk it up to efficiency, I guess—to credit major pop-cultural heroes with greater and more direct influence than they actually possess.  The somewhat counterintuitive fact of the matter is that these big names are often just too freaking good to be really useful to the artists who follow them: they’re too accomplished or innovative or sui generis to be productively borrowed from, too successful at their projects to suggest avenues for further exploration.

And this itself, of course, is not an original observation:  Harold Bloom argued back in 1973 that the influence of predecessors is something that artists (okay, he was writing specifically about poets, but still) must overcome as much as, or more than, they draw upon it: it’s an obstacle as well as a resource.  Bloom catalogues a bunch of approaches and methods by which folks can and have overcome the influence of their major inspirations, a process which he says involves the misprision—or misreading—of significant works.  Failure to deliberately misinterpret your predecessors, Bloom says, means your creative output is too faithful and too obviously derivative to contribute much of anything to the ongoing cultural conversation; it will be “weak,” i.e. less than or equal to the sum of its all-too-easily-recognizable parts.

What I don’t love about Bloom’s formulation is its implicit suggestion that the majority of cultural heavy lifting is always done by a handful of heroic figures: that in any particular historical moment it’s always a very small number of artists who move the game forward, and who are themselves always succeeded by another small group that manages to overcome its paralysis by getting its great predecessors’ achievements purposely and compellingly wrong.  Meanwhile, Bloom accords the plurality of people producing art at any given time the status of mere spectators, supernumeraries, poseurs, parasites.

I just don’t buy this as an accurate description of how culture actually works.  It occurs to me—as it has no doubt occurred to a lot of people—that another way to engage productively with your bigshot predecessors is to rip them off indirectly, specifically by approaching them through the output of their weak imitators: through work that is too obviously derivative to qualify as original, or which attempts a fusion of incompatible elements that doesn’t quite come off (q.v. the infamous woman-fish combo that Horace warns against), or which focuses on great works’ idiosyncrasies and pursues them down self-indulgent dead ends and obsessional culs-de-sac.  With all due respect to, like, Beethoven or whomever, mighty oaks do not tend to spring up without some nice rich humified soil to take root in.  We need a model of cultural production that accounts for the contributions of the entire ecosystem, right down to the grubs and molds.

Pop music in particular—dependent as it tends to be on collaborative effort and a bunch of constantly-obsolescing technologies—is advanced less by its towering geniuses than by a ton of toiling hobbyists, flameouts, and also-rans who regularly arc across the public consciousness with one really compelling idea and then vanish forever, or who worry a single peculiar notion in obscurity until their motivation finally gutters.  Sure, I’m talking about the kinds of phenomena that, for instance, Brian Eno allegedly identified occurring around the first Velvet Underground record (i.e. the almost-nobody-heard-it-but-they-all-started-bands phenomenon)—but I’m also talking about stuff that’s not underappreciated, that doesn’t earn or deserve a cult following, that just shows up and delivers its payload and disappears over the horizon: cheap trash, novelty acts, even some stuff that’s just really, legitimately bad.  In popular music, a sweeping vision like Bruce Springsteen’s—which expands and challenges everybody’s sense of what pop can and ought to do—cannot indisputably be assigned a greater value than a single instance of a particular beat perfectly matched to a particular riff:

And if, my young deejay friends, you’ll meditate for a moment on the Romantics’ “What I Like about You,” and you’ll consider (as others certainly have) how its basic rhythmic template might have been used to pump a little adrenal exuberance into the brooding blue-collar streetscapes of Springsteen’s early-80s oeuvre, I think you will arrive at the same conclusion I have—namely, that THIS is the song “Keep the Car Running” is actually reminding us of:

This is about as far removed as you can get from the major heroic figures of the 1980s and still remain inside the confines of what can be called popular music: a one-off hit concealed behind multiple scrims, with origins both circumstantially obscure and deliberately obscured.  John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band were—let’s count the strikes, shall we?—a Narragansett, RI act with a terrible name and no evident aspirations beyond being unacknowledged understudies to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (which at the time was probably not a bad way to earn a living).  Here’s the crazy thing, though: when their turn in the national limelight came, it actually required their invisibility.  John Cafferty wrote “On the Dark Side” as the signature song of the soon-to-be-cult 1983 film Eddie and the Cruisers, which presented it as the eponymous band’s breakthrough hit: a real song by a fake group.  At one point in my suburban-Houston childhood I had in my possession a cassette full of songs I had taped off the radio—you kids are too young to remember this practice; we’d typically do it to pass idle evenings prior to stoking the potbellied stove and turning down the wicks on the gas lamps—and “On the Dark Side” was among these songs.  I’d dutifully printed its title on the folded cardstock insert, along with the name of its artist as I’d understood the deejay to give it: Michael Paré.  Paré, of course, was the actor who played the Cruisers’ lead singer in the movie.  In roughly this manner were John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band obscured within, and by, their own solitary hit: a song from a movie that is itself about a singer who scores one big hit and then literally vanishes.

This might be quickly written off as just another instance of Morissettean irony; the actual circumstances are a little more convoluted.  When it came out, Eddie and the Cruisers was pretty much a total flop; it slid off screens within three weeks of its September 1983 release date.  As its director Martin Davidson recalls (quoted by John Kenneth Muir in The Rock & Roll Film Encyclopedia), he had basically tried to purge the whole sad disaster from his mind when, out of the freaking blue, on the July 4th weekend of the following year, he got a call from some dude at CBS Records.  The guy reported that the film’s soundtrack album had suddenly started flying out of CBS’s warehouses: it would eventually come to be certified as triple-platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America.  What had happened?  Well, evidently Eddie and the Cruisers had entered heavy rotation on cable TV; cable had finally jolted it to cultural life and found it an adoring audience.

At least that’s how the story goes.  I’m not completely satisfied by this account either, given what it omits—namely any discussion of the music actually featured on that hit soundtrack.  Yeah, no doubt cable TV has turned box-office bombs into cult faves—The Beastmaster, anyone? C’mon, who’s with me?—but I’m not inclined to believe that cable sold three million original soundtrack albums without a little help from other cultural forces, any more than I’m apt to believe that seventeen million people watched and loved The Bodyguard.  In the summer of 1984, when folks heard the fictional Eddie singing “On the Dark Side” from their televisions, what exactly were they hearing?

An answer, I think, can be found in another event that occurred at about the same time: Columbia Records released an album called Born in the U.S.A. by an artist named Bruce Springsteen.  It hit retailers’ racks on June 4, 1984—exactly a month after the release of “Dancing in the Dark,” the first single from the album, which was then hastening up the charts; it would reach the top spot on Billboard’s Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks within days, and remain there for six weeks.  It was, therefore, the number-one rock song in America when Martin Davidson got that call from CBS Records with the news that his movie had risen from the grave, borne aloft by its soundtrack.  This is not a coincidence.

According to Muir’s valuable account, when Martin Davidson told his music supervisor to scare up some musicians to serve as the offscreen auditory manifestation of Eddie and the Cruisers, he explained that he was imagining a group that would sound like Dion and the Belmonts by way of the Doors, but that would always remain true to its roots as a New Jersey bar band.  It’s tempting, therefore, to summarize Davidson’s vision as Eddie = Dion + the Doors + the Boss, but that’s not quite right.  Springsteen had already incorporated Dion & the Belmonts and Jim Morrison into his own sound; he didn’t need Davidson’s made-up movie band to do it for him.  (Springsteen has proved no less adept at pastiche than his early-80s Top-40 peers Prince and Madonna, though the Boss’s appropriations have rarely been ironic, and have tended to evoke authenticity more than artifice.  In the present context it’s worth noting that his borrowings from the Doors were more successful for being indirect: double-filtered through Iggy Pop and Suicide; cf. “State Trooper” from Nebraska.)  It’s more accurate, therefore, to characterize Davidson’s vision as a reduction: Eddie = Springsteen minus Dylan, minus Guthrie, minus Morrison . . . the latter Morrison being Van, not Jim, of course.

Reductiveness has its advantages, as Springsteen himself can testify.  In July of 1984 “Dancing in the Dark” had established itself as Springsteen’s biggest chart hit ever; it remains so today.  By the accounts of everyone involved, the song was written to be exactly that: during the Born in the U.S.A. sessions, Springsteen’s manager Jon Landau came to him with the news that the album still lacked a lead single; Springsteen did not receive this news with enthusiasm.  He banged out “Dancing in the Dark” quickly and spitefully, and that speed and spite come through quite clearly in the finished product.  (“Dancing” “went as far in the direction of pop music as I wanted to go,” Springsteen writes in his book Songs, “and probably a little further.”  Eric Alterman quotes Steve Van Zant—the E Street Band’s self-designated Cardinal-Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Straight-Up Rock ’n’ Roll—as pretty much saying that the song only happened because he wasn’t around at the time to kill it.)  It remains a bit of an oddball in Springsteen’s output, and not just because it was a huge hit: Max Weinberg’s drums are terse and mechanical, and they, along with Roy Bittan’s plaintive keyboard riff, lend the song what Pandora would call a “synthetic sonority,” something one does not often hear in the Boss’s catalogue, at least not to this extent.  The rhythm is pushed rather than swung, closer to disco or New Wave than to the blues; the arrangement seems entirely of its moment, disengaged from cultural and historical precedents.

Although the lyrics seem deeply personal—Bill Flanagan has remarked on how the first line, “I get up in the evening,” is a signal to listeners that Springsteen, the frequent adapter of personae, is here speaking in his own voice (and tweaking and breaking with the blues tradition, too, by shifting “morning” to “evening” in accordance with his own rock-’n’-roll lifestyle)—they also seem pointedly lacking in focus and commitment.  Indeed, they are about lacking focus and commitment, as perhaps befits the lyrics of a song Springsteen didn’t really want to write.  Right off the bat, the song’s narrator tells us that he “ain’t got nothin’ to say;” he’s just tired and bored with himself, he’s sick of sittin’ ’round here tryin’ to write this hit—er, this book.  The placement of “Dancing in the Dark” on Born in the U.S.A.—track eleven of twelve—also reflects some ambivalence on the artist’s part: the song is not the introduction Springsteen wanted to offer guests at his album’s front door, but is rather more akin to a late-night lampshade-on-the-head moment as the festivities are starting to break up.

Needless to say, “Dancing in the Dark” DID serve as an introduction—not to the album, but to Springsteen himself, for millions of folks who’d never heard of him before or who’d never paid that much attention.  The song went down easy, and it successfully primed much of the listening public for the material that was to follow.  Over half the songs on Born in the U.S.A. eventually hit the Top Ten, and many of these—the tense and brooding “I’m on Fire,” the acerbic and heavily narrative “Glory Days,” the glum and conflicted “My Hometown, “ the indignantly anthemic title track—ain’t exactly bubblegum, hooky though they may be.  Still, plenty of the new fans won over by “Dancing in the Dark” did indeed prove willing to go where the Boss wanted to take them.

Plenty of them also didn’t—which is not to say they weren’t willing to go somewhere with him.  Much has been made of the ways in which Born in the U.S.A. was misinterpreted and misappropriated by conservatives, and while no doubt some of these misappropriations were opportunistic and dishonest, others were fairly innocent: touching and creepy in approximately equal measure, symptomatic of a peculiarly Reaganite capacity to ignore clear evidence in the interest of a good narrative and to presume concord without any reasonable basis for doing so.  George Will, for instance—an incongruously bowtied and earplugged presence at one of the Boss’s marathon concerts in the summer of ’84—saw the huge American flags, saw the disproportionately white and working-class audience, saw the overtly masculine and hetero singer grinning and belting out what sounded like triumphant fight songs, and he must have figured, perhaps not entirely unreasonably, How can this guy NOT be on our team?  To Will, Springsteen’s fans looked like exactly the folks who’d crossed historical party lines to land Reagan in the White House, and who were about to vote again to keep him there.  And Will—cautious enough to claim Springsteen for conservatism while disavowing any knowledge of the artist’s own politics—was not wrong about those fans.

Through various public statements, Springsteen immediately began to push back against what he regarded as politicians’ and pundits’ misreadings of his songbook—but this could be only so effective given the work itself, which to its credit partakes of an entirely different sort of discourse than does a typical election-season exchange of fire: it’s ambivalent and complex, evoking legacies of pride and disappointment, burdens of social coercion and individual responsibility, and the competing pulls of virtue and duty and impulse and desire, while declining to draw bright lines between any of these.  Complex things are by necessity easy to misread; as a result, Springsteen soon found himself contending with the biggest ideological disconnect between a performing artist and a ticket-buying audience this side of Barbra Streisand.

Now, I’d always sort of figured that this ideological disconnect came about due to Born in the U.S.A.’s title track, which is pretty easy to take as prideful and bellicose rather than anguished and aggrieved—particularly if you want to hear it that way, which plenty of people clearly did.  It’s worth recalling that in May of 1985, Sylvester Stallone—who hadn’t scored an unambiguous box-office hit doing something other than playing Rocky Balboa since, well, ever—managed to extend his lease on superstardom for another decade essentially by adapting the conservative misreading of “Born in the U.S.A.” to the silver screen.  Rambo: First Blood Part II (which had the chutzpah to rewrite not only Springsteen but a half-century of global history AND the movie it’s supposed to be a sequel to) depicts a world where the sufferings of America’s Vietnam combat veterans have been caused not by a lack of decent blue-collar civilian jobs and access to appropriate social services—nor by the, y’know, actual experience of war—but rather by a bunch of mendacious and cowardly bureaucrats.  Hell, as a matter of fact (the film seems to suggest) we ought to give our boys another crack at it—this time without all that high-minded best-and-brightest John F. Kennedy claptrap—and by god they’ll get the job done this time.  (Pretty much everybody Rambo kills in Vietnam is conspicuously not Vietnamese, i.e. not somebody with an understandable interest in defending home and family from foreign adventurers: Rambo’s major adversaries are all Soviet spetsnaz guys.  Suffice to say that the film does not spend a ton of time pondering the validity of the domino theory.)  Sadly, there can be no question that misreadings of Born in the U.S.A. helped make Stallone’s blockbuster film possible—misreadings of which in turn helped make the 1991 Gulf War possible, misreadings of which in turn helped make possible the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.

So . . . that’s not too cool.  But now that you kids have brought up this whole Arcade Fire issue, it suddenly occurs to me that I have perhaps been too hard on “Born in the U.S.A.” all these years, or at least that I’ve been asking it to shoulder an unfair share of blame for being conscripted by policies it meant to critique.  I think what cracked the door to the large-scale misreading of “Born in the U.S.A.” was, in fact, “Dancing in the Dark”—the song that initially seized everybody’s attention, and yet didn’t require anyone to have much of an opinion about it; the song that allowed America to get comfortable with Springsteen and to feel like they pretty much knew where he was coming from.  That comfort level actually made it much harder to listen attentively to and to parse the singles that followed it onto the radio.  I’m not going to try to argue that “Dancing in the Dark” is a failure—had it never been released, I’m not sure the E Street Band would, for instance, be playing Super Bowl halftime shows—but I DO think it inflicted permanent harm on Springsteen’s overall project in a way that can’t ever really be repaired or undone.

So what’s wrong with “Dancing in the Dark?”  Well, nothing: plenty of really great pop singles—probably the majority of them—work pretty much the same way that it does, and I wouldn’t want that to be otherwise.  Problems only crop up when the artist who records the pop single doesn’t really want to be regarded as a pop act, which proved to be the case here.  Most of Springsteen’s best songs are designed to reward close critical attention: they want you to consider whether the singer is speaking in his own voice or the voice of a character, and, if the latter, what that character’s circumstances might be; as we said earlier, the perspectives they open for the listener on these circumstances tend to be complex and ambivalent.  These songs function, in other words, as fictions in the proper sense (i.e. not simply in the sense that they’re “made up”).

“Dancing in the Dark” is a pretty good song, but it’s NOT complex, and it’s not ambivalent; instead it’s calculatedly ambiguous, evoking the specific textures of the narrator’s existence less than the obscure gravitational pull of latent offscreen possibility beckoning from the margins of day-to-day life.  “There’s something happening somewhere,” the narrator tells us; this is the same somewhere that haunts an entire American songbook of yearning, from “Over the Rainbow” on down the line.  Springsteen uses this kind of thrilling ambiguity all the time—I tear into the guts of something in the night; last night I met this guy and I’m gonna do a little favor for him; there’s a darkness on the edge of town; I guess there’s just a meanness in this world—but he rarely employs it in so pure a form as he does here.  “Dancing in the Dark” has depth, sure, but it’s also really simple: it’s brainstem music, no less so than “What I Like About You.”  Its topography is less that of verisimilar, mirror-on-the-high-road fiction than the misty nocturnal landscapes of myth; it evokes oceans of human mystery, but the closer you look at it, the less it actually discloses.

My point here, basically, is this: what “Dancing in the Dark” somewhat incautiously succeeded in doing upon its release in the spring of 1984 is conjuring among the record-buying public a vision of a new American pop hero—a cool, brooding exemplar of self-involved masculine subjectivity in the classic mold of Elvis Presley and/or Bob Dylan, Marlon Brando and/or Steve McQueen—whom Bruce Springsteen then gracefully declined to embody, or as least declined to limit himself to embodying.  In Springsteen’s mind the song may have been little more than what Dave Hickey might call a term paper, but its directness still evoked an iconic protagonist—a restless, hungry void—who cut a very attractive figure for many listeners.  (And this seems about right; at least one novelist would later set out to capture the character of the 1980s through a protagonist who is also a restless, hungry void.)  Unfortunately for those listeners, the remainder of Born in the U.S.A. doesn’t include any repeat appearances by this guy; its other songs are by turns too fraught, too specific, too menacing, or too droll, leaving the “Dancing”-smitten audience with nowhere to go for another round of urgent romantic emptiness—nowhere, that is, until they heard John Cafferty’s voice coming out of their TV sets, synched up with Michael Paré’s mouth.

“On the Dark Side” happily delivered on what Born in the U.S.A. withheld—and, perhaps more importantly, it also avoided the kinds of complications that Springsteen’s other songs insisted on delivering.  People who wanted to consume “Dancing in the Dark” as a pure pop artifact tended to get distracted by a need to situate it in the context of Springsteen’s entire project and body of work; with “On the Dark Side,” however, that kind of effort was not only unnecessary but impossible: the singer who performed it a) had mysteriously vanished and b) wasn’t a real person anyway.  Consequently there was no need to reconcile it with anything.  “It seems more real today,” Muir quotes Davidson as saying.  “Now if [people] hear ‘On the Dark Side,’ they say, ‘I remember that, that really was number one.’  But it was number one twenty years ago, not forty years ago.  The fiction has become a reality.”  As Cafferty’s song itself assures us in its opening line, the dark side is calling now nothing is real; if you’re looking for a contemporary lyric that really captures the character of its era—and I’m not just talking about “the Eighties,” but rather a period that begins roughly when the Federal Reserve takes over the national economy in October ’79 and ends in, oh, let’s say September of ’01—you could certainly do worse than this one.

Thus, through their contribution to the Eddie and the Cruisers soundtrack, John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band went from being locally-known musicians obscured by their weak faithful reading of Springsteen to nationally-unknown musicians obscured by somebody else’s deliberate misreading of Springsteen.  “On the Dark Side” made its way onto the national airwaves as a perfect solution to the Born in the U.S.A. problem: it was a pure hit with no artist, unburdened by any connection to the real world.  It may be no better than the sum of its parts (or the difference of its exclusions), but the very modesty of its ambition means that it’s pretty much free of its influences’ baggage; it’s a perfectly portable piece of pop, as straightforward and standardized as a screwdriver, readily available for the use of anyone who needs it.

Although they experienced their suburban-Houston childhood some ten years after I did my own, I feel certain that Win and Will Butler also heard “On the Dark Side” on the radio from time to time while growing up, along with the various hits from Born in the U.S.A.  Years later, as they and the other members of Arcade Fire worked on the song that would become “Keep the Car Running,” perhaps they were briefly beset by a moment of anxiety of a type that I have to guess many songwriters encounter after coming up with a great hook: This is awesome, I imagine them thinking, but are we ripping somebody off here?  I imagine them listening with care to their own song—sounds a little Springsteeny, huh?—then reviewing mental catalogues of influences, obsessions, and heroes living and dead, and finding, to their probable relief, no matches.

Let me be clear: I’m not looking to call Arcade Fire out for subliminally borrowing from “On the Dark Side.”  Neither am I here to argue that the genetic similarity of “Keep the Car Running” to MOR soundtrack fare in any way diminishes what I think is a pretty good song.  I just think it’s interesting to consider how Arcade Fire might have been able to use John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band—whom I will not refer to as one of Arcade Fire’s influences, any more than I will refer to the sandwich I ate for lunch as one of my internal organs—to engage productively and indirectly with the Boss.  If you’re a fan who understands why Springsteen is a great songwriter, as I believe the Arcade Fire kids are, then you’re going to approach him with too much reverence to ransack his songbook and steal what you need.  If, on the other hand, you happen upon somebody else’s approximation of Springsteen, then you’re probably going to think: I see what these guys are aiming at, and I see what they’re missing, and I’m pretty sure I could do better than this.  In such a manner does the football of art move down the field of cultural production.

Because, hey, let’s take a quick look at what’s going on in “Keep the Car Running.”  Its desperate and giddy urgency, its sense of flight from some unnamed or unnamable coercive force, its nocturnal setting and its automotive theme—these all seem very Bruce Springsteen.  Not much else about the song does, though: there’s no distinct persona narrating it, and Springsteen’s trademark rooted and gritty specificity is also nowhere in evidence.  These are exactly the omissions that defined “Dancing in the Dark”—and exactly the alterations to the basic Springsteen template that yielded “On the Dark Side.”  But while “Dancing in the Dark” made these omissions out of impatient, almost accidental candor, and while “On the Dark Side” was essentially a movie prop—a myth made to order, the audio equivalent of an empty façade on a studio backlot—“Keep the Car Running” takes them as a starting point for something more artful and deliberate.

Although it lacks the overtly fictional elements you might find, say, in a song from Nebraska—i.e. characters, setting, backstory, etc.—Arcade Fire still manages to goose “Keep the Car Running” with a surprising degree of plot-level suspense: it’s a car chase in search of an action film.  (In this it borrows yet another 1980s pop music device, namely the weird tradition of songs that claim situational drama yet contain little or no actual narrative: though it’s too detailed and specific to be typical, “Life During Wartime” may be the granddaddy here, with its DeLillo-esque evocation of floating-signifier domestic terrorism; “Love Vigilantes” is probably a little too conventionally fictional to qualify.  The representative examples are probably goofily portentous MOR hits like “In the Air Tonight” and “Silent Running;” I have no theory to explain why the post-Peter-Gabriel Genesis lineup would be so fond of running this particular play.)  “Keep the Car Running” also ducks fiction’s conventional requirements of by announcing itself as a dream song in its first line; this has a bracketing effect functionally similar to the presentation of “On the Dark Side” as a hit by a made-up artist.  As the song unmoors itself from references to everyday experience it becomes more stylized, more emotional and abstract, closer to the realm of fable or myth; this rhetoric is reinforced by Arcade Fire’s use of horns, strings, bouzouki, and hurdy-gurdy, folk instruments that are practically prehistoric, never mind pre-rock.

In the realm of pop, myth has a number of uses and misuses.  In the best circumstances, it allows artists to sweep aside the complications of verisimilitude to address fundamental things, and also provides a metaphorical language for talking about them.  On the whole, Arcade Fire is doing this pretty successfully in “Keep the Car Running.”  Sure, there are some unclimbable mountains and unswimmable rivers that do nothing but assert that we’ve entered a realm of quasi-Taoist mystery, as well as a few lines (“same place animals go when they die”) that are evocative but don’t actually evoke much of anything.  (This is all still quite a bit less silly than a song that informs us—and that only informs us—that a woman has stepped from the darkness and made the narrator feel crazy and mean, while bringing him to the realization that nothing is real.)

Still, there are some moments in “Keep the Car Running” where Arcade Fire do seem to have their hooks in something significant—not Springsteen’s sought-after “something happening somewhere,” nor quite his sinister “meanness in this world,” but something bad and difficult to apprehend, something bound up with language itself.  The city through which the narrator flees frustrates him by changing its name; we get the sense that perhaps, as in a fairy tale, learning its true name might permit him to escape it.  Meanwhile, the men who pursue the narrator know his name—he has told it to them—and we get the sense that their power comes from this knowledge, but also that there are limits to this power, and that its balance stands to be reversed.  “There’s a fear I keep so deep,” Win Butler sings.  “Knew its name since before I could speak.”  His and his bandmates’ voices then name that fear; its name is not a word.

The more Arcade Fire I hear, the more it seems like myth is intrinsic to their working methods—which I suppose makes sense, given the Butlers’ own suburban origins and their recent focus on suburban milieus as their subject.  In myth, events are ruled by fate rather than by accident; myth’s concept of time is cyclical (every night my dream’s the same / same old city with a different name) rather than sequential (got in a little hometown jam / so they put a rifle in my hand / sent me off to a foreign land / to go and kill the yellow man).  Myth, then, is the opposite of history.  Suburbs are always designed with the goals of preventing accident and escaping history; ergo suburbs inevitably suggest themselves as mythic landscapes.  Arcade Fire seems to have interesting things to say about the suburbs; it remains to be seen whether they can continue to do this inside the mythic language the suburbs gave them.

This is, I hope, something Butler, Butler, Chassagne & Co. will continue to get better at.  They can certainly look to Springsteen’s career for hints on how to do it effectively, and also for examples of missteps they might seek to avoid.  For a few years now, journalists have been making suggestions that the band is ill-at-ease with its success; I can only imagine that their recent Grammy win might amplify that.  The concern, evidently, is that as their audiences have grown, the band’s perceived capacity to really connect with them has shrunk.  Arcade Fire, it seems, is anxious about being misread.  We can only assume their friend and mentor Bruce Springsteen has assured them that this concern is indeed justified—has warned them how quickly your use of myth can turn into myth’s use of you.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. March 6, 2011 2:45 pm

    A new post. Hurrah! Can’t wait to read it!

  2. March 6, 2011 4:26 pm

    Brilliant. Mind if I re-post?

  3. Christen permalink
    March 6, 2011 5:36 pm

    “If you’re a fan who understands why Springsteen is a great songwriter, as I believe the Arcade Fire kids are, then you’re going to approach him with too much reverence to ransack his songbook and steal what you need.”

    I’m curious what Noel Gallagher would say re: this post. (Oasis obviously being a superior band than Arcade Fire, since Liam is a rock star with cock galore and Win Butler is ugly.) Presumably the answer is that Oasis, although hugely popular, moves nothing forward. But is there any more “forward to move” in rock…?

    Brilliant as always, Martin!

  4. March 7, 2011 12:00 pm

    Not the sort of thing one should confess, necessarily, in an internet comment, but it was via “Eddie and the Cruisers” that I was introduced to Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell… J. Beer

  5. March 9, 2011 10:43 pm

    @ Mitchell — Wish I could tell you I’ve been working on it since August, but that is not the case. Thanks for sticking around!

    @ K — Not at all, spouse! Thanks for your support!

    @ Christen — I’m guessing whatever Noel would say wouldn’t be printable in a family newspaper. But seriously! Although Oasis is certainly a band that flaunted its influences, I don’t know that it refined them so much as amplified them. I’m not sure Noel Gallagher’s gift is really to understand why other songwriters are GREAT; rather, I think he understands that the elements of pop are very simple unless you go out of your way to complicate them, and why (he might ask) would anybody ever want to COMPLICATE anything? I think he appreciates the greatness of the Beatles, Marc Bolan, the Pistols, the Smiths, the Stone Roses, etc. in about the same way he appreciates the greatness of George Michael, Paul Anka, ABBA, Carole King, Smokey Robinson, Andrew Lloyd Webber . . . he’s mostly interested in results. The great thing about this approach is that, provided your kid brother is the best male rock singer of his generation, you can get famous in a big hurry. The downside is that even if you continue to produce good work, people are eventually going to lose interest, because you will eventually come to be regarded as less a band than a brand. That’s my read on the Gallaghers, anyhow. Glad you brought them up! Thanks as always for the comment! (I’ve been kind of thinking lately that I should get into Ride. Should I get into Ride?)

    @ John Beer — Holy cow, that is awesome. And it is honestly probably way better to meet Rimbaud through Eddie than through, say, Jim Morrison, as many young people do. In college I knew a guy who maintained that the best way to use cough syrup recreationally is to dilute it in water and put it in ice cube trays and freeze it, because the dextromethorphan will freeze and remain in solution with the water, while all the sweeteners that tend to make one sick when ingested WON’T freeze and can be separated out. I have no idea if this actually works. Anyway, in this analogy, Rimbaud is the dextromethorphan, Jim Morrison is the syrup, and Eddie and the Cruisers is the ice cube tray. Does that make sense? Wait, what?

  6. Stephen permalink
    March 10, 2011 12:14 am

    Excellent, as always.

    So should we expect the next post around august/september then?

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