Arcade Fire And The Ugly Face Of Reactionary Rock


I had ‘Funeral’ and ‘Neon Bible’ back in my teenage years. I had bought the former on a whim, as the result of a tentative browse round the humdrum racks of HMV. At 13, I was finding my feet in terms of what music I liked and how best to source what I did like. The latter LP was handed down by my sister. At the time I loved both and still remember them fondly.


I don’t currently count myself a diehard Arcade Fire fan, nor have I held even a passing interest in their output since my initial teenage exposures. Frankly, the music I have found interesting in the last few years has been more than enough to hold my gaze. Unfortunately Arcade Fire just haven’t compelled me to return to them, for whatever reason. Fundamentally it could be attributed to my subjective lack of excitement whenever someone’s played me any of their new material – flat, cursory, barely a flicker of the brow or a raise of the pulse. That’s purely a preference, nothing to do with the band personally, whose success I still respect.

Another admission; I wasn’t at Coachella, funnily enough. I’ve never been. Like many people of my age (early 20s) and circumstance (struggling) the last couple of years have meant the coffers aren’t exactly brimming. Mild, post-graduate impoverishment aside, I’d probably opt for a dozen other European festivals before venturing on a transatlantic flight to a festival which seemed a tad VIP for my taste. But that’s an expectation formed on second-hand coverage (trend reports, a swarm of Instagram content, a lot of exposure on gossip rags detailing invitation only parties and the like) The sheer scale of the line-up seems overzealous, a case of kitchen-sink curation, but who’s to say whether the coverage or that kind of curation ruins it, except those who’ve experienced it first-hand.

So I’m no expert on the recent trajectory of Arcade Fire or on Coachella’s current climate. But neither do I purport to be, hence the aforementioned disclaimers. I’m not talking about Coachella specifically either, it was simply the site where Win Butler, the often outspoken but seemingly charismatic and ethically committed frontman of Arcade Fire, voiced something I take issue with; something which might hold wider implications.

As it has been widely reported, Butler and co engaged in a bit of pranksterism and showmanship over the course of the two weekends. Oversized bobble heads, unpredictable cameos (Debbie Harry, Aaron Paul), Prince and Blondie covers, eccentric outfits and face paint, all enjoyable antics for their fan base I’m sure. But more problematically, Butler, at one point on the first weekend, gave a dedication to ‘all the bands at this festival playing real instruments’. Peculiarly, the band also preluded their finale with a screwed-and-slowed farce of Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’ (introduced by Butler as Paft Dunk – spoonerism, the height of wit!) From where I was standing (or rather slouching) it perplexed more than it humoured, bar the ‘OMG LOL, GREATEST TROLL EVER’ that many of the attendees reacted with.

The parody culminated in Butler marching out, exclaiming ‘What the fuck is happening? What is this? What is this, guys? Seriously?’, consequently interrupting the mock version of ‘Get Lucky’ and its two apparent participants’ (it’s not yet confirmed but seems highly doubtful that this was the real Daft Punk and most have now agreed that it wasn’t) exaggerated miming of ‘at-the-controls’ gestures.  This, on its own, could be taken as an isolated piss-take, a light jest, if a little misjudged; cheap, and immature but forgivable, like a stroppy teenager tarnishing other tastes slightly, to shore up conviction in their own. Undoubtedly, the song’s ubiquity grates, like any ‘hit’ which is pile-drived into your ears for an extended period. That alone though seems unlikely to account for such a pointed parody; a parody which wasn’t isolated, and one which becomes more troubling when considered in association with the prior weekends ‘dedication’.

Bellowing ‘What the fuck is happening?’, ruing the existence of a ‘monoculture’ (which Butler also recently mentioned) and making perturbingly vague remarks about ‘real instruments’ though, are actions which are hard to divorce from the context of EDM, especially considering the widely reported, controversial extent of this year’s Coachella acts considered as such. Butler seems dissatisfied with what’s happening, the culture and with authenticity; these staged gags and remarks are apparently a subtly satirical channel for these grievances.

Yet, from such a high pedestal of renown and acclaim, Butler risks being labelled a bitter curmudgeon, perhaps even a reactionary. To all appearances he’s discrediting the insurgency of a scene that shouldn’t prompt him into acting the self-appointed arbiter of instrumentation and artistry. People have always found it hard to define and accept what a ‘real instrument’ is (and therefore what real music is) and history is chock full of reactionaries hostile to change. Martin Rev and Alan Vega, the duo who made up Suicide, have often spoke of how punks hated them for their use of synthesizers and drum machines. They’re now feted as progressive originators who helped pioneer (ironically enough) punk and industrial sonics. Add to them, other contemporaries who used synth and other similar means; Gary Numan, The Future/Human League – infamously derided (I just picked some of the more prominent ones which come to mind at the time of writing, I’m sure you have your own)

Further to that, the dub sound system and the selectors and toasters who reconfigure pre-recorded material to their own ends through improvisation, may technically fall short of such a remit – they are not, after all, the session musicians who created the source material using ‘real’ instrumentation in the conventional sense. Instead they speak, spit, use equalizers and various other methods to adapt, twist and fragment the original work. However Michael E. Veal, in his book, ‘Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae’, defines them, with producers, engineers and musicians, as integral to the feedback loop of innovative reconstruction which exists between dancehall and studio. Butler could be accused of repeating such a cycle and excluding the legitimacy of such forms.  Although it seems to be an implicit dismissal of a rampantly commercial and different genre, it’s one which is similarly predicated on using, refashioning, and augmenting pre-recorded material as well as one which uses synthetic tools in live performance. These actions then, speak of hypocrisy; espousing the need to redress a ‘monoculture’ whilst at the same time encouraging limits (what’s ‘real’); in turn fostering homogeneity.  

If EDM stands for electronic dance music, and is to be considered outside the definition shaped by Vegas-scale superficiality, by all accounts Arcade Fire’s last album could be loosely termed as exactly that; produced by James Murphy, often with the aid of synthetic instruments, with an aim at making people dance. Perhaps a gross oversimplification, but in light of how ill-defined and provocative Butler’s comments regarding the authenticity of instrumentation are, it seems pertinent. Although they were a passing, short remark on stage, it’s questionable as to the motivation for saying them if you’re unable or unwilling to provide detail. It’s unsurprising many commentators have viewed the Daft Punk skit as a continuation of this line of criticism.

Presumably Butler is aiming his comment primarily at artists who perform with laptops. But Murphy’s work and ideas have been enriched by dance music’s approach to technology and sound, not least his own DJ-ing and ventures with Soulwax (recently with the Despacio soundsystem) It’s not much of a stretch to imagine a link between Murphy’s pursuits in these respects and his production work on ‘Reflektor’. Less directly, but still relevant is the fact that Murphy’s label (DFA) was represented at the festival by Factory Floor, a band who combine a love for club music, and rave soundsystems, use experimental, improvisatory methods and synthetic as well as organic tools to thrilling effect in the live setting. With these acts and comments, there’s a danger of tarring such acts with the same brush, and of becoming partisans in opposition to forms which don’t conform to an ambiguous but seemingly reductive edict. I’m not attempting to position Butler and Arcade Fire against Murphy, Factory Floor, DFA, or other acts, genres or periods. On the contrary, considering their recent explorations, the few degrees of separation that separate them from Murphy & Co, as well as their consistent favour for broadening their sound, it’s unlikely that all this is specifically directed at the examples that I’ve mentioned. But by provoking, haphazardly and clumsily, the perception of what could be considered ‘real’ instrumentation, Butler inevitably fuels unnecessary conflict and confusion. It needs to be maintained that it’s not wise or helpful to formulate such a seemingly dogmatic hierarchy just because the man or the band might not appreciate Skrillex (or any contemporaries who may be considered synonymous by them) Besides, there are those at the other end of the spectrum. Holly Herndon is one who springs to mind, an artist who has spoken extensively about the opportunities opened up by embracing laptop technology in production and in live contexts.

The implications of Butler’s statement become even more problematic when you consider the democratisation of means and of live setting that EDM holds, though admittedly, at times, it may not practise. Everyone can use a laptop to produce music and the live performance ideally is much more about the audience dancing and interacting than the exalted presence of an artist. It depends on attitudes, but EDM (as with the other forms of club and rave music which have developed over the years) potentially presents a shift from a fixation with the actions of a performer, to an immersion in the sound and the reaction of the audience. When done right, it levels enjoyment by bringing people together. Although, whether the hyper-commercialised inflection that EDM presents is something to be admired or derided remains to be seen. It probably varies, depending on artist, place and show and a host of other factors.

Even so, the conclusion reached by Joe Muggs in his reflections on this year’s festival ran counter to accusations of inauthentic corporate dilution, and instead confirmed that the audience and mood was much like any rave for the last 20 years; simply ‘good old fashioned, big, dumb, inclusive fun’. Whatever you think of the merits of the music, and the legitimacy of its creators, it’s hard to dispute that. Yet Butler, in a sly kind of way, did, from a vantage of privileged but blinkered credibility.

To make such an assertion then is baffling. Dance music is a culture with an incendiary past. And its micro-genres and sub-strains have always struggled to be accepted as worthy art-forms. Casting a warped eye atop a mount of success and delivering assertions about authenticity isn’t going to halt its progress, both inside commercial spheres, and outside of them – just as it hasn’t in the past. It’ll simply set you up to look foolish and elitist. And that’s not a good look, even with all the facepaint, bobbleheads, and sparkle.

Tim Wilson