Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,
Cheerful, for freest action form’d under the laws divine,
The Modern Man I sing.– Walt Whitman, ‘One’s-Self I Sing’, Leaves of Grass.
In contrast to Whitman’s Modern Man – of life immense in passion, pulse, and power – Butler’s Modern Man is trapped in a moribund grind. Further, unlike the insight of the Kids, Butler’s Modern Man lacks comprehension – ‘in line for a number but you don’t understand’. In ‘Modern Man’ Butler sings of the Modern Man as not only unable to understand but through Kafkaesque waiting Modern Man wastes the time of the ‘chosen few’ and makes it that they ‘can’t sleep at night’.
In ‘Ready to Start’ Butler positions himself between the Modern Man – the businessmen – and the Kids, again it is the Kids that can see clearly: ‘If the businessmen drink my blood like the kids in art school said they would, then I guess I’ll just begin again.’ Butler’s personal reflection on his time in art school and naïve remedy ‘beginning again’ to the bloodlust of businessmen highlights Butler’s concern with the Kids and Modern Man tension, but also wider thematic of present-nostalgia.
‘Ready to Start’ and ‘City with No Children’ reveal that Butler occupies the space between the Kids and Modern Man. There is a strong hint that the ‘kids in art school’ were right when they prophesied that the businessmen would drink his blood. The line from ‘City with No Children’ – ‘never trust a millionaire quoting the sermon on the mount, I used to think I was not like them but I’m beginning to have my doubts’- introduces the question that perhaps Butler is fast becoming the Modern Man. No longer part of the Kids, Butler and perhaps a generation along with him, can see the reflection of Modern Man in the mirror. Rather than accept this reflection there is a turn toward the past to find the true self and attempt to map the point that turned ‘every good thing to rust’.
Perhaps the exemplary song of ‘present-nostalgia’ (Part I and II) is ‘Wake-Up’ off Funereal. It speaks of pure childhood destroyed by growing older and being fed lies, presumably by ‘Modern Man’, which turn ‘everything to rust’.
Powerfully used to promote the film Where the Wild Things Are
, ‘Wake Up
’ was further enshrined for mid-to-late twenty year olds as an anthem of nostalgia, wistfully reminding the listener of a not-too-distant past when being locked in one’s bedroom was the worst thing that could happen, before the realities of divorce, unemployment and sickness came crashing through. The corruption of childhood through waking up to adulthood is repeated through the tension between ‘kids’ and ‘modern man’ that runs under the surface of Funeral
and Neon Bible
to emerge as a dominant theme throughout The Suburbs
|7th N 3rd Street, Philadelphia
Half the songs on The Suburbs explicitly mention ‘kids’ or ‘children’, while the other half refer to ‘kids’ activities like riding bicycles and kissing in parks. Butler’s ‘kids’ first appeared in 2003 on Arcade Fire’s self-titled EP in ‘No Cars Go’, later to re-appear on Neon Bible. Butler builds on the ancient theme of the insight of children by positioning ‘kids’ as privileged knowers.
In ‘No Cars Go
’ the ‘kids’ know where the car-free utopia is, where women, babies and old folks go; notably ‘modern man’ is excluded. However, the ‘kids’ as knowers in The Suburbs
are more complicated. They are still the privileged knowers in ‘Rococo’ who ‘have always known that the emperor wears no clothes’, however there is a certain wryness when Butler sings that t‘they bow down to him anyway’ because ‘it’s better than being alone.’ So while the ‘kids’ may see the reality of the Emperor’s wardrobe malfunction, the fear of isolation and rejection leads to false worship.
But the ‘kids’ can’t be blamed for their bad-faith. In addition to knowing that the Emperor is without clothes, they also know ‘so much pain for someone so young’. In ‘Month of May’ Butler sings of the ‘kids’ standing there with their ‘arms folded tight’ unable to lift a thing. Perhaps these are the same poser ‘kids’ in Butler’s more sardonic ‘Rococo’ who are all the same and using ‘great big words that they don’t understand.’ However, to understand the (dis)affectedness of these kids we need to understand the malaise of ‘modern man’…
The three distinctive features of present-nostalgia, introduced here, come into greater relief when Butler’s ‘kids’ and ‘modern man’ are compared to those of Bob Dylan and Walt Whitman. Whitman’s ‘modern man’ is a song to be sung and future anticipated, while Dylan’s ‘kids’ strive to claim the future as their own. However, the tension between ‘kids’ and ‘modern man’ in Butler’s lyrics, and present-nostalgia more generally, can be read through the social theory of Charles Taylor as an attempt to secure authentic selfhood and construct meaning out of fragments of the past. Taylor can help us know whether the longing for a near-past is a matter of growing up
too fast, or not growing up at all.
‘Two-Thousand Nine, Two-Thousand Ten Gonna Make a Record How I Felt Then’ Month of May
Eulogizing the simplicity and innocence of a near past that has become complex and tainted by adulthood, responsibility and economics, The Suburbs builds on themes introduced in Funeral and Neon Bible. In many cases the temporal gap between the present and the past event being eulogised is narrow. This is seen in the recurrence of the childhood home as a site of (in)security and drama across all three Arcade Fire albums.
The home is undeniably a significant cultural site, however traditionally ‘rock and roll’ as been more about leaving home for a new world rather than continually recalling its complexity. At the time Funeral was released Butler was twenty four, yet the album is imbued with mixed ‘homesickness’ for a home that could still be seen, and perhaps was still being lived in.
In The Suburbs ‘City With No Children’ Butler intones the return home, ‘Dreamed I drove home to Houston’, however the journey is interrupted by a failing engine and collapsing tunnel. In ‘Sprawl I’ Butler reinforces this longing for the childhood home when he mournfully sings ‘Took a drive into the sprawl to find the house where we use to stay’. But again the attempt of return is interrupted when they ‘Couldn’t read the number in the dark You said let’s save it for another day’.
This longing for the childhood home is powerfully established in the interactive film-clip The Wilderness Downtown. This film speaks of over-indulgence as much as it does genius. Asking the viewer to submit the street address of their childhood home the viewer is taken on a journey through their old suburb with a jogger and Arcade Fire as guides. While Butler sings ‘now our lives are changing fast, hope that something pure can last’ Google Street View takes the viewer through the streets of their childhood suburb incorporating it in the film; at the crescendo the childhood home takes centre stage. Clearly this film demonstrates Chris Milk’s creative ability, but it is also evidences of desire for the everyday of not-too-distant past and a narcissistic celebration in middle-class mediocrity.
The home is certainly not absent from earlier forms of popular music, but it plays a different role as source of identity and future direction.
Over the past six years Arcade Fire has (for some) become something of a barometer through which certain aspects of popular social and cultural trends can be understood. I suggest that a close listen to Win Butler’s lyrics reveal the repetition and layering of particular motifs dealing with the transition from adolescence to adulthood, or in Butler’s parlance from ‘kids’ to the ‘modern man’. These themes are not exclusive to Arcade Fire and reflect a strong thread in contemporary culture that valorises and commemorates a past that has barely passed. This valorisation of the near past or what I call ‘present-nostalgia’ is also evident in the lyrics of Sufjan Stevens and Joanna Newsom, embodied by Michael Cera and Zooey Deschanel, and dispensed through Urban Outfitters. Despite diverse examples Butler’s lyrics provide the clearest window through which to peer on the phenomenon of present-nostalgia.
The trend among mid-to-late twenty year olds who long for adolescences despite only very recently leaving adolescence is represented in Butler’s lyrics by the tension between the world of ‘kids’ and the world of the ‘modern man’. The ubiquity of ‘kids’ in Butler’s lyrics and the tension with adulthood represents a distinctive use of nostalgia in the contemporary. Clearly nostalgia has played an important role in the commemoration of the past in a variety of art forms, however, what is distinctive about the nostalgia employed in Butler’s lyrics and the contemporary indie scene more widely is the quotidian or everyday subject matter, temporal proximity to the present, and distrust toward the future. In the next few posts I will explore these features of present-nostalgia.