Some Thoughts on the Politics of “Suburbs”

The place I grew up was not exactly the suburbs, more like some post-industrial small city out of a Springsteen song.  Nonetheless, there’s something about Arcade Fire’s new album that I find affectively striking.  This is because the titular “suburbs” are not an actual place—though, sadly, they are also that—but something like the condition of possibility for contemporary North American existence.   It is in this sense, I think, that we can speak of the political character of The Suburbs.  They have made an album that is not “realist” so much as an encounter with that which enables what we call reality—the feelings, the patterns of thought, the capacities of sense that one cannot avoid encountering.

What is intriguing about this effort is its refusal to name an enemy.  This doesn’t mean antagonism is lacking.  On the contrary, there is antagonism throughout, but it is an antagonism that doesn’t settle, that doesn’t satisfy itself with having named the enemy.  It would be more accurate, today, to say that the enemy is that which allows us to name our enemy and thus to reach satisfaction.  Such gestures are mocked throughout this album, perhaps above all on “Rococo”:  “They seem wild but they are so tame.”  And elsewhere:  “All the kids have always known / That the Emperor wears no clothes / But they bow down to him anyway.”  The point, however, is not to be more hard-core than those who are wild only in appearance.  The critic is included:  “You 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.”

What is absent, then, is the sort of celebration of resistance that one finds on Funeral in those calls for children to wake up and never grow up, for us to hide our lovers underneath the covers.  Also absent is the self-certain counter-apocalyptic discourse of Neon Bible, which so skillfully tore apart everything that falls under the concept of “Bush,” including celebrity culture and proactive consumerism.  There we saw an intense expression of dissent and withdrawal:  “I don’t want it faster, I don’t want it free, I don’t want to show you what they done to me / I don’t want to live in my Father’s house no more.”  The dissent reached a peak in Neon Bible’s final song, which gnostically longed to become free from the cage of the body.

This song can be seen as a transition to, or a point of tension preceding, The Suburbs, particularly when the song claims that our age is one that “calls darkness light.”  A fair point, perhaps, but one that leads to the same kind of transcendence at work in the age it resists.  The Suburbs is without the positive transcendence of Funeral, and also without the negative transcendence of Neon Bible.  The fact that The Suburbs must be understood as an album, rather than as an ensemble that includes some outstanding songs—some outstanding objects of affirmation and/or negation—is the aesthetic correlate to this immanentization of antagonism.  “Sometimes I wonder if the world’s so small / That we can never get away from the sprawl.”  The longing for exteriority and its apparent absence are woven together throughout.  There is antagonism, but is diffuse, wandering throughout the album, and this seems fitting insofar as the enemy today is diffuse.  Thus the suburbs, thus the sprawl—their objectlessness is the requisite object of antagonism.

What would it mean to declare war on the suburbs?  “First they built the road, then they built the town / That’s why we’re still driving around and around.”  What would it mean to declare war on something as deterritorializing as roads?  “But you started a war that we can’t win / They keep erasing all the streets we grew up in.”  Antagonism becomes aesthetic, or it at least has to go through aesthetics:  “Now the music divides us into tribes / You choose your side.  I’ll choose my side.”  That old Benjaminian demand to counter the aestheticization of the political with the politicization of the aesthetic, it still remains, and the music of The Suburbs responds to it.

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10 Responses to “Some Thoughts on the Politics of “Suburbs””

  1. scott Says:

    I’ve watched a couple of recent interviews with them, and from what I can tell about their own self-conscious approach to the record, they do seem to intentionally border a kind of political namelessness/naming through their art. For example, they clearly worry about over-fetishization of the band through media exposure, not wanting the album leaked and wanting people to hear the album as a whole, a mood which is intrinsically tied to their view that they have a “message” to proclaim, something to say, and that their performances are the primary medium through which a kind of aesthetic solidarity is created.

    (As an aside, it’s also interesting to note Win’s predictments that this will be their “last record” — perhaps the last record — not because of their own plans, but because of the demise of the album-producing industry.)

    I think both musically and conceptually they have rounded off their previous two albums in a significant way, and I appreciate your reflections on how they’ve done that here.

  2. dbarber Says:

    Scott, thanks for the comment. The question of “the album” is an interesting one. It is important, i think, to be able to shape the conditions under which an artwork is received/experienced. I think the fludity/flexibility of recombinacy need not be opposed in principle, but it needs to be addressed in the artwork. I suppose what i’m trying to say in this post is that the conditions of recombinacy, which are central not only to the dissolution of “the album” but also to the notion of “sprawl,” seem to have become directly encountered with this album. Recombinacy promises freedom, creativity, but it often engenders a lack of happiness and a hard-to-precisely-identify control. (Bifo’s latest book is really good on this.)

    On a side note: for a “non-immanent” account of Arcade Fire’s recent work, see David Congdon’s review: “They infused each song with an intensity and urgency—one might say, an apocalyptic exigence—that transfigured this one night among other nights into a singularly unanticipatable event, a sonic encounter with something _beyond_.” At
    http://fireandrose.blogspot.com/2010/08/review-arcade-fire-spoon-concert-8210.html

  3. dbarber Says:

    The book by Bifo, btw, is _The Soul at Work_

  4. scott Says:

    Did anyone catch the live CD-release show they streamed on youtube last night? I missed it, due to the time difference here in the UK, but they’ve got some clips up now. Interesting to note, given Dan’s post, that they still ended the show with “Wake Up”.

  5. dbarber Says:

    They seem to be resisting my efforts to turn them into John Cage!

  6. Dave Mesing Says:

    Dan, this is a great post. Thanks for it. I’ve been thinking about this as I’ve let the album settle with me. Initially I was thinking the newest might be their best, but now I’m back with what seems to be the consensus in placing this between Funeral and Neon Bible.

    I’m curious about this whole issue of the album. Do you think there’s some sense in which this could be something like “the last album” simply because of the encounter with recombinancy, as you put it in the comments? I guess I’m having trouble understanding what would prevent another “album” from coming out. Sufjan Stevens has basically said the same thing before, but now he’s working on something with the National. Is there something particular that has happened that makes “the album’s” downfall inevitable, or are Win and Sufjan just suffering from a defeatist attitude?

    (Maybe I just want both of them to celebrate resistance with “Wake Up.”)

  7. dbarber Says:

    Dave, I’m glad you liked the post. My feeling is that the “last album” discourse is a bit overstated. True, we don’t listen to albums in the proper sense, and in this regard the “last album” happened long ago. But albums are still made — I think, in other words, that more interesting is the possibility of reinventing what an album could be, what it would mean to concentrate attention for a more extended span, to subtract oneself from shuffling/recombinancy, if only as an aesthetic experimentation. I’d suggest that “Suburbs,” whether consciously or not, moves in that direction. I’d just like to see that as the beginning of something new, though, rather than as a “last.”

  8. Brad Johnson Says:

    Re: “the last album” meme. I rather like Chuck Klosterman’s contribution to the idea in his review of Chinese Democracy.

    Dan, where do you come down on live albums? — are they different aesthetic animals, or do they also lend themselves to this “something new” experience you mention?

  9. dbarber Says:

    I think live albums, as they have existed thus far, would not fall under album as I’m imagining it. I suppose they could lead to a “something new”, but not that I’ve seen thus far. I guess this is because a reinvention of the album, for me, would require a greater degree of self-awareness about what one is doing, given that recombinacy means that album is no longer a default option.

    What could be interesting, though, would be to think about a live album along the lines of those that used to be made in jazz — the idea being that there’s a singular musical event taking place that cannot take place under other conditions. Though I’m not sure stadium-type shows, or most pop genres, lend themselves to that scenario. They tend, in fact, to go in the other direction — I have a musician friend who records his part/track in his studio and then sends it off to the next link, etc (recombinacy in the production of the music, in other words).

  10. Brad Johnson Says:

    It’s interesting you mention jazz there, as that’s what was in the back of mind when I asked. I didn’t say specifically, because of the genre-distinction at work, as well as some of the more idiosyncratic elements of a live jazz recording. (BTW, those sorts of live jazz albums are still being made. Evan Parker & co., for example, puts out something along those lines every other year or so.)


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