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.