Arcade Fire, "The Suburbs," 2010

Let’s Go Downtown: What Arcade Fire Is Really Saying About the Suburbs

Arcade Fire, "The Suburbs," 2010
Arcade Fire, "The Suburbs," 2010

I

“When you meet a modern man, he is always coming from a place, not going to it,” G. K. Chesterton once wrote. Arcade Fire is a band that is certainly aware of where it has come from; how else to explain their 2010 concept album about where they came from, which sent them to the 2011 Grammy Awards to collect an Album of the Year trophy on behalf of all the good music that is predictably overlooked year after year by the awards industry? That album’s title character, The Suburbs, is an easy villain to hate. Snobs and hipsters hate the suburbs because they are not authentic, and because they are slow and boring. Agrarians and localists (if I may stereotype) hate the suburbs for perhaps similar reasons: the suburbs are not an authentic place, if by “place” we mean a location that encourages community; a landscape that constrains us and shapes our growth; or, to return to Chesterton’s statement, somewhere we can meaningfully speak of ourselves as coming from—somewhere we can call, if not our home, our place of origin. Or somewhere we are headed towards: a destination.

That’s the simplest view of the album: it’s a systematic excoriation of that peculiarly mundane manifestation of the American dream, the suburbs. Having set up this straw man, I will now boldly proceed to knock it down. I submit that the two broad condemnations of the suburbs, the urban critique and the rural critique (or, the big-city critique and the small-town critique), don’t have that much to tell us about the easily-demonized suburbs. In fact, I think the genius of the album lies in the way that its surface message—suburbs are lame—is revealed to be superficial, as its protagonists grow up, leave the suburbs, and return. They achieve a more complex relationship with their subject than would be possible if they spoke didactically about the suburbs and their youths; they sing about it as only characters in a concept album can. In other words, they come closer to real life than we might at first expect; and that life turns out to be complicated, as such things usually are, even in the suburbs.

II

In remembering and talking about the suburbs, where do we start? As someone born into the suburbs (and grown up in the same Houstonian sprawl as Arcade Fire’s Will and Win Butler), I think first of how many roads there are. Dozen-lane interstate highways; one-way highway service roads; multi-lane parkways; concentric loops around the city; speedy toll roads to whisk you downtown and uptown. The suburbs have taken full advantage of the fact that every American has a car. The Suburbs takes advantage of this fact, too; the opening lines of the album define the suburbs as the place where “I learned to drive.” A later stanza of the same title track paints a picture of an environment completely made up of streets:

Under the overpass
In the parking lot we’re still waiting
It’s already past
So move your feet from hot pavement and into the grass

Rural places are defined by the features of the land; urban places are (ideally) defined by beautiful buildings and public spaces. In the suburbs, a functional technology which ought to be no more than a means to an end has come to dominate the landscape and the lives of its residents. The suburbs were built for the roads, not the roads for the suburbs. “First they built the road, then they built the town” is actually how it happened in much of Houston. (I grew up hearing people laugh about how silly it was to build highways in the middle of cattle pastures and rice paddies. Years later, it looks a little more like foresight.) The album does take note of some buildings that give shape to the suburbs, but they are not very inspiring. The narrator of the title track dreams of the day when “all of the houses they built in the seventies finally fall.” Late in the album, Régine Chassagne sings how “The dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains / And there’s no end in sight.”

As a construction project, the suburbs are a huge waste. The aim of the project is presumably convenience and cheap luxury. But spending your life in an automobile is a strange way to get luxury, and a strange definition of convenience. Meanwhile, a bigger and better road network means that there’s no reason not to spread out a little bit further from the city center, where land is a little bit cheaper and a little bit more plentiful. Here we see the suburbs in their most evil guise: the sprawl (a pejorative synonym which crops up throughout the album, always reminding us that the suburbs are bigger than we need them to be). The gradual expansion of the suburbs is made up of many easy and sensible choices; the suburbs grow outward as the result of a lack of vision. Chesterton’s problem with modern man is not that he is rootless but that he is directionless, and the sprawling nature of the suburbs is a telling demonstration of this lack.

Waste, excess, and convenience recur as lyrical themes throughout the album, and throughout the lives of its characters. The narrator, musing on his childhood, regrets “All those wasted hours we used to know.” But in the ghostly reprise of the album’s title track, which serves as a coda to the entire piece, he admits: “If I could have it back / All the time that we wasted / I’d only waste it again.” This wistfulness—almost nostalgia—hits a note of ambiguity. The ability to waste time is something that has been lost because time has been conquered by the convenience of the suburbs. Is the narrator a happier person for it?

Less ambiguous is the album’s central denunciation of the suburbs in track eight, “Half Life II (No Celebration).” In this story, the narrator made good his escape from the suburbs of his youth—or so he thought, until he had to move back home after failing to make it in San Francisco. On returning, disillusioned and defeated, to the place he was so happy to leave, he frets over how much has changed (both in the suburbs and in himself), and he exclaims: “Pray to God I won’t live to see / The death of everything that’s wild.” He emphasizes the tameness and lifelessness of the suburbs: “this home which has no life”; “this town where I was born / I now see through a dead man’s eyes.” Compared to the vibrancy of life in a real city like San Francisco, the Houston suburbs, demarcated by freeways, are utterly dehumanizing. “One day they will see it’s long gone,” he laments—“it” presumably meaning ambition; success; the desire to live someplace cool. Back in the title track, he hoped for “a daughter while I’m still young / I want to hold her hand / And show her some beauty before this damage is done.” Already he knows that he’ll have to settle for something less than beauty, less than San Francisco: “But if it’s too much to ask, if it’s too much to ask / Then send me a son.”

III

So, there’s the basic case against the suburbs. But in the album’s second track, “Ready To Start,” the counterattack has already begun. It sounds like the narrator of this song is drawing a line in the sand; choosing the hard way, not the easy way (e.g., “I would rather be wrong / Than live in the shadows of your song”); refusing to bow down to the emperor with no clothes. It sounds like he’s making a tough, uncompromising choice in favor of the authenticity of downtown, rejecting the worthlessness of the suburbs. But how seriously are we supposed to take him? The opening lines of the song are a wonderfully barbed skewer: “If the businessmen drink my blood / Like the kids in art school said they would.” First of all, art students are never to be taken seriously. Second, I expect the songwriters intend for that opening line to be ironic: Dylan’s sparse and fantastic lyric from “All Along the Watchtower” is here transformed into an anti-capitalist cliché. This narrator is not a very credible critic of the suburbs.

Track four, “Rococo,” really turns it around. If the disdain for hipsters was subtle on track two, it is relentlessly explicit here. “Let’s go downtown and watch the modern kids,” suggests the narrator—and you already know this is going to be good. “Let’s go downtown and talk to the modern kids / They will eat right out of your hand / Using great big words that they don’t understand.” The one word they pretentiously repeat, which the narrator throws back in mocking chorus, is “rococo”—tellingly, an adjective that is often applied to architecture. These downtown “modern kids” (who, according to “Sprawl II,” “don’t need [our] kind” and are thus presumably hipsters) have the vocabulary for talking about the problems of the suburbs, but their ideas are empty. “They seem wild but they are so tame”; they seem to have something to offer in the way of a critique of the tame suburban wasteland, but the plank is in their own eye. Maybe they should go back to art school.

IV

The small-town, localist critique (or “urbanist,” though I don’t know very much about New Urbanism and so I’m hesitant to invoke it) comes at the suburbs from a different angle. Some of this has already been explained: the suburbs don’t encourage community, because they lack public spaces and public buildings (and they have too many roads); the suburbs are a way of escaping material limitations that might otherwise squeeze us into becoming better people.

The album is not as readily dismissive of these views. On its thirteenth track, “We Used To Wait,” the illusory convenience offered by modern technologies (such as those omnipresent, overweening suburban freeways) is briefly, perfectly illustrated:

I used to write
I used to write letters
I used to sign my name
I used to sleep at night
Before the flashing lights settled deep in my brain

We don’t have to wait for letters any more. But the technology that frees us from waiting also enslaves us to its own flashing lights, and steals from us the need for commitment (i.e., signing our names; writing down our true hearts). Maybe submitting ourselves to the need to wait for some things—just like submitting ourselves to a particular place, rather than the infinite possibilities of the suburbs—is good for us. Maybe that enormous supermarket (and I’m not even talking about Wal-Mart here; think about how big Kroger, H-E-B, or the aptly-named Giant is, compared to a neighborhood grocery store) is a convenience that uses its huge product selection to paper over what’s missing. Maybe we would sleep better somewhere else.

But wait. The very next lines explain that, because the narrator never wrote letters, “when the lights cut out / I was lost standing in the wilderness downtown.” Not “in the suburbs,” but “downtown.” I could be making too much of this one word, but think back to the unhappy refugee from San Francisco. He lamented that the suburbs were not wild, but our non-writing and non-waiting friend here is concerned that downtown is so wild that it’s a wilderness (or a wasteland; there is a whiff of Prufrock later in the same song, “Like a patient on a table”). Like the suburbs, downtown lacks identifying and guiding features, without the physical constraints that can usher us to our proper places. In other words, this is not a problem unique to the suburbs; the urban and the suburban are equally uninhabitable.

By now it should be obvious that this album isn’t describing a physical cityscape as much as it is describing a moral landscape, the hills and valleys and highways of the soul. The missing pieces of this landscape cannot be supplied either by moving to San Francisco or by starting a farm. Smug superiority is not the answer (because, as “Rococo” points out, its end is unwitting and uncritical sameness); rejection of the flawed technological infrastructure of the suburbs (that is, the plethora of suburban roads) is not the answer, either. Our problems are moral problems, not geographical problems. Of course, we can certainly discuss the relative impacts of different technologies and infrastructures on the human soul, without being technological determinists. Still, I suspect that Arcade Fire is not trying to say very much about the suburbs as a techno-political phenomenon, and that the intersection between spirit and matter is thematic, literary, perhaps accidental.

V

Throughout this essay so far, I’ve touched only lightly on the idea that the suburbs are deficient as a “place,” that they do not fill the functions that are proper to a childhood home. I’ve avoided the important question of what those functions are; it may be a failure of my nerve, but I don’t intend to ask or answer that question now. I think I can point out, though, that the usefulness of a place is more directive than historical. If I grew up in a small town like the one my parents grew up in, I would know that I belonged there. If I ever chose to leave, as my parents eventually did, the community of my youth could serve as a pattern for the sort of community I ought to seek, whether in an urban, rural, or small-town setting—or even in a suburban setting. To return yet again to Chesterton’s aphorism: such a home would give me both a place to come from and a (perhaps different) place to go towards.

This, then is the role of the suburbs, a role that is recognized, raged against, lamented, and celebrated on every track of the album: it gives us a direction. By laying bare the emptiness of what we have, it points us towards the valuable things we do not have, and it teaches us to desire them. In “Sprawl I (Flatlands),” a tourist sadly recalls a dialogue with a cop in his teenage years:

The last defender of the sprawl
Said “Well, where do you kids live?”
Well, sir, if you only knew what the answer’s worth
I’ve been searching every corner of the earth

One more example will suffice. In the album’s penultimate track, the disco-infused radio hit “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” the female narrator complains of the bourgeois constrictions that each of us probably felt at his or her first teenage job: “They heard me singing and they told me to stop / Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock.” But this feeling that things are lifelessly awry in the suburbs points her towards transcendent things:

These days, my life, I feel it has no purpose
But late at night the feelings swim towards the surface
‘Cause on the surface the city lights shine
They’re calling at me, “come and find your kind!”

It might sound like I’m saying we should abandon beautiful things (such as beautiful cities or beautiful farms) for ugly things, because the ugly things remind us of the impermanence of things. What I’d like to say, though, is that we should not be too sad about being born into, or borne by circumstance towards, the featureless pavement wastelands of the suburbs. They are our places; they are flawed, but we can appreciate the lessons they teach us, even if they are taught by negative example. We can experience transcendence through things which are limited, broken, and themselves anything but transcendent. If the role of places in our lives is to give us modern men a destination, not a history, then I believe the suburbs can do that about as well as the small town or the urban enclave.

The album’s opening lines command the listener: “Grab your mother’s keys, we’re leaving.” We know where we’re going. Geographically, we’re going back to the suburbs, where we will make do with what we have. Spiritually, we’re going to a far, far better place, and our youth in the suburbs will give us a push in the right direction.

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