Today, Canadian indie-rock band the Arcade Fire releases their newest album. (You can stream the entire thing on NPR. It’s been getting some pretty rapturous reviews. Entertainment Weekly called it “a work of impressively fervent majesty.”
So, what makes this different from any other well-reviewed indie rock album? The subject is near and dear to our hearts: the suburbs. In fact, the album is named The Suburbs.
So far, I don’t think that pop culture has quite nailed the story of the suburbs. I don’t know if I blame American Beauty specifically, but the ‘burbs have what I have decided to call “The American Beauty Problem.” It means that every movie, book, and song written about the suburbs paints the area as a cultureless wasteland of empty consumerism and adulterous marriages that stifle true creativity.
Obviously, that’s not been my experience living in the suburbs. I know plenty of creative people in happy marriages, but you wouldn’t know it from The Ice Storm or Revolutionary Road or any of that rot.
So, where does the Arcade Fire fit in? Did they fall pretty to the American Beauty problem? Let’s check out some lyrics.
From the title track, “The Suburbs”:
“In the suburbs, I learned to drive.”
This is probably the truest thing anyone has written about living in the suburbs. It goes downhill from there, seeing as the next line is:
“And you’d told me we’d never survive.”
Ugh, this old thing again? The suburbs are stifling and it’s killing you! I think I’ve heard this one before. But then it goes back to the car:
“Grab your mother’s keys and we’re leaving.”
Okay, I’ll grant you that, Arcade Fire. In the ‘burbs, kids are always borrowing the family car. That’s not too far off.
“You always seemed so sure
That one day we’d be fighting in a suburban war.
Your part of town against mine, I saw you standing on the opposite shore.
But by the time the first bombs fell we were already bored.”
Whoa, what? What’s this about a suburban war? That doesn’t relate to my experience of growing up in the suburbs, but at least it’s different. I’d like to hear more about this suburban war.
“The kids want to be so hard,
But in my dreams we’re still screaming and running through the yard.”
I will admit that yes, I’ve seen my share of suburban teens pretending to be tougher than they are.
“When all of the walls
That they built in the ’70s finally fall
It meant nothing at all.”
Cheap shot, Arcade Fire. My house wasn’t built in the ’70s. We have lots of good and varied architecture here, including lots and lots of recent development!
“So can you understand why I want a daughter when I’m still young?
I want to hold her hand and show her some beauty before this damage is done.”
I’m pretty sure that’s an insult! Take that back, Arcade Fire! The suburbs are neither damaging to their environments nor bad for the people who live in them. You can find plenty of beauty for your hypothetical daughter right here.
From the song “Suburban War”:
“This town’s so strange.
They built it to change,
and while we’re sleeping, all the streets, they rearrange.”
“They keep erasing all the streets we grew up in.”
Okay, this is pretty true, too. Covering the ‘burbs, there’s plenty of change. Stores and restaurants turn over with great frequency, people move into and out of houses depending on where the kids are in their school careers, everything shifts. At least this acknowledges the ever-changing nature of the suburbs, and doesn’t try and paint us to be static.
And that war they hinted at earlier?
“And now the music divides us into tribes.”
Maybe in high school. I feel like, now, people in the ‘burbs can listen to different types of music and be friends without starting some kind of war with each other.
Verdict? Meh. Based solely on lyrics, The Suburbs doesn’t wholly succumb to the American Beauty problem. There are some truths in there. But it’s still not the story I wish someone would tell about the suburbs, where people are basically happy and creatively fulfilled. Someone out there, please get on writing that!