Music/Features

The problem with Arcade Fire’s ‘Infinite Content’

July 28, 2017

Arcade Fire's fake news isn't funny

Today marks the release of Arcade Fire’s fifth studio album, Everything Now, and the culmination of an elaborate marketing campaign that has left many scratching their heads. Over the last couple months, the band have released a series of “fake news” pieces that spread various kinds of misinformation in an effort to critique the culture of “infinite content” that we find ourselves inhabiting today.

While over-the-top album releases, PR stunts, and grand messages are par for the course with Arcade Fire, and part of the reason we love them, this one felt a little different. There’s something about the band’s message that feels cynical, and something about the fake news stunts that makes it seem like the joke’s on us, the listeners and fans.

If you reacted to something Arcade Fire-related on the internet within the last couple months, you probably encountered this campaign. In an elaborate, interconnected web of content meticulously designed to look like the real thing, down to the point of copying the appearance of popular websites like Billboard and Hollywood Reporter, we heard about the band going bankrupt, their plans for releasing their own Rock Band video game, their lawsuits against multiple artists for stealing the “Millennial Whoop,” and a limited edition Ben & Jerry’s flavor called “My Body is a Cone.”  Most left little impression, like the Rock Band game or the forthcoming Everything Now rompers, because you just kinda thought, “Yeah, sure. Rompers. Whatever.” However, the articles about the band’s bankruptcy and lawsuits got shared and republished widely, even tricking the National Post, and sparking strong reactions (“WTF, Arcade Fire can’t copyright the ‘millennial whoop,’ dumbest band ever!”)

The thing is, with their “infinite content” stunts, Arcade Fire aren’t pulling back the curtain on fake news. We’re all already aware of it, and we live with its effects every day; far beyond a “got ya!” joke, fake news is used as a weapon to disrupt democracies, attack the free press, and shame individuals. We as a society have barely managed to wrap our heads around the threat let alone develop ways to counter it. So maybe that’s why, when I fell for a couple of Arcade Fire’s articles, I didn’t come away laughing so much as asking, “What’s the point of all this?”

Look closely at the Billboard logo. Get it? 3 Ls! So clever!

The deeper you go into Everything Now and the band’s comments in interviews, it seems like there is no point other than to laugh at “content” and how we consume it.

Speaking recently with USA Today, Win Butler elaborated for the first time on the meaning behind Everything Now. “I think ‘album cycle’ and ‘content’ are maybe my two least favorite concepts,” he told the interviewer. “So we’ve almost tried to take the aesthetic of what’s horrible about content and album cycles and tried to make art out of it. That’s kind of the dregs of what we’re left with as artists.”

Arcade Fire seem to dislike everything about what they’re doing, and that doesn’t leave much for anyone else to like.

The shade he throws at album cycles and content seems surprising for a band that has historically put so much planning and care into their album cycles, which have been supported with elaborate and often excellent content. Think about 1 800 NEON BIBLE, the celebrity-stacked, sold-out-as-hell small shows leading up to that album’s release, and the interactive Neon Bible video that was a pioneering piece of enhanced reality content. Or the entire film that accompanied The Suburbs; or the Salsatheque shows-cum-SNL special leading up to Reflektor. Despite Arcade Fire’s image as a scrappy indie band, these release cycles are meticulously planned and in recent years have gained the financial support of major labels. Content is Arcade Fire’s jam, and album cycles (at least the release part) are something they’re good at.

Artists certainly have every right to complain about the business side of music, and it seems like that’s in part what Win Butler is doing here, even if you’d think he would be excited about having recently signed a two-album deal with Columbia Records. It’s hard to know what goes on behind the scenes and the grind can wear out even the most successful musicians. But the jab at content, and album cycles (or, again, the release part) is unexpected, and seems a little unfair. If content is one of Win Butler’s least favorite concepts, what does that mean for all the really good content they’ve created in the past? His current skewering of content seems to imply that the band’s hearts were never really in it, and that fans enjoyed something that was laboriously created and ultimately hollow. Even if that wasn’t the case then, it seems to be the case with Everything Now. So what’s there to like? How can fans get excited about something that’s “the dregs of what we’re left with as artists”?

Bleak and cynical art can still be exciting, but the problem here is that the band seem to be turning their cynicism toward the audience. You believed our fake news? You clicked on a clickbait-y article? Then you’re part of the problem. Never mind the fact that the fake news and clickbait are literally the things the band are using to publicize their art, which they allegedly believe in and fans allegedly appreciate on a genuine level. Last night, the band debuted music from Everything Now at a concert livestreamed on exclusively Apple Music. It was a good show, and an excellent piece of content. Was I supposed to hate myself for enjoying it?

It’s not as if bands, like people, have to be perfect and can never contradict themselves. But the multifaceted cynicism around Everything Now has a way of sucking the oxygen out of the room; this might be because Win Butler, in his comments, not only comes off as critical of fans, but even a bit cruel. Before last night’s show, the band sparked outrage again by posting a dress code for the night that specified “hip and trendy” clothes, no shorts, large logos, flip flops, tank tops, etc. It also said no cell phones would be allowed inside the show, and would be confiscated and stored in bags outside for the duration. All of this, it turned out, was fake. But who could’ve known? Arcade Fire have actually demanded these exact things of fans in the past, not least at a show I actually attended and reviewed. As with most things Everything Now, it was hard to see the point.

But a turn of the knife of sorts came at the conclusion of last night’s show when Win Butler asked the crowd to hold up their phones and turn on their lights. “So we definitely didn’t ask you not to bring your cellphones because we do this every show,” he said, with a smirk. “Just think about it, think about it for one second, alright?”

Right, but… given that a lot of artists, Arcade Fire included, have actually enforced strict no-cellphone rules at their shows, why would anyone doubt them? “Don’t believe everything you read,” he told the crowd as his parting words. The implication was that we’d just been schooled, but in what? In not believing relatively reasonable information from a band we like and generally treat in good faith? Does Win Butler think his fans aren’t woke enough because they believed lies about his band that weren’t really much of a stretch to begin with?

Arcade Fire turned their backs on fans.

If you take a look at the band’s fake “Stereoyum” article that mocked Stereogum’s negative review of the album’s lead single, you can see how thoroughly the band’s cynicism turns in on itself. In a piece that eviscerates the whole act of reviewing albums, and makes no effort at veiling its anger toward Stereogum, they say this: “We’ll probably spend at least a paragraph talking about the marketing campaign that has accompanied Everything Now—the logos, the corporate-speak, the Twitter account—saying that we get the joke, and maybe even noting that music sites and features like Premature Evaluation (and the new Premature Premature Evaluation) are all part of the same culture-marketing ecosystem.”

It’s that last line, “all part of the same culture-marketing ecosystem” that jumps off the screen. Just like “fake news,” the “we’re both part of the same hypocrisy” attitude reads a little too much like something out of the Trump playbook, as when his answer to every accusation is, “Hillary Clinton did the same thing.” That’s not a worldview anyone can get behind. Arcade Fire seem to know what they’re doing: they’re launching their album with an elaborately planned marketing campaign in a specific content-based ecosystem. They seem to dislike everything about what they’re doing, and that doesn’t leave much for anyone else to like. Maybe it’s because they see something but don’t understand it; they want to make a grand statement about “content,” because making grand statements is what they do, but they’re as lost as anyone else. Instead of trying their best or stepping aside, they turned to a kind of ill-willed trickery that’s tone deaf at best, and exasperates the issues they’re trying to criticize at worst.

Best turn to artists who don’t create these traps for fans, who put out pieces of “content” that are meant to be consumed wholesale without double guessing the process of consuming them, and get back to finding answers for the real problems that “fake news” have created for us.

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