Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Soundtrack for Our Dystopian Future

Arcade Fire is a band known for their complex production and thematic albums. 2007's Neon Bible was seen as a biting indictment of the Bush administration. Win Butler, the lead singer of Arcade Fire, said their latest album, The Suburbs, is a love letter from the 'burbs. But I see it more as dystopian YA literature gone musical.

Take, for example, the video for the title track, directed by Spike Jonze (above). The video features teenagers bumming around what seems like your typical, middle-class suburb (it was actually filmed in Austin, Texas), until empty houses and the puzzlingly strong presence of law enforcement hint that this isn't contemporary reality, and all is not well in this world. The lyrics support Jonze's interpretation, too: "When the bombs dropped we were already bored... Sometimes I can't believe it."

Track five, the catchy "Rococo," is almost universally thought to be about hipsters and how they really don't know what the hell is going on despite their painfully laid-back-and-ironic dress code. Yet if one reads it in reference to the art period Rococo--where the wealthy French aristocracy teetering on the brink of revolution commissioned playful paintings about love and sex--the song seems more of a warning against living in luxury while the world is torn apart around you, all because you can't be bothered to educate yourself beyond your own daily existence: "The modern kids... will eat right out of your hand/using great big words that they don't understand.... They seem wild/but they are so tame." Rococo (the word, not the song) is often interpreted to mean something along the lines of a decorative shell in French, and indeed the kids in Arcade Fire's "Rococo" are the vanguard of a culture that's nothing but a shell, with no life behind it with which to bring meaning or consequences to the kids' actions.

The interactive video for "We Used to Wait" takes the viewer to his or her hometown street and destroys it with a mushroom cloud-like accumulation of hundreds of trees, nature taking back a settled landscape. Both "Half Light II (No Celebration)" and "Sprawl II (Mountains Upon Mountains)" talk about the death of wild places, dreams, and the imminent demise of their protagonists. Take this set of lyrics from "Half Light II":

Though we knew this day would come
Still it took us by surprise
In this town where I was born
I now see through a dead man's eyes

One day they will see it's long gone...

And, in the band's blog, the latest post contains a link to the Georgia Guidestones, a Stonehenge-esque monument inscribed with instructions, in several languages, on how to recreate civilization after the apocalypse (one quote from the Guidestones I just have share: "Prize Truth-Beauty-Love-" and books!?!).

I'm not a huge reader of dystopian YA, but I can see The Suburbs working as the soundtrack to Stephenie Meyers' The Host or The Adoration of Jenna Fox. Furthermore, Anaraug, who is very knowledgeable about such things, says that two of tracks reference William Gibson's Sprawl Anthology, which is a series of dystopian novels. But Arcade Fire's Suburbs talks about growing up in the suburbs even among its destruction, which gives the album a distinctly YA flavor of dystopia.

Do you know of any other bands or artists who have incorporated dystopian literature into their work?


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