It's confession time: I don't like the Arcade Fire.
I've tried, but we got off to a bad start. I saw them two years ago when the buzz was but a gentle breeze rippling across the lips of open-eared Montrealers, and I found singer R¨?gine Chassagne's perpetually off-key squalling, and the accompanying jangly music that threatened to clatter into a leggy heap, simply repellent. I remember feeling embarrassed for her, perplexed by my friends who were really into it; later I settled comfortably into indifference about the project. It was on the positive side of indifference, however, despite this poor introduction.
I kept my distance while their popularity took flight. Clearly they have become more cohesive in the years since I formed my first impression. The story is familiar: In the recording period before their album Funeral was released to critical acclaim, various band members suffered through a number of deaths in their respective families, and now the group dresses like they're going to a funeral as part of the stage show (apparently they do, as I mentioned, I haven't seen them in two years).
People are attached to their music like kids to their blankies. Described by one source as a mix of indie rock, chamber prog-rock and eighties pop, the Arcade Fire has retained a loyal fan base as it's raced up the pyramid of popularity, integrity intact. But I still don't get it. For the sake of this column I tried giving the music another listen, but found myself becoming impatient and agitated with the songs. I am not part of the club.
In my quest for understanding I spoke to my friend Jennifer Brandel, a writer and all-around creative person, and someone who ranks Funeral as possibly her all-time favourite album.
"It's like drugs," she said. "When I listen to their music, it immediately conjures these feelings of total sadness and understanding and you feel like you've had an epiphany."
She put on "Tunnels," and we weren't eight bars into the track before she said, "It's primal. See, my palms are already sweaty and my heart beats faster. It's like a high-school crush on life. I get it, and it's super-fucking-sad, and it's super-fucking-beautiful, and it's the only fucking way it can be ... They create those unforgettable moments."
Although I wanted to experience sweaty palms over this music, it simply wasn't happening. Why is it that Brandel can tap into it while I can only meekly cheer from the sidelines?
As it happens, McGill researcher Dr. Anne Blood discovered a few years ago that what gives us that chill-up-the-spine feeling when we hear music that we like is actually linked to the same part of our brain that sends out reward/motivation signals-similar to the neural response that cocaine addicts have, to our neural response to chocolate and to the way our brains react to sex. We like it, so we want more of it. It's a response developed for survival, to ensure that we have enough of what our body needs ... like food, sleep and sex.
Blood was a student of Dr. Robert Zattore at the Montreal Neurological Institute. Zattore says that, from a neurological perspective, we don't know why some people react to some music and others don't. If we did, he jokes, the music industry would be a whole lot richer.
There are many unanswered questions from a neurological point of view; such as-if it's our pleasure centres that make us partial to music, why would we respond to melancholic music like that of the Arcade Fire?
"I think pleasure is only one component of music," Zattore cautions, noting that it's extremely hard to study the nuances of musical reaction. "Music is a very rich means for communicating emotion and, in that respect, it's a means for sharing emotion and amplifying emotion. So, certainly, pleasurable music is something that we all can relate to, but sometimes you are in a particular mood and you can use music either to amplify your mood, or to counteract that mood."
It's a point that Carleton University assistant music professor William Echard echoes:
"There's an idea that you work out negative emotions in art, as a way of wrestling with negative feelings ... instead of in your life," he says.
People sometimes seek out sad music so that they may experience the feeling of sadness, without having to deal with the aftermath-like a surrogate emotion, allowing us to reflect without getting overwhelmed by the strength of a first-hand emotional experience. This might also help to explain why my friend Jen doesn't think the Arcade Fire have broken the mainstream yet, despite all indications.
Echard, who replied "Doesn't everyone have that album?" when asked if he'd ever heard of the band, suggested that the Arcade Fire's realm is coded in intimacy. It's what people relate to the most because, as he puts it, "intimacy is always a construct, even in personal relationships-you're never inside someone's head, you're always mediating your communication." Strong emotions like sadness and uncertainty are part of the realm of a close-knit relationship-we generally don't pour out our most intimate breakup sob stories upon first meeting someone. Communicating the personal details of one's life through music can cause listeners to feel that much closer because they have to draw on their own emotions in order to interpret the musician's. When Jen said "it's super-fucking-sad and super-fucking-beautiful," and that she "gets it," she was acknowledging that the Arcade Fire are able to bring her into their personal space in a matter of three minutes-it is an emotional space that she is already familiar with and, because of that, the gap between what the band is trying to convey and her own personal experiences is a much closer one.
Jen has friends who have vomited from heatstroke because they were so determined to see the band play. I will never come close to that sort of devotion. While I do value intimacy intertwined with my music, the contentedness the Arcade Fire seems to derive from feeling downtrodden (though admittedly, the sonic space that results from this paradox is nuanced) reminds me too much of my years of teenage angst.
It's complicated. I'm unusually fascinated by their success, and I wish them the best. It feels good to listen to music and to form communities around it, and I wish I could be a part of this particular one because I know a lot of cool people who are members. But, while I can appreciate the songwriting and lyrical deftness, Chassagne just sounds like she's off-key to me, Butler comes off like he's on the verge of falling to pieces and I still think they could all use a good ironing before they go onstage.