Again with The Suburbs? Really?
After a half-dozen listenings to Arcade Fire’s latest disc “The Suburbs,” the verdict is more or less in: not as bombastic or claustrophobic as “Neon Bible,” but nowhere close to “Funeral,” an admittedly hard act to follow, given its near-masterpiece status as one of the top ten albums of the Naughts. Musically and lyrically, Arcade Fire hits all the right spots with the slings and arrows of their outrageous sonic fortune; what’s less satisfying is the target itself. Upon hearing the title of the band’s latest opus, I found myself thinking Really? Again with the suburbs?
To his credit, Arcade Fire singer and lyricist Win Butler says the album is “neither a love letter to, nor an indictment of, the suburbs — it’s a letter from the suburbs,” and on this level the album works well. But that letter will still be Exhibit A in more indictments than love letters. Why is that?
By now, more than fifty years after its apotheosis in Western culture, suburbia has declined into a cultural cliché: the great bogeyman of adolescent ennui, alienation and angst. Its mannered landscapes and materialist airs have long been shorthand for the bourgeois soul-death that’s spread, like the sprawling master-planned communities themselves, across modern life with the rapidity of a cancer cell. Well, shorthand for the sort of person who would use a phrase like “bourgeois soul-death”; to everyone else, suburbia was simply “a nice place to live and raise a family.” That latter phrase addresses one of the things that’s lost in the industrious, endless bashing of the ‘burbs that’s filled countless films, novels and music—if suburbia is so horrible, why do most people now live there?
For centuries, the city and the country, rural life and urban living, were locked in a Manichean battle for supremacy, each casting the other’s mode of living in as negative a light as possible. The city always had the edge in disdain, being a bastion of corruption, sin and loneliness-in-a-crowd (along with the virtues of excitement, sophistication and economic opportunity), while the country could only boast ignorance, crudity and dullness (along with the prosaic pleasures of simplicity, sincerity and healthy lifestyle). Over time, the rural/urban divide settled into predictable roles: the city as dirty and dangerous but thrilling and smart; the small town might be boring but it was honest, open and warm.
Many factors played a part in the invention of modern suburbs, but not least in them was the collapse of this dichotomy. The suburb was close enough to partake in the cosmopolitan and the moneyed, while at the same time offering the supposed charms of small town life—fresh air, friendliness, and rec rooms big enough to hold a pool table and a foosball table.
Anyone who’s spent time in a prewar tenement building in New York perfectly understands why thousands flocked to the new suburbs after World War II. Light! Space! Air! Neighbors on the other side of sculpted hedges instead of banging on your plywood-thin walls! All those huddled masses couldn’t wait to escape the anthill of the city for the freshly mown plains of the American Dream. Can you blame them?
The irony is that the quiet, safe, orderly world those generations wanted to create for their children was… quiet, safe and orderly. Like, Dullsville, man. Just as every generation has to learn most truths the hard way, every generation strives mightily to NOT BE BORED. The suburbs were less a distinct form of social arrangement than they were a chimera: neither fully rural nor urban, they combined the dullness of the small town with the empty striving of the big city, without the attendant virtues of either. They were a vacuum, and corporations abhor a vacuum: into this weird, blank way of living rushed a million strip malls with a million franchises, the true Dominoes™ Theory. And in a further irony, those suburban kids now escape to the cities, descending in hordes of hipsterism upon the shores of their parents or grandparents, make a lot of noise for about ten, fifteen years, and then get married and have families and move to… the suburbs.
Patton Oswalt has pointed out in his routines his gratitude at having grown up in a bland, boring suburb because it forced him to go out and see the world and sup at the table of culture and experience. This is the ultimate historical irony, and one which casts suburbia in a new light—just as the despised bourgeoisie wound up producing the 19th Century’s most brilliant artists and thinkers, the suburbs, by their very nature, crank out generations of restless, questing seekers who wind up enriching culture in their constant flight from ennui. More often than not, natives of big cities are just as provincial and parochial as the supposed hicks in the sticks. Only suburbia, with its suffocating conformity, produces people for whom art, music and poetry is as necessary as oxygen. Having grown up in the suburbs myself, I can attest to the fact that they are perhaps the greatest arrangement yet devised for making you want to actually do something with your life.
When all of the walls that they built in the ’70s finally fall/Meant nothing at all?/Meant nothing at all,/It meant nothing… I know what you mean, Win, but it didn’t really mean nothing. Sometimes a love letter is an indictment, and vice versa. The genius of the suburbs is that they speak to different times and purposes in people’s lives, a landscape that one flees in youth and returns to in maturity, their anodyne locations part of modern life’s cycle of innocence, experience and a misguided but ultimately productive longing for a return to innocence. They are factories of the necessary boredom that makes life worth living, and that makes art imperative instead of leisure; for proof, just listen to a band called Arcade Fire.