Arcade Fire's album The Suburbs won top honors at the Grammys last night, cementing its reputation as one of the best modern examples of dystopian rock. You can see the science fictional underpinnings of the album's themes in the Spike Jonze-directed video for single "The Suburbs," and many of the other songs on the album suggest that the future offers us nothing but a decaying, hopeless version of the present. And no wonder - the suburbs of the album title are, according to Arcade Fire's lyrics, "all of the houses they built in the 70s," which are falling into ruin.
These are the very same suburbs that another Canadian rock band, Rush, sang about in 1982 in their single "Subdivisions," on hit album Signals. Except those suburbs were brand-new in the early 80s. While they were still dystopian, Rush attributed a very different kind of dark future to them. Instead of decay, Rush's suburbs represented consumerist conformity. People in them had futures that were, in one "Subdivisions" lyric, "predecided, in the mass production zone." Still, Rush's portrait of the suburbs' damaging role in our future feels positively innocent compared to what Arcade Fire explores in its song.
For one thing, the suburbs went from being a high-tech consumerist dreamland to depressed sprawls on the edges of cities. The biggest threat in the Rush song is that you have to "be cool," or at worst, "conform or be cast out." The suburbs themselves are described as "in between the bright lights and the far, unlit unknown." Also, though the suburbs "have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth," at least they're wealthy: In the video, the kids all have cars, and the "outcast" main character goes into the city and plays video games.
By the time Arcade Fire is writing its songs about the suburban landscape, there's little sense of a "far, unlit unknown" left. There's just more and more suburban sprawl, and it's meaningless: "All of the suburbs they built in the 70s . . . meant nothing," the band sings. And unlike Rush, Arcade Fire describes a constant threat of violence:
You always seemed so sure that one day we'd be fighting a suburban war, your part of town against mine. By the time the bombs fell we were already bored.
This is what we see in the intense video for this song, where there's been some kind of military crackdown in suburban housing tracts. The people in this suburb are not exactly playing video games for fun distraction - our protagonist is a young father, working at a diner.
Two other songs from both albums are worth listening to as well, to explore further the juxtaposition of these two visions of the suburbs.
In Rush's "Digital Man," we meet the man of the future, presumably created by the suburbs of "Subdivisions." And he's all business, high-tech, and fast-paced production:
He's got a force field and a flexible plan . . . he plays fast forward just as long as he can, but he won't need a bed because he's a digital man.
Meanwhile, Arcade Fire's "Modern Man" is quite the opposite - he's going nowhere fast, and is associated with outdated technologies:
Like a record that's skipping, I'm the modern man . . . I wait in line, I'm a modern man. The people behind me don't understand . . . They say we're the chosen few, but we're wasted. And that's why we're still waiting in line for a number. But you don't understand.
The modernity that the suburbs once represented - even as recently as the 1980s - is a dead dream now. Both albums offer visions of the future based on the experience of suburban life. Rush sang about that future when it still seemed viable - "Subdivisions" protested suburban values while they were being foisted on a whole generation of young people. Arcade Fire can only eulogize yesterday's dream of a perfect tomorrow, and report back from the wreckage it left behind.