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Arcade Fire's Deja VU2

@U2, April 10, 2018
By: Collin Souter

 

The lights go down.

It’s dark.

The video screens in the arena flicker with television static, occasionally displaying the band’s tour logo, a fake brand name that encompasses all the other fake products that have been advertised during the course of the downtime between the opening act and the headliner. Finally, after an hour of take-down and set-up, the band takes the stage. They don’t come from the usual backstage area. That’s because there is no backstage. Not really. This stage exists in the center of the arena. A 360-degree structure shaped like a square, each side with its own wide, hi-def video screen above. The band enters from the back of the arena, Vegas boxer style, as the announcer gets the crowd enthused. He is also in prime “Let’s get ready to rumble!” mode. A path leads the band from the back of the arena to the stage. They high-five the lucky audience members on the sidelines. They arrive to their destination, the stage, which actually has boxing ropes that they have to climb through.

Sound familiar?

Reading the above paragraph, at least three U2 tours should come to mind (Zoo TV, PopMart and U2360). But this is Arcade Fire, and they are currently touring with their fifth studio album (not counting the 2003 EP). It is very much like a U2 record. Full of ebbs and flows, cheekiness and soul, the head and the heart converging into an explosive sound only this band could produce. At first listen, the album feels a bit disjointed and unfocused. Perhaps not their weakest effort, but it’s lacking … something. Upon repeat listens, the theme of the album becomes clearer: It can be taken as a story about someone who can only find so much comfort in the material things around him/her (“Creature Comforts”), cannot find meaningful human connection through social media (“Signs of LIfe,” “Chemistry”) and the loneliness becomes unbearable (“Good God Damn”). It sounds like a Pop album, right? And just like U2’s flawed-yet-daring work from 1997, this is dark stuff, at times masquerading as a party.

Full video of Arcade Fire’s stage entrance:



Full video of U2 stage entrance:

Similarities should really come as no surprise by now. Arcade Fire is one of the few bands in U2’s inner circle that have taken pages from their playbook on irony and stagecraft. Over the last 14 years, their paths have crossed more often than most other bands that have toured with U2. Arcade Fire opened for them on both the Vertigo tour (during which, U2 entered the arenas to “Wake Up,” one of Arcade Fire’s signature anthems) and once during the U2 360 tour. They even performed a song together during that tour, a cover of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” (Bono has also appeared in one of their videos.) Many other rock giants have collaborated with or joined Arcade Fire on stage very early in their career, such as David Bowie and David Byrne, and filmmakers such as Spike Jonze and Terry Gilliam have been compelled to work with them on video projects. That was before they won the Album of the Year Grammy for 2010’s The Suburbs.

Arcade Fire are also at a similar point to U2 were about 20 years ago. Since their debut album Funeral came out in 2004, the band have been steadily going from clubs to arenas, making each show bigger and more conceptual. For The Suburbs tour, they fashioned the stage with a drive-in theater marquee and even played movie trailers before the show (Walter Hill’s “The Warriors” and the little-seen “Over the Edge,” both of which were potent intros if you know the album). For their follow-up, the less-appreciated double CD Reflektor, the concept was not as clearly defined, but nobody in the audience seemed to notice. This band knew how to fill the arena with big set pieces and, of course, their larger-than-life sound. Again, though, if one knows the album, there exists a narrative throughline in the show that has to do with the Myth of Orpheus, with lead singers Win Butler and Regine Chassange taking on the roles of Orpheus and Eurydice, respectively.

They also had a documentary project tied in with that tour, a film that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival called The Reflektor Tapes, which the band commissioned during the making of the album and the subsequent tour. The reviews were terrible. Even fans dismissed it. Arcade Fire, like U2 in 1988, were keeping their audience at an arm’s length from who they were and came off unbearably pretentious in the process. They had lost that personal touch with their audience. Sure, they could laugh at themselves and be on SNL, but they seemed to become overly precious about their image as artists. Sound familiar?

The Reflektor Tapes trailer

With their latest album, Everything Now, they seem to want to tear all that down, become more genuine and high-five their fans on the way to the stage again. For the first time in a long time, they would venture out into the crowd to play their instruments or just to dance among their fans, making the experience more intimate as well as spectacular. The Infinite Content Tour has borrowed many pages from the Zoo TV/PopMart/U2 360 playbook. Just as U2 did on Zoo TV and PopMart, Arcade Fire are making fun of their image as a corporate rock act (now that they’ve signed onto a major label after being with indie Merge Records for over a decade), a product to be advertised heavily in every way possible. They are staying in character as a brand of the Everything Now corporation, beating their critics to the punch as a “sell-out” by embracing their position as a major rock act. Sound familiar?

The commercials playing before the show (“Electric Blue” eye drops; “Creature Comfort” cereal) are similar to the fake Zoo commercials that played during the Zoo TV special that aired over Thanksgiving weekend in 1992; tongue-in-cheek, cheaply produced advertisements of yesteryear. These advertisements continue throughout the show in various ways, but like any U2 show, there is more going on beneath the surface. The Infinite Content tour is like an updated, more modernized version of Zoo TV and PopMart, commenting (in one show) about the oversaturation of media content and how it affects our lives and spirituality, while simultaneously giving the audience more content to download, purchase or upload into their feeds. One moment in the show that illustrates this perfectly comes during one of the few mellow moments of an Arcade Fire show, “Neon Bible,” in which Chassange mimics someone staring blankly into their phone while swiping up, then left, up then left, the swipes becoming a sign of the cross.

The reinvention of the U2 brand and the willingness to change musical direction worked beautifully in 1991. Most fans got the joke and embraced it. This didn’t quite work with Arcade Fire. For many, the joke went too far or it just wasn’t clear they were joking at all. The fake record reviews (pre-written by the fake Everything Now Corporation), the over-branding and fake news stories about the band had been received from fans and critics with a shrug. The whole stunt had the same kind of reaction U2 had when they did their PopMart tour announcement at a K-Mart back in 1997. The gimmick looked a little too familiar, even derivative.

Is the Infinite Content Tour derivative of these past high-concept U2 tours? While there is not a signature rock star at the center of Arcade Fire’s shows playing with his persona and daring the audience to go with him on the journey, an element of satire certainly exists as it did on the Zoo TV tour. (It is also worth noting the use of papier mache masks used before the show during the band's Reflektor Tour, similar to what U2 had for their pre-shows during Zoo TV.) Arcade Fire are a big-name rock act, just like U2 became in the ’80s and beyond, and their use of the video screens to play commercials and make themselves larger than life while winking at the audience certainly has roots in Zoo TV. As for similarities to PopMart, the Infinite Content Tour seems to be what U2 had in mind in 1997, but could never quite bring to fruition. Arcade Fire’s show seems more confident in its approach to satirizing consumerism and, unlike U2’s show, it follows its theme through to the end. As for the U2 360 tour similarities, they are purely physical (and U2 is by no means the first or only other band to perform a show in the round). Infinite Content is like a Minecraft version of U2 360, although the inner part of the stage does rotate during the songs, so that every view on the floor is a good one.

While Arcade Fire will not likely ever have a problem drawing a big crowd to their shows, many empty seats still remained during their last arena tours. Unlike U2, they don’t have an instantly recognizable pop culture staple for a lead singer (although after reading any interview with Win Butler, it sure as hell seems like he wants to be just that). Many people who have just an awareness of Arcade Fire as a band probably couldn’t tell you the name of the frontman/woman. The choice to go for the full arena spectacle two tours in a row while not having any mainstream radio hits to hang them on hints that the band may have overestimated their appeal.

Still, this band would rather their shows be about something more than just playing the hits (such as they are) and, in that respect, with the Infinite Content Tour, they have succeeded. Hopefully, whatever their situation in the music industry, they will continue to treat the stage as a room to create art rather than just an empty spectacle. While U2 fans speculate on the Experience + Innocence Tour as possibly being their last, the art of the arena show could live on in Arcade Fire if that is the case, so long as they have a sizable audience who desire the content. Contrary to the penultimate song on the album, they most certainly deserve the love.

(c) @U2/Souter, 2018

 

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