Before This Damage is Done

My CD of Arcade Fire’s new album has finally arrived, two days after MP3 buyers were able to snap it up for a few quid on Amazon. I’m still glad to have gone for the disk, though, and not just because of a 40-something attachment to physical objects and floor-to-ceiling shelves. When iPods all have 2 terabytes of flash memory I’ll be able to re-rip all my CDs to lossless and have portable music that doesn’t sound washed out in the loud parts, and where will everyone else be with their 128kbps AAC files then, eh? Not re-listening to albums they bought twenty years ago for a rush of nostalgia for the Australian summer, I expect, so they won’t really care; but then most kids haven’t yet experienced the powerful connection between music and nostalgia. Arcade Fire fans, though—us kids know.

Which may be why, in the flurry of reviews of their new album, one comment has particularly bothered me. The reviewer at Pretty Much Amazing, although full of praise for the album as a whole, has written:

Puzzlingly, The Suburbs kicks off (and ends) with its weakest track, the tune for which the album is named. “The Suburbs” is an MGMT b-side that should never have seen the light of day, let alone the introductory spot of the album.

As someone who listened to that track more than any other this year after it hit the web a few months ago, I was taken aback. People like different things, and that’s fine. But why the insistence that a particular creative work shouldn’t even exist?

The track, first of all: I adore it. From honky-tonk beginnings it swells to a stirring, strings-backed anthem evoking the hidden depths beneath the suburban surfaces so many disparage. The lyrics are steeped in meaning for anyone who grew up outside an urban centre; my own upbringing was a little more rural, but near enough, and every Australian knows the story well. “Move your feet from hot pavement and into the grass” is a suburban madeleine, marrying beautifully to the theme of “moving past the feeling”. But the key verse for me is:

So can you understand
Why I want a daughter while I’m still young?
I want to hold her hand,
And show her some beauty
Before this damage is done
But if it’s too much to ask
If it’s too much to ask
Then send me a son

Specifying the gender is an effective hook, drawing attention to the more general desire for a child—a desire so commonplace that it’s considered unremarkable, but it shouldn’t be, as any parent or prospective parent knows. Every birth is a hopeful event, and this is one of those hopes: the world may be going to hell in a handbasket, but at least we can share its beauty before it gets there.

So while some reviewers have focussed on the song’s nostalgia for a suburban upbringing, its most powerful message is to the upbringers. Nostalgia on its own can be self-centred, an indulgence, but handing on the best of the past is one of our most powerful social acts. Writing, teaching, art, music, and tradition all relate to it. Can you understand why a ’70s child of the dull, boring suburbs would want to raise a child there in turn?

So “The Suburbs” spoke to me, even though I’m raising my own child in a city centre; dozens of listens later, I’m still not tired of it. And a reviewer wishes that it had never seen the light of day. If he’d been in charge, I would never have heard my favourite song of 2010.

It’s not the only place I’ve encountered that attitude lately. In Metafilter’s copyright thread du juor a few days ago, one commenter wrote approvingly that “although copyright may have prevented a few good works from coming into being, thousands more abominations must have been killed off thanks to a well placed legal threat”. A creative work that you don’t happen to like isn’t just something to shrug at and pass by, it’s an abomination that must be killed off using whatever blunt instrument is available.

That thread linked indirectly to a comment that the great silent film Nosferatu was almost killed off thanks to copyright. Bram Stoker’s widow sued for infringement of the characters and plot of Dracula, and all German copies were destroyed; only differences in national copyright laws spared the foreign copies from which all current prints derive.

This example is surely enough to show why some of us are dismayed by the thought of destroying works of art for any reason; and why we should be almost as dismayed by the thought of creative works destroyed in vitro, where the chilling effects of copyright have steered writers, artists and musicians away from lines of thought that could have led to wonderful—but infringing, derivative, and illegal—work.

There are other ways to attack and marginalise a work of art. One is to deny that it’s art in the first place. At another of my online haunts, in a debate a few weeks ago about “supposed poetry” and “modern so-called art”, one commenter dismissed Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and other Young British Artists in the same breath as John Cage, presumably on the basis that anything conceptual rather than decorative isn’t art. Calling all modern art rubbish isn’t quite the same as wishing it out of existence, but it isn’t a world away. My response included these thoughts on Cage:

4’33” is inspired enough as a concept to count as art—and as a concept, it only works because he was the first to come up with it, but being the first makes all the difference—but what really makes it art is its effect in performance. Cage anticipated the incredible effect of four and a half minutes of silence in a room full of people expecting music, as powerful as the minute’s silence every November 11th, but for different reasons. The anticipation, the internal counting, the ambient sounds of breathing and coughing and page-turning, all make us think about music in a way that no other piece quite does: and although there might be questions about whether or not it’s music, it certainly qualifies as art.

(It would be pretty foolish to argue that 4’33”, at least, should never have seen the light of day, because there’s nothing to hide away. LA, LA, LA, I CAN’T HEAR YOU NOT PLAYING ANYTHING.)

I also wrote in that thread:

Even at the moment of its creation, some art is only intended to be meaningful to a minority. In the long run, most art is only meaningful to a minority, relative to all the people in every culture who’ve ever lived.

There’s an enormous gap between great art and non-art. In that gap lies most of the art ever attempted, including plenty of contentious modern art. Time helps us forget the average art of the past, including some that was once considered great and, unfortunately, some that we might consider great if only it hadn’t been discarded by its contemporaries. But when it comes to modern art, it’s still all around us, and we’re still figuring out its value—the same as Constable’s contemporaries once had to, when his work was “modern art”.

I’ve strayed a bit from where I started this post, but not too far: denying that a creative work is art (or even creative) seems as dogmatic and unjustifiable as insisting that the lead track off an album, of all tracks, should never have been released. It’s the lead track for a reason: it makes a statement that the band wanted us to hear, to pay our freshest and most immediate attention to, and who are we to deny them that, when so many are eager to listen? Just because we think it’s heavy-handed, or don’t like its decorative effect?

Maybe I’m just annoyed because I’m so aware at the moment how hard it is to create anything of lasting value—how much effort it can take, how many drafts, how fleeting a moment of inspiration—and how easily everyday life can get in the way. And you create it, and you overcome all the other obstacles to finding it an audience—copyright, publishing deals, competition for people’s attention, your own obscurity (or sometimes, paradoxically, celebrity)—and get it out there, and then someone says it should never have seen the light of day. And even if others shout them down, their words are the ones you’ll remember, because artists are nothing if not sensitive.

Or maybe I’m annoyed because (Godwin’s Law alert) I’ve been reminding myself of some all-too-effective art critics as background for something I wrote yesterday. Adolf Ziegler’s Reichskammer der bildenden Künste (Reich Chamber of Fine Arts) was one of the many delightful features of Nazi Germany, and its Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition in 1937 was the ultimate “Modern Art is Rubbish” statement. Their list of degenerate artists and movements includes almost everyone and thing that was any good about art in the preceding half-century. After rounding up thousands of works for public condemnation (and great interest—the exhibition drew over three times as many visitors as a Nazi-approved one held at the same time), they flogged what they could to international buyers and destroyed the rest. Two of the paintings they believed should never have seen the light of day—and which they ensured wouldn’t again—were by the artist I was researching in order to write a limerick about him, Otto Dix:

Herr Ziegler’s Reichskunstkammer hicks
Considered the work of Herr Dix
Insufficiently Nazi
(Degenerate art, see)
And burned it. Insufferable pricks.

Which pretty much sums up those who would destroy a work of art, a book, a song, a poem, and deny others the pleasure they find in it, simply because it didn’t please them. Arguing for destruction for rhetorical effect isn’t quite as insufferable, but in many people’s eyes it’s going to look a bit prickish.

As I wrote in my last post about Popular, I’ve been listening to some pretty awful old songs lately, which nevertheless were and are much-loved by somebody. While I might laugh at them, and might never want to hear them again, I’m not about to wish them out of existence. Criticize, by all means, and ignore, neglect, even condemn, but not destroy. Oblivion will come soon enough for all of it, good and bad alike, as the echoes diminish and diminish until nobody can hear them; but the law of entropy shouldn’t be read as diktat.

4 August 2010 · Music

What a fantastic analogy of the song. That stirring verse in the middle is so simple yet means so much to us the upbringers. I too grew up in a small (south african) town where life was about running free and experiencing life. With 2 daughters now I often sit and ponder why I have remained in this small town divorced from (but accessible to) life in an urban environment. Lots of my friends left to experience life in the city in countries around the world, but i remained with some attraction to small town/suburban life.This song indirectly answers it - and that is my subconscious desire for my own children to experience part of what I did growing up, and time is running out. fantastic.

The Suburbs is a great song that, coupled with the progression into "ready to start" starts us off on a true album journey. So many records these days are single orientated with no real structure or purpose. An album is not meant to be a collection of songs, it is meant to tell a story and the suburbs album does that better than most.

Thanks for the great read.

Added by Andrew on 8 September 2010.