If Arcade Fire was not a rock band but a graduating high school student, it would have been filed in the yearbook as Coolest, or maybe Throws The Best Parties. But not, given the unpredictable nature of the music business, Most Likely To Succeed. By winning the industry's highest honour – Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards – the Montreal septet showed that musical artistry still matters.
Album of the Year winners at the Grammys typically fall into two categories: mega-chart-toppers (think Alanis Morissette or OutKast) or veterans making a strong showing (Bob Dylan, Tony Bennett and, in a moment of weakness 10 years ago, Steely Dan).
Arcade Fire is neither. They have been together less than a decade. They signed to a small music label, and despite their early success, gaining the support of the rock pantheon – David Bowie, U2, Bruce Springsteen – they preserved their independence. They focused on the basics: the full-length album (instead of the cellphone ringtone); the craft of songwriting; the urgency of live performance (without the dance routines). At the same time, their more recent digital innovations, such as interactive online video (for their song We Used To Wait), have been unmatched.
Popular music will continue to have its necessary excesses; witness the duet at the Grammy showcase featuring a feathered, breast-plated Cee-Lo Green (inspired by an older showman, Elton John), singing (in its PG-rated version), the hit Forget You, backed by a slinky actor, Gwyneth Paltrow, and a band made up of Muppets.
Arcade Fire, by contrast, makes their music epic without denuding it of meaning. While they will win new fans with this honour, they never needed the Grammys. The Grammys, by contrast, needed Arcade Fire. The band's victory showed that in a popular music world full of confection, saturated with visuals and expertly layered sounds, marketed to meaninglessness, there's still a human need for music that speaks to the heart.
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