[This guest post is from David Maneke of Germany. He’s an Arcade Fire fan, obviously. – AC]
The story I´m about to tell is best introduced with a short flash-back to my first encounter with Arcade Fires’ then-new single, Everything now. In the first moment, hearing that Abba-like start, I thought, “Well okay, they go on where they ended with “Here Comes the Night Time“. I already liked that song, especially that poppy approach to music and because it pushed the boundaries of my idea of “alternative“ music, of which I considered Arcade Fire to be stereotypical
But then during the chorus, I started noticing that flute. At first, it was just one of many sounds, but it gets louder and louder and ends at the musical climax of the chorus. I knew it was a quotation, a friend of mine had shown it to me earlier when he was working in an archive for African music: it was Francis Bebey’s 1982 release “Coffee Cola Song.”
To me, that was very unexpected. Relying on my musical experience, I considered “Everything Now” to be a perfect pop song.
I loved it from the start because I thought that Arcade Fire would only master pop. But to be honest. deep inside I waited for the ironic fraction. I thought a lot about Arcade Fire and why the band didn´t seem to become somewhat anachronistic until now and I found an explanation: Arcade Fire is one of the few bands who really know how to play with their fans and audience. They seem to take the risk of being irritating to deliver their musical message. And to me, the message seemed to change with their 2013 song “Here Comes the Night Time.” Arcade Fire opened for a musical discussion about a non-temporal essence of pop music.
One cycle of works later, Arcade Fire introduced another pop anthem. But this time, they developed the message. It was no longer a debate about the musicality of pop itself, but it became a view on how things are developing in our society. For this, let´s have a closer look at the lyrics of Francis Bebey’s “Coffee Cola Song:”
They believe we are wild man, they believe we are wild
Just because we don’t use any money, and we drink no coffee cola
But if you could go and see how they live (ashamed ashamed)
Then, you discover how savage they are, so much wilder than we.
The message of Francis Bebey is clear and becomes even clearer considering the song was released when Francis Bebey had already spent many years living in France – a major colonial power back in the days, struggling with their left colonies after the second world war. They believe we are wild.
The song can be interpreted as a critique on eurocentric arrogance from a colonial point of view. Maybe you could call it post-colonial pop music (in case there´s any ethnologist out there reading this: I just made this up and I probably shouldn´t have done it. I´m not too familiar with the details of postcolonial studies since I majored in German aesthetics in the enlightenment). And the most prominent musical feature of the song is the “pygmy flute“, the hindewhu.
This is a flute that can only play one note, the rest is done with singing technique. Combining it with other instruments, as Francis Bebey did, is already an alienation of the instrument’s character – in its original Ba-Benzeme tradition the instrument is played solo. Combining it with stereotypical western pop music is not just an alienation – that´s an almost cynical comment on musical tradition. You can also see that it´s a calculated comment from the band: to play the flute, they hired Patrick Bebey, the son of Francis Bebey.
Let´s now take a look on the lyrics of “Everything Now.” Turns out there is an arc of suspense in the lyrics, starting from stating that everything is available now, culminating in the phrase “Til every room in my house is filled with shit I couldn´t live without.” The lyrics sum up how the sheer mass of things available through the world wide web affects our way of living – from “too much to know“ (every inch of space in your head, is filled up with the things that you read) to “too much to want“ – the permanent availability of everything alienates us from any reasonable way of living. The lyrics of Everything now are a critical comment on the state of an alienated society.
So, what makes “Everything Now” a masterpiece of intellectual pop music? It´s the many fractions in it. On the one hand, there is the musical arrangement of the song as an easy-to-listen-to pop song which is contrasted by the pygmy flute.
On the other hand, there is the gap between music and lyrics – such critical lyrics just do not fit such a pop sound, for the lyrics are criticizing everything that too many pop songs want us to believe: that the idea of materialism itself is the highest we can reach. And in the end, it’s just another fraction: even without thinking a bit on the text,
“Everything Now” is just a great pop song.