Arcade Fire released a new single, but until writing this article I hadn’t listened to any of their music after The Suburbs. At their best, Arcade Fire’s songs were always underpinned by anxiety and loss, but rose above the pain to create an exultancy of standing under wide open skies with your loved ones, screaming at God. Their first three albums still slap. I can easily picture teenagers in the late 2020s getting nostalgic for the 2000s and yelling the chorus to ‘Wake Up’ together at a party. However, three albums of poignancy was kind of enough. Their sixth album We is better than the previous two, but still begs the question of why you would listen to it rather than just replaying Funeral.
Arcade Fire’s popularity came from speaking to feelings of alienation and outsiderness as felt, primarily, by a subset of white liberals. But when a band like this reaches a certain level of ubiquity, it becomes harder to collectively feel in response to their songs. Poignancy is by nature a short-lived emotion, a glimpse of something that is precious and bittersweet precisely because it’s fleeting. Without an expiry date, it calcifies into disappointment, resulting in lyrics like ‘we unsubscribe/fuck season five’ and grumbling in The Guardian that people not getting your jokes is Orwellian.
Arcade Fire came onto the indie scene around 2004 with a debut album recorded as they grieved for several dead family members. They arguably represented the rebels against irony that David Foster Wallace hoped for in his essay ‘E Unibus Pluram’—sincere people ‘who treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction [and] eschew self-consciousness and fatigue.’ As the Bush administration demanded ever-increasing levels of po-faced patriotism, cut arts funding and did their best to create a sense of cultural numbness, over-dramatically wearing your hearts on your sleeve the way Arcade Fire did felt like relief. It was permission to acknowledge that shit was fucked up and bullshit but at least we were here together, even if only for a moment.
Foster Wallace died in 2008, and did not get to see the cultural earnestness he’d hoped for curdle into a sickeningly-sweet establishment-friendly version of itself. Let’s call it Big Sincerity.
Big Sincerity perhaps best exemplified by Obama’s first election, which riffed off a version of hope that was easily converted into smug complacency once he was in office. As the racist backlash mounted and the Obama administration rapidly lost ground in Congress, it demanded loyalty from anyone to its left by characterising progressive criticisms as not only indecent but somehow punching down on #diversity. While Big Sincerity used smarm to attack its opponents, its core was about pretending that cultural artefacts became dominant by virtue of ‘being authentic’. Culturally, Big Sincerity was exemplified by the early-2010s ubiquity of Humans of New York and Upworthy, slam poetry on Youtube, Mike Schur shows like Parks and Recreation, and TED talks. Anyone feeling alienated by the sentimentality was a hater who wasn’t brave or principled enough to be openly vulnerable.
In the later 2010s to present, under both Trump and the pandemic, dominant Western culture became too angry for Big Sincerity and smarm to hold broad cultural appeal. The Right was celebrating oppression more blatantly than ever, while the internet had fully collapsed into a small handful of social media behemoths all designed to keep everyone constantly enraged. Even the rich and powerful—Elon Musk, J.K. Rowling, Graham Linehan, Chrissy Teigen, to name a few—embarrassed themselves through chronic, often furious posting, lessening the appeal of #OpeningUp when, as Ian Bogost put it, ‘people aren’t meant to talk this much’. We’s ‘Age of Anxiety I and II’ seem slightly out of place in what is arguably an Age of Anger.
At this stage of Arcade Fire’s career, it’s hard to detect any poignancy when listening to lyrics about being ‘beat down and broken’. After twenty years of his singing about ‘a lifetime of skinned knees’, I mostly wonder if fans should club together and buy Win Butler some long pants.
While I’m sure Arcade Fire sincerely means everything they’re saying, the vulnerability in their songs is starting to feel like a shortcut for substance. The title track of Everything Now (2017) is cheerful-sounding but then drops in a lyric about ‘Every time you smile it’s a fake’ for no evident reason. Rather than adding depth, the effect is as emotionally deflating as all the gritty dark reboots of Disney classics or The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
The other problem is that performative vulnerability is now a dominant cultural affect. As BD McClay wrote in 2019, sore winners abound among Marvel fans and filmmakers, pop stars, Silicon Valley technocrats and politicians, who—rather than openly enjoying their triumph—loudly proclaim to be the underdog. Celebrities post about socially acceptable mental illnesses like anxiety and depression, despite being insulated from precarity or stigma by their massive wealth. Mostly-white characters written by Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, Sally Rooney, Lena Dunham and more almost stubbornly refuse to surmount the stumbling blocks of adult life, in a way that is meant to be endearing and relatable. As Ayesha A Siddiqi wrote in her analysis of millennial culture, this is nothing more than ‘an aesthetic for white liberal evasion of responsibility and fetishization of an innocence they don’t have but want to claim.’
Performative vulnerability has gone beyond art and social media. Ads that announce ‘it’s okay if you’re just not feeling it’ to sell insurance or shoes. A widely-mocked CIA propaganda video featuring an employee invoking her ‘generalised anxiety disorder’. The richest man on the planet joining the conversation by talking about having Asperger’s, as though ‘missing social cues’ means anything when you can pay people to hang on your every word and have a legion of fanboys willing to have experimental devices implanted in their brains for you. None of this discourse results a boost in support for mentally ill or neurodivergent people. Tesla and other companies remain happy to traumatise their workers and then fire them for it, while the CIA continues its usual horrifying work.
We could call this phenomenon Big Vulnerability, something that presents itself as a safe zone for expressing pain but is a particularly perverse tool for keeping people miserable. As Win sings on ‘Unconditional I’, ‘it’s alright to be sad’, but it’s apparently less okay to want to get better. It’s doubly alienating to have such an image of vulnerability used by, as Siddiqi said, ‘relatively privileged people who could easily avoid the choices that are making their lives miserable, and usually hurting many others in the process.’
Rebelling Big Vulnerability, however, draws accusations of ableism or refusing to let people enjoy things. The pandemic in particular has allowed everyone to lay a claim to suffering at all times, regardless of how insulated they are from it by class. In this worldview, one mentally ill person (a wealthy celebrity) can have power exerted over them by a neurotypical mentally healthy person (a Twitter user with a GoFundMe). In the face of BLM riots and the Great Resignation, rich people are perhaps a bit more worried that the guillotine is coming, and are trying to make it gauche to attack to their wealth by posing as psychologically helpless.
One of the frustrating things about this trend is how it treats vulnerability as representing miserable emotions only. Hannah Gadsby’s sanctimonious show Nanette argued that comedy is nothing more than a shield to avoid processing one’s trauma. In Gadsby’s worldview, tragedy is more real than comedy, and thus a better, healthier, more authentic way of connecting with people. She’s far from the only one believing this—many of us think of deep-and-meaningfuls with friends as a chance to talk about their problems. Many of us mistake this for intimacy, building entire friendships on a litany of shared pain while forgetting to do anything fun together.
However, if the main landscape of our lives under Covid is a wasteland of misery, uncovering happiness and enjoyment is arguably deep and certainly meaningful. In some ways, making a joke is a vulnerable leap of faith—the rush when it succeeds is matched by how disheartening it is when the joke falls flat. Joy can be a site of vulnerability as well. Dominant society hates seeing trans women living their best lives, and any woman who has excitedly voiced her passions to a bored or jealous man knows the risks it carries. But if intimacy is built on shared vulnerability, this includes the risks of being openly happy and fulfilled. Treating insecurity and longing as more authentic than other emotions means giving in to the bleakness of capitalist realism. When I’m depressed, my brain tells me that this is real and my other emotions are fake, but as a friend once reminded me, my depression brain isn’t all that bright.
If Arcade Fire aren’t going to redistribute their wealth and prestige (beyond their current charity towards Haiti) I wish they would enjoy it, or at least stop writing angsty lyrics. While they’re hardly plutocrats, Win Butler and Régine Chassagne have a combined net worth of $13 million and are shareholders in Tidal. Of course, all forms of cultural rebellion become hollow once they’ve been commercialised. But the rich musician faux-rebellion of ‘Wahoo, I’m a big guy who loves fuckin’!’ is less grating than ‘I’m an anxious baby who doesn’t want to grow up’. At least the first lot is having some fun.
Overland’s Friday Features project is supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.