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Culture Shock

Can We Ever Get Away From The Sprawl?

If you’ve been on any music news site recently, you’ve probably read that Arcade Fire is requiring that audience members wear formal attire to their arena shows. Since the announcement, there has been outrage from music media outlets and fans all across the world. If you’ve ever taken a History class at IU, in particular one taught by Michael McGerr, you know that all of our actions are political and with politics comes power. You could say instating a dress code at their shows is a political move on Arcade Fire’s part to prove that they have earned respect from their audience to dress formally at their shows. Or, maybe it’s a highbrow class divisional type play. Either way, Arcade Fire feels like they have earned the right to decide what their audience members wear to their shows. Though, I don’t agree with Arcade Fire’s political stance on formal dress (if you’ve seen how I dress myself, you’ll understand why), their political message in their song “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” is one, I think, we can all agree on.

In Arcade Fire’s concept album The Suburbs, the band concentrates on life in the suburbs and how it relates to the themes listed earlier. The song that will be the focal point of this essay is “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).” The song is a critique and a rejection of suburban expectations by youth. The performance is political in the sense that it’s the only song on the album sung by Chassagne, who is one of three women in the band, and is about fear of conformity.

“Sprawl II” builds on the music and themes of Jefferson Airplane because the song is a poke at the generational divide amongst adults and teens. “Sprawl II” and the Jefferson Airplane song, “We Can Be Together” both exemplify the conflict. For example, in “We Can Be Together,” members of Airplane sing, “We are forces of chaos and anarchy/Everything they say we are, we are.” This same pigeonholing that youth is trouble by adults was done in “Sprawl II” when Chassagne sings, “They heard me singing and they told me to stop/ quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock.” This shows the parallel between both the hippie movement and suburban teens. Both movements show that communities were being defined from these two musical numbers: the hippie movement in “We Can Be Together” and the artist outcast in “Sprawl II.” The song also critiques aspects of life in the suburbs.

“Sprawl II” is a song about suburban life being too conformist and consumerist. In the music video for the song, Chassagne’s face is the only one we can see. The rest of the people in the video have their faces covered with multi-colored masks. The only time we see these figures faces is when they are wearing oversized heads that have adult-like features. This gang of faceless creatures also moves in synchronized movements. This synchronization alludes to the fear that everyone from the suburbs is conforming or will become a conformist adult and will all turn out to be the same. This idea, again, alludes to the generational divide between parents and teens in the suburbs. Teens fear that they will grow up to be like their parents and “just punch the clock.” This shows that the lives of people in the suburbs are cyclical and predictable, hence conformist as well.

The song also critiques consumerism when Chassagne sings in the chorus, “Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains/ and there’s no end in sight.” By saying the shopping malls are “dead”, she suggests that they’re lifeless consumerist bodies, but they’re continuing to “rise” like zombies. Zombies are lifeless creatures that have been known to consume the brains of the living and she’s explaining that these malls are going to suck the life right out of people growing up in the suburbs. There’s also “no end in sight,” revealing that as long as we allow consumerism to be a part of us, then it will continue to be a factor in our lives. This fear of society being too conformist and consumerist also has to deal with the song’s political validity.

“Sprawl II” is political in the sense that it is the sole song on the album, The Suburbs, that Chassagne (a woman) is the lead vocalist. The song is about isolation and suburban sprawl, which could be viewed as more of a women’s topic. Throughout the song Chassagne is looking for a place where she can escape to that will accept her for her differences, which is similar to most women in popular music. Women have traditionally stayed at home, hence a song about escaping a suburban home being sung by a woman shows how women want to break free from a predetermined life. Though lifestyles have changed since suburbs started to emerge in the 1950’s, this conflict still persists.

The song is also political in the sense that it shows a fear of conformity amongst suburbanites. In the first few seconds of the music video, no music plays, but there are frames of a couple of houses. All of them are brick and look similar to each other, leading viewers to think about the message in Pete Seeger’s song “Little Boxes”, which critiques the identical Levitt Towns of the 1950’s. Though The Suburbs, is an album about the suburbs of Woodlands, Texas, and the Levitt Towns were constructed in Long Island, New York, this shows that this theme is pervasive throughout history and geographic location.

In conclusion, Chassagne forms an identity in “Sprawl II” of what she is not. She’s not a conformist, she’s not in favor of consumerism, and she is not going to fit into the suburbs. “Sprawl II” builds off of the genre of 80’s pop by using synthesizers and a lead female vocalist. The song deals with the issues of consumerism, conformity, and the generational divide between parents and teens by looking at the suburbs. The performance is political because it’s the only song on the album that is sung solely by Chassagne and deals with the fear of conformity. Overall, the message in “Sprawl II” is timeless. Every generation has songs that touch on the issues in this song. Though, songs like this aren’t as prevalent today, they still exist, and we should embrace them.


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