"I don't wanna live in my father's house no more."
— Arcade Fire, "Windowsill"
For argument's sake, let's call Arcade Fire "the greatest Canadian rock band/act of all time."
Many rock fans will object, and with great conviction. They'll rebut with the unquestionably great Neil Young. They'll point to the FM-fueled heyday of Bachman-Turner Overdrive. They'll sing the usual percussion-nerd praises of Neil Peart and remind you that Rush had 14 platinum records (which is astounding, given that most Rush music feels like soundtrack run-off from an '80s soft-porn women-in-prison flick).
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If they're from Canada or Minnesota, they'll wax rhapsodic about the essential "Canadian-ness" of The Tragically Hip. They might even invoke names like The Barenaked Ladies, Bryan Adams, and Nickelback, though it seems unlikely that any emotionally stable human being would do so.
Finally, if they're territorial, they might point out that Arcade Fire lyricist and main mullah Win Butler is from Texas, casting the band's very Canadian provenance into doubt.
And they wouldn't necessarily be wrong. On any point. After all, greatness is a hard thing to quantify. But it's also true that the Montreal-based art-rock collective has done something that few if any of their maple-leaf-canonizing countrymen have done before them: made the Canadian experience seem exciting and revolutionary. And that constitutes an unbeatable case for greatness.
It's said that Canadians hail from a sensible, polite, and compliant culture, which possibly explains why they're not as good at manufacturing incendiary, groundbreaking rock acts as they are, say, Saturday Night Live cast members or sappy singer-songwriters like Gordon Lightfoot and Sarah McLachlan. Until Rush broke out in the mid-1970s, Canadians themselves had little interest in Canadian popular music — a cultural imbalance that government officials attempted to redress with state-mandated Canadian music quotas on the radio. Shrewdly, the radio stations bundled up the quotas into blocks of non-peak programming that Canadians derisively dubbed "Beaver Hours." (The North American Beaver is Canada's national animal.)
That's funny, right? Sure it is. But it's sad, also. Countless cultural critics — respected and otherwise — have observed a "national inferiority complex" in Canada, often expressed as self-mockery or disproportional sensitivity to perceived American slights. Similar to the "cultural cringe" described by Australian social critic A.A. Phillips in the 1950s, the phenomenon shapes the host's national identity by defining what they're "not" instead of what they "are."
In the case of Canada: not excessive, not independent, not combative, not American.
Employing the useful and undisprovable tools of Freudian pop psychology, one is tempted to speculate where this Canadian tradition of self-reproach originates.
How about this: Unlike its bigger, sexier, more successful sibling America, Canada never had that defining moment of self-definition and separation. Instead of shrugging off its overbearing colonial mommy-entity, the commonwealth nation played the proverbial co-dependent middle child, content never to leave Mum's basement. In lieu of swagger, she has a really wonderful, self-effacing sense of humor. In lieu of Nirvana, she has Mike Myers.
Yeah, this Canada-as-middle-child metaphor is a little pat, but it's completely appropriate under the circumstances, because it's so very much Arcade Fire's style. The band's exalting debut album, Funeral (2004), is chockablock with jaggedly nostalgic references to "parents' bedrooms" and lost siblings and failed community. More pointedly, on the song "Windowsill" from the band's sensationally anguished follow-up album, Neon Bible (2007), Butler describes a rising tide that he views ruefully from the vantage of his childhood home. "I don't wanna live in my father's house no more," he wails over and over, before angrily shrugging off the metaphor: "I don't wanna live in America no more."
And there you have it: In one lyric, Butler gives voice to two centuries of Canadian cultural angst, sublimating his own shattered national identity into fiery post-American art rock. It's very much the sentiment of a young ex-Mormon apostate reveling in his newfound Canadian-ness. (Or Quebecois-ness — it's always made sense that Butler immigrated to Canada's most fractious, feistiest province.)
In his review of Funeral, Allmusic reviewer James Christopher Monger praised the album for its "element of real danger," and isn't that what sets Arcade Fire apart from virtually every other commercially noteworthy Canadian rock act? Canadians excel at melancholy — it drips lavishly from Celine Dion and Sarah McLachlan records and is the aesthetic propellant favored by their most celebrated filmmakers, from Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter) to Sarah Polley (Away from Her). And they also know to be funny — who didn't crack a smile the first time they heard BNL's "One Week?" But when have their musicians ever marched into disputed territory and really swung for the chin? That's — gasp! — American behavior. Until Arcade Fire did it.
What does this have to do with the band's comparative Canadian greatness? Well, everything. Their rebellious convictions and core message of collective well-being are the twin root sources of everything else we love about them — the expansive songwriting, the feverish stage energy, the full-release anthemic moments that allow them to miraculously walk the line between indie and arena rock. It's the reason "Wake Up" can serve as musical bait in the trailer for Spike Jonze's artsy Where the Wild Things Are and also as the unofficial Friday-morning sing-along bumper music for radio sports-talk guy Dan Patrick, which is embarrassingly corny but also quite awesome.
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Of course, Neil Young is a fighter and revolutionary, too. He loves throwing punches so much that American good ol' boys Lynyrd Skynyrd famously punched back on "Sweet Home Alabama." But Young is a "Canadian musician" only in the most literal sense. Since founding Buffalo Springfield in mid-1960s California, Young has always written and performed in the American idiom — as an American, for Americans, usually in the guise of a hippie-cowboy wanderer. He lives in California, and his social activism is chiefly targeted on our soil. These facts don't exclude him from the greatest-ever-Canadian-rocker debate, but I feel they give Arcade Fire that all-important "leg up."
In terms of intrinsic Canadian-ness, one could make a much better case for The Tragically Hip, a blues-tinged alt-rock band from Ontario that has enjoyed tremendous commercial success in Canada yet is largely unknown in the States. I think this fact is reassuring to Canadians on some level. It proves that Canada can anoint rock stars independently and support a band that appeals specifically — maybe even exclusively — to Canadians. It's also likely that Canadians feel reinforced by "The Hip," whose sardonic, observant style (they sound like an earthier R.E.M.) seems to reflect the idealized Canadian national self-image. But is that a good thing, in the calculus of greatness? Bruce Springsteen is unquestionably a titan of American rock, and one who reinforces a specifically American masculinity. But is he a chain-mover? Like The Tragically Hip, he's more of a placeholder.
No one can say that about Arcade Fire, even if their latest and current album, The Suburbs, at times feels stultified by nostalgia. They're still a gleaming emblem of ambition and visionary discontent in the land of Alanis and well-funded social services, and clear successors to U2 as carriers of the global superstar/crusader mantle.
As a certain Canadian rock pioneer once put it: "You ain't seen nothin' yet."