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Monday, February 14, 2011

Arcade Fire's Grammy Upset: Indie Kids Win the Big Award

Posted By on Mon, Feb 14, 2011 at 8:19 AM

click to enlarge arcade_fire_hipster_runoff_thumb_380x587.jpg

When Arcade Fire, led by gregarious frontman Win Butler, won Album Of The Year at the 53rd Grammys in an upset last night, it sparked a firestorm of online discussion and sent the indie community, led by tastemaker publication Pitchfork, into a virtual priapism


The Best Album Grammy usually either goes to huge, canonical albums, or to efforts by established mainstream industry vets. Before the big announcement, the group had just played the least accessible performance of the night, an epileptic rendition of "Month of May" with BMX bikers riding helmet cams around the stage. 

For all the plaudits in its three-album career, Arcade Fire is still "just" the world's most successful indie rock band.

Even after the awards are over, questions will persist: why not Eminem, still one of the top MCs in the game, and his front-running Recovery? Why not Lady Antebellum, who won five trophies last night? Why not critical/popular darling Lady Gaga? Most puzzling: how did Arcade Fire manage the top honor while losing lesser album and song awards to the Black Keys? We have to assume that the Academy heard a cohesive and heartfelt full-length, inspired by Win's upbringing in the outskirts of Houston, and made their call despite The Suburbs' relative lack of mainstream ubiquity.

For music nerds everywhere, the backstory is well-known: Arcade Fire spread quickly from unheard-of into dormrooms everywhere via a near-perfect 9.7 Pitchfork review for 2004 debut Funeral. Eventually, the band's ornate Springsteen/Byrne anthems proliferated further through the Internet and into the mainstream, but even today listeners pilfer cuts for mixtape-based recommendations. Arcade Fire's success points to how the fluidity of information positively impacts musicians' careers, despite the obvious royalty issues posed by illegal downloading. With their choice Sunday, the Academy acknowledged an Internet Age counterculture that, while dangerous to their bottom line, can unearth new sonic spectra. Only this time around, our Gen-Y counterculture isn't all "turn on, tune in, drop out," but rather "tune in, tune in, tune in."

Can more indie acts plow their way onstage to accept future unexpected Grammys? Maybe, but the Academy already provides for most up-and-comers with Alternative and New Artist awards. For what the Grammys are worth these days (to many: not much), the award culminates Arcade Fire's Information Age conquest, reaching this particular milestone as a band that launched and maintained its fame via Internet word-of-mouth and the hipster panache of its evangelists. Kudos to Merge Records, the still-indie label that the the band has stayed with since the beginning, and kudos to the Arcade Fire for being a great group of people making world-beating music of an independent spirit.

In true rock 'n' roll fashion, after winnings its award, the band got back up on stage for a more solid performance (the arresting "Ready to Start," which they really should have played before they knew they had won) rather than sending us home with a long acceptance speech. As a friend of mine commented, "There's a reason his name is Win."


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Mike Orme

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