The trek from my house to Munster Park was a short one.
Okay, the word ‘park’ might be a bit of a stretch. Really, it was just a glorified field of grass with a faded signpost and a deteriorating basketball hoop. But it was convenient, so it was where my friends and I met almost every day after middle school to play pickup football.
Time after time, I made the journey to Munster with the melancholic tones of Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” jangling out of the iPhone in my pocket.
“The Suburbs,” which won the 2010 Grammy for Album of the Year, is a 16-song epic that both romances and transcends the infamous boredom of its titular location. For an introverted teenager still searching for purpose, it was gospel.
I often came home from Munster caked in sweat and grime and ran upstairs to my desk drawer. There, I kept a blue notebook stuffed with self-composed scraps of poetry and quotes that helped inspire those poems. A good portion of that notebook quickly filled up with Arcade Fire lyrics, written sideways along the margins of the pages.
That’s how lead singer Win Butler became my favorite poet. He still is, even after three years as a college English major.
I never expected that I would soon have reservations about listening to a band so important to my identity.
On Aug. 27, Pitchfork published a report detailing accusations of sexual misconduct against Butler, three days before Arcade Fire was set to begin a 35-date world tour. Three women detailed sexual interactions that included age and power gaps, and a fourth person alleged two instances of actual assault.
Butler maintains that all the interactions were consensual and that his wife, bandmate Regine Chassagne, was already aware of them. So at worst, Butler is a criminal; at best he’s just kind of a creep.
Singer-songwriter Feist, slated to be Arcade Fire’s opening act in Europe, dropped out of the tour. Beck followed suit just days before the U.S. tour in October.
Rock and roll and sexual misconduct have always been bedfellows, and accusations more serious than the ones against Butler exist. Rumors have long circulated about members of Led Zeppelin sexually assaulting an underage groupie using a dead mud shark. In 2017, multiple women accused Brand New frontman Jesse Lacey of sexual assault.
But at the risk of sounding crude, a glance at the lyrics to “Black Dog” make it predictable that Led Zeppelin would be more than a bit promiscuous. Brand New’s song “Me vs. Maradona vs. Elvis” was nicknamed the “date rape song” even before Lacey’s crimes were revealed.
Butler, though, had a public persona that meshed with his virtuous lyrics. The band consistently uses its platform to combat poverty in Haiti, and Butler was (in)famously cut off by reporters while trying to promote free healthcare in the U.S. during his speech accepting the NBA Celebrity All-Star Game MVP trophy.
Thus, the shock value in the Butler allegations comes not in their severity — though they are serious — but in the earnestness associated with Arcade Fire. The band’s entire discography revolves around clinging to innocence and morality in a cruel world. It’s a situation similar to Morrisey’s, whose fascist politics alienated listeners attracted to his emotional sensitivity. The poet’s actions directly contradict their poetry.
So, what are we to do with Arcade Fire’s music now? Do Butler’s misdeeds render his poetry irrelevant?
On Nov. 4, I headed to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn seeking answers to those questions.
I bought my Arcade Fire concert tickets months before any information against Butler was released. In the weeks leading up to the show, disenchanted fans began selling their tickets in droves. Seats that once cost $150 were available for $25.
Though I never seriously considered not going to the show, I arrived at the Barclays Center with an uneasy blend of excitement and reluctance brewing in my stomach.
I strolled in to see opening act Boukman Eksperyans, who had replaced Beck at the last minute. Beck would have easily filled up the Barclays. Instead, the arena was quieter than I’d ever heard it. You’d find less empty seats at a New York Jets game in December.
Boukman Eksperyans, a Haitian band, is the sort of group that requires a large crowd to dance along and carry its energy. But with the few fans present spread out across the arena, most of us just sat with an awkward patience. Occasionally, the man a few rows in front of me would start bopping his head to the beat for a few seconds at a time, his leopard print coat sashaying absurdly.
A DJ set filled with distorted techno music only increased the awkwardness. Fans stood up and sat down, trying to let off some nervous energy. I began to question why I’d even come to the concert of a disgraced indie rock legend. Still, more and more people streamed into the arena.
At 9 p.m., a classical piano piece by George Gershwin began streaming over the speakers. Arcade Fire finally took the stage 15 minutes later. As always, they walked through the crowd to reach the stage, a tradition that once represented the emotional connection they share with their fans. This time, they were met with mild applause and stares of indifference.
It took just three songs for the tension to evaporate into passion. By the time the opening chords of “Neighborhood #3” struck, I felt like I was at the world’s biggest house party.
Butler jumped into the crowd and launched into the band’s hit “Afterlife.” Swarms of smiling fans circled around him like a regent. Concertgoers in the stands closed their eyes and danced like they were floating, careening into each other without even noticing.
The band could not have chosen a better song; the refrain of “When love is gone/Where does it go?” instantly explained how Arcade Fire had defied the odds and won over the Barclays Center. The love the crowd of 10,000 felt for Butler and his lyrics had to go somewhere after being displaced for months. It carried itself through the pulsing beat and assuredly reattached itself to the fans, forging a makeshift communal bond for that one night.
Maybe Butler could not live up to the lofty ideals of his poetry; maybe no artist can. But we sure as hell were not going to let him take his words away from us.
Multi-instrumentalist Regine Chassagne was easier to latch onto. Chassagne stole the show with her lead vocal turn on “Sprawl II,” a buoyant rallying cry against an industrialized society. The lights cut out at her command and she skipped around the arena, flailing her arms like an inflatable air dancer outside a car dealership
The show concluded with the band’s biggest singalong: “Wake Up,” taken from their 2004 debut album. As the song descended from its crescendo, Butler softly chanted the lyric that has served as Arcade Fire’s thesis statement for almost 20 years: “With my lightning bolts a-glowing/I can see where I am going.”
Ten thousand listeners shouted it back at him. It was one more reminder that fans can claim ownership of the art they love, even if Butler’s ‘lightning bolts’ are not illuminating the right places.