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Sprawl, Too: How Arcade Fire’s ‘The Suburbs’ Signaled a New Era of Indie Music

The Canadian indie-rock collective took home top honors at the Grammys for its 2010 album, but what did it entail for the band and the broader landscape?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On February 13, 2011, Barbra Streisand stood on stage at Staples Center in Los Angeles, ready to announce the winner for the Album of the Year category at the 53rd annual Grammys. Pulling the slip from the envelope, she announced Arcade Fire as the winner from a field that included Lady Antebellum, Eminem, Katy Perry, and Lady Gaga, seemingly utterly confused as she stammered through the first consonant of the word “suburbs.”

The Canadian indie-rock collective made their way to the stage; vocalist Win Butler’s first words as the band accepted the award were “What the hell?,” seemingly as caught off guard as the audience watching at home, many of whom were hearing the name Arcade Fire for the first time. He went on to thank the city of Montreal and the band members’ families, adding a “holy shit,” before saying, “We’re going to go play another song because we like music.” The then-septet kicked into “Ready to Start,” the second track off of their third album, The Suburbs, which turned 10 on Sunday.

At the time, the win felt unlikely: Indie rock artists seldom gained recognition at the Grammys, let alone the Album of the Year category. Taylor Swift, U2, and the Dixie Chicks all won the award in the decade leading up to the Arcade Fire’s victory, so when a band more popular on blogs than on the radio won Album of the Year, many took to the internet to express their confusion. A Tumblr blog titled “Who is Arcade Fire??!!?” surfaced. Rosie O’Donnell tweeted that she had never heard of them (though she knows who they are now). Kathie Lee and Hoda merely shrugged at the mention of Arcade Fire’s name. But while this discourse about the band was transpiring, The Suburbs climbed from no. 52 to no. 12 on the Billboard 200 two weeks following the ceremony. Alongside this sudden attention, Arcade Fire simultaneously sparked confusion and experienced commercial success. And the increased exposure marked an inflection point not only for Arcade Fire, but the changing landscapes of both indie music and the Grammys ceremony.

“Some people still equate Grammys with ‘good’ or ‘valuable,’” Eric Eidelstein, author of the 33 1/3 book on The Suburbs, says. “It’s good when people are honored for their work and their artistry. It’s not just the same commercial outputs winning everything.”

Arcade Fire’s victory was the big bang for other similar victories at the ceremony. The following year, the Wisconsin-based indie outfit Bon Iver took home Best New Artist. Indie-pop songwriter Gotye won Record of the Year for that one song in 2013 before vanishing into obscurity once again. Alternative polymath Beck won Album of the Year in 2015 for the folk-influenced, earnest Morning Phase. The Black Keys, despite not winning many of the Grammys’ biggest awards, have made countless appearances at the ceremony from 2010 onward. These wins signified a larger cultural shift: In many ways, indie music had become mainstream.

That’s partially due to the fact that indie music was selling incredibly well in 2010. Both Vampire Weekend’s sophomore effort Contra and Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs debuted at no. 1 on Billboard. The genre had also reached an artistic zenith; Sufjan Stevens’s sprawling The Age of Adz, Deerhunter’s psychedelic and hazy Halcyon Digest, and Beach House’s majestic Teen Dream were all released that year. Indie music had more cultural cachet than ever: LCD Soundsystem’s famous “farewell” show at Madison Square Garden in April 2011—which followed their 2010 album, This Is Happening—signified the genre’s import, particularly for that era of artists.

The band’s win helped pave a path to the current zeitgeist, even in pop music. A decade ago, it was doubtful to think that an artist like Billie Eilish could have swept the Grammys, although that’s exactly what the young songwriter did this year, taking home the prizes for Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best New Artist, among other categories. An indie band with more than four members won Album of the Year in 2011, and that moment cemented what could be Grammy-worthy and popular.

“Weird and different is suddenly mainstream,” Eidelstein says. “People are into concept albums, and people are into thinking about music even on a very base level. I’m not saying that Arcade Fire did that for everyone, but it just seems like a turning point.”

Indie music had certainly undergone a change of sorts. Even the “indie” moniker at this point seemed contradictory. Bands once known as “indie” in the mid-aughts, such as Interpol and Bloc Party, were now signing to major labels. Death Cab for Cutie made the move from the Seattle-based Barsuk Records to Atlantic. The Shins subsequently moved from Sub Pop to Columbia. Arcade Fire went from Merge Records to Columbia.

It’s no coincidence that artists such as LCD Soundsystem, Vampire Weekend, Bon Iver, Arctic Monkeys, and, of course, Arcade Fire, were listed as some of the biggest names on the biggest festival bills in recent years. Just one album cycle after The Suburbs, Arcade Fire were selling out notably larger venues when they toured in support of their 2013 record, Reflektor. “They had three nights at Barclays [Center], and they were all sold out,” Eidelstein says. “It’s hard to think that the Grammy win wasn’t part of that.”

With bigger sounds came bigger rooms. Indie music in the early 2010s had moved from its post-punk ethos to embrace synthesizers, drum machines, and pop-centric sensibilities. Bands such as Phoenix, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Vampire Weekend began relinquishing their rigid grips on their guitars to yield more synthetic approaches. What emerged was a blend of the two styles, a by-product rooted in a rock essence that didn’t shy away from traditional features of dance music.

Take a song such as the penultimate “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” an arena-sized indie-pop song replete with glittering synthesizers, a four-on-the-floor percussive backdrop, and an infectious hook. This wasn’t the same Arcade Fire fans were familiar with from 2004’s Funeral or 2007’s Neon Bible, a band who crafted guitar-led rock songs with very few dance elements in sight. This was an Arcade Fire that you can dance to. During this era, their concerts evolved into more eventful, theatrical productions. The lighting was flashier, the stage production was more elaborate, and the venues were larger. The band took the stage at Madison Square Garden for the first time while touring The Suburbs. Emily Mackay, who reviewed the album for NME, giving it 4.5 stars out of 5, describes Arcade Fire as “the perfect live band at that point.”

“It was so exhilarating to watch them at festivals,” Mackay says. “I think when people get to that point and they nail it, it’s so satisfying because it’s so easy to get to that point and completely fluff it. It takes some nerve to get that balance where you’ve got one foot in the indie world and one foot on the Bono [of U2] stage and make a really good record that doesn’t betray what you are.”

The songs on The Suburbs sound as though Arcade Fire were confident they would soon perform them in arenas, rather than the smaller venues and ballrooms they had become accustomed to. With the massive choruses of songs like the ones on “Half Light II (No Celebration),” “Ready to Start,” and “Rococo,” these songs were written to reverberate in large settings and take up as much space as possible. They aren’t domineering or ostentatious; rather, they showcase Arcade Fire in an even more grandiose light. The Suburbs highlights the indie rockers at their most resplendent.

“I remember being so grateful that they came out with that record that seemed like, ‘Hello! We would like to play in stadiums now,’” Mackay says. “At the time, summer festivals got to a stage where it was the same bands headlining all the time, like Foo Fighters, Blink-182, Muse, or the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and they just seemed to rotate. It seemed like there wasn’t a next generation of bands that was stepping up to the point where they could headline and sell the number of tickets required. Then it seemed that they were going to be that band.”

The Suburbs also marked the beginning of Arcade Fire’s foray into multimedia endeavors. The music video for “We Used to Wait” used the then-new map-tracking technology to lend a more personal note, asking the viewer to enter the address of the home in which they grew up. The indie-rock collective also collaborated with filmmaker Spike Jonze, which resulted in the short film Scenes From the Suburbs.

“The visual component is very striking to me,” Eidelstein says. “It felt like they were really playing with multimedia for the first time in a way I think they [hadn’t] yet. I was in awe of that record feeling like it was a larger project, and there was this Jonze film.”

Over roughly 30 minutes of footage, five suburban teenagers ride bikes throughout their neighborhoods, talk about sex, and attend house parties, all while a steadily burgeoning police-military force occupies their small town. It’s a poignant exploration of loss of innocence, war, nostalgia, youth, and friendship. Win Butler and former member Sarah Neufeld make cameos.

Similar to that film, The Suburbs as a whole feels like some of Arcade Fire’s most personal work. Whereas Neon Bible was a critique of modernism, technology, and religious hypocrisy, The Suburbs is a rumination on Win and Will Butler’s experiences growing up in the Woodlands, a suburb of Houston. Although the album isn’t without its moments of corporate and technological finger-wagging (“Modern Man,” “Deep Blue”), Win Butler, Régine Chassagne, and Co. spend most of the album’s 64-minute running time reflecting on the deeply personal narratives of their youth. Despite its sonic size, The Suburbs emphasizes individual storytelling.

“Those songs just carry so much weight and memory,” Eidelstein says. “It’s that intimacy for me that really distinguishes it.”

Leah Greenblatt, who reviewed The Suburbs with an A rating for Entertainment Weekly, says that this sense of earnestness and nostalgia has helped the album hold up well a decade later.

“At the time that Arcade Fire started, there was a lot of ironic remove and winkiness happening in indie rock,” Greenblatt says. “At that point, I felt like it wasn’t super cool to be that ambitious and that earnest, and I think that has aged well for them because sincerity usually does in a way that irony doesn’t.”

“Wasted Hours” tells a story of longing for meaningless time spent doing nothing: “Wasted hours before we knew / Where to go and what to do,” Win Butler croons in the song’s chorus. “Now our lives are changing fast / Hope that something pure can last,” he laments in “We Used to Wait.” The Suburbs ultimately centers on looking at youth with nostalgic hindsight, and how those “wasted hours” are sorely missed when “our lives are changing fast.”

“It leads you back to this moment where you’re looking at your hopes and dreams of 10 years ago and your innocence,” Greenblatt says. “They were singing about what it means to be young in 2010.”

But these songs are not merely tales of innocence, as the suburbs are not a purely innocent location. They are intrinsically nefarious, as their inception was the direct product of white flight and redlining. In “Suburban War,” Win Butler confronts some of those ideas head on, signing, “This town’s so strange they built it to change / And while we sleep we know the streets get rearranged.” It’s a subtle reference to perpetual construction and gentrification and the suburbs’ role in that. “They build it up just to burn it back down,” Butler’s voice wavers in “Rococo.” In the potent final stanza of “Sprawl I (Flatland),” the frontman sulks: “The last defender of the sprawl / Said, ‘Well, where do you kids live?’ / Well, sir, if you only knew what the answer’s worth / I’ve been searching every corner of the Earth.”

In a July 2010 interview with NME, Win Butler described the album as “neither a love letter to, nor an indictment of, the suburbs—it’s a letter from the suburbs.” Arcade Fire present the suburban upbringing as a multidimensional experience. The suburbs are not purely rosy, but the Butler brothers still have fond memories of them. It’s where they grew up. It’s their home.

The perfect encapsulation of this can be found in the third track, “Modern Man.” Although it scarcely touches on the suburban experience, its steady 4/4 time signature is occasionally interrupted by a measure of 5/4. This turns a relatively straightforward rock song into something tripping over itself, something slightly uneasy. The suburbs, on a superficial level, appear safe and welcoming to all, but on a deeper inspection, they possess myriad disquieting traits.

The Suburbs also remains the centerpiece of the band’s discography and history. Before 2010, Arcade Fire were an established cult favorite, known for their emotional reminiscing on Funeral and their political, technological cynicism on Neon Bible. Their songs were anthemic but never pretentious, and their music had an unpolished production to it that lent it some of its charm. The Suburbs kept their exceptional songwriting intact while expanding upon it with glossier production and grander ideas, a bigger-budget mentality that would go on to pervade their next two records. They demonstrate how they grew as songwriters with the piano-led shuffle of the title track, the unabashed, emo-esque “Empty Room,” and the evocative ballad “We Used to Wait.” The Suburbs ushered in a new era of Arcade Fire.

“They were aiming to make a real start-to-finish album,” Greenblatt says. “It seemed like they put a lot of care into the track sequencing, instrumentation, and epicness of it.”

They followed The Suburbs with 2013’s Reflektor, a double album featuring collaborations with David Bowie and LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy and a wealth of songs running over six minutes. The band returned in 2017 with the polarizing Everything Now, which relied far too heavily on gimmicks, such as a $109 fidget spinner, a fictitious corporation, and a clunky social media campaign, instead of compelling songwriting. Though both of these albums reached dramatically different consensuses among fans and critics alike, these records share one trait: The album cycles were events. Both of those tours featured coordinated outfits (they asked fans to dress up too for the Reflektor tour), cryptic promotion, and gimmicks. Reflektor saw the band introduced as the Reflektors, in lieu of Arcade Fire, on The Colbert Report. For Everything Now they created a parody website, Stereoyum, and they reviewed their own album in a “Premature Premature Evaluation”—a play off of one Stereogum’s signature columns—as well as a handful of secret Twitter accounts.

“The launches for their albums have become more flamboyant and more of an ordeal,” Eidelstein says. “Maybe The Suburbs is a launching point of that Arcade Fire I think of now.”

Arcade Fire was becoming part of a new era of indie music that was about more than just four-piece, guitar-led bands. Artists such as the XX, Dirty Projectors, LCD Soundsystem, and Panda Bear were part of a movement that widened the scope of what indie music meant. It could be something colossal, danceable, and unafraid of risks. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon abandoned his folk-influenced origins to embrace ambient synthscapes. Vampire Weekend expanded their sonic palette to incorporate drum machines and vocal samples. Tame Impala eventually swapped psych-rock for pop beats. The National’s Aaron Dessner recently worked with Taylor Swift to create her latest record, Folklore (as did Vernon). Arcade Fire and their famous Grammy upset played a role in that cultural development toward a commercial acceptance of indie music.

“There’s a reason these guys won the Grammy for best album,” Eidelstein says. “I know people were like, ‘Who the fuck is Arcade Fire?,’ but I’m sure they listened to Arcade Fire after that, realizing you don’t have to just listen to the outputs of Billboard’s Top 10. And as a result of doing that, they become Billboard Top 10s. I think indie music in all its forms is being taken seriously not just by critics anymore.”

In an interview shortly after the event, Win Butler said he believed the band won the award because they were going up against some of the larger names in music. “People love underdog movies,” he said, but Arcade Fire are no longer the underdogs. That transition to a big name started with The Suburbs’ win at the Grammys.

Grant Sharples is a writer based in Kansas City. He has written for MTV News, Consequence of Sound, Paste, and others.