Last Sunday at the 53rd Grammy Awards, Arcade Fire won the most important award of the night, Album of the Year, for “The Suburbs.” The award was nothing if not an upset; the band is signed to the independent label Merge, based in North Carolina. Despite debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard album charts, they’ve never had a song break into the Top 40. For the sake of comparison, two other contenders for the title, Lady Gaga and Eminem, have had eight and 25 Top 40 singles, respectively.
When I heard the news, I was elated. It wasn’t until the next day that I realized some people were offended. Some people had never heard of Arcade Fire. On Twitter, the majority consensus was obvious. Rosie O’Donnell summed it up best when she tweeted, “Album of the year? Ummm never heard of them ever.” By Monday, an entire Tumblr account had been created to document the mass outrage (whoisarcadefire.tumblr.com).
On a subconscious level, I was perhaps less stunned by Arcade Fire’s Grammy than I was by their seeming anonymity. Because Arcade Fire are a BIG DEAL in my life, I tend not to think of the fact that they are not objectively as famous as Lady Gaga. They’ve been a part of my life since I was 13 years old, when I discovered their debut “Funeral” and cried constant tears at their revelatory tales of loss. Think back to last fall, when “Where the Wild Things Are” came out. The movie’s marketing campaign focused on the closest thing Arcade Fire has to a hit, the beautifully lilting “Wake Up.” It seemed like the song was playing in every dorm room. It seemed like stories about the shambling group of Canadians were all over every blog that I read. By the time “The Suburbs” came out in August, Arcade Fire were the biggest celebrities in my world.
But that world is inherently limited. So much of listening to music is building a sonic wall around ourselves and our friends, because music is a profoundly social undertaking. In college, that world is much more limited because we spend time with people our own age, steeped in our own culture.
I had originally intended to write about how hard it is to keep up with music in college because we’re all so busy. But after Arcade Fire’s Grammy win, I realized that college students are more aware of music than other people are. I’ve heard of so many friends’ parents who followed music obsessively while they were in college and their twenties. But by the time they were having children, they stopped caring.
There’s something sacred and pure about the way we listen to music in college. In the real world, most people hear new music when they are listening to the radio in their cars. But this relationship is somewhat fake — people tend not to realize that the music that they hear is not necessarily the “best” but rather the result of the influence of record labels and radio conglomerates.
In college, party playlists and word of mouth have the most power over our iPods. We don’t drive and are too busy to stay glued to the TV, so traditional marketing doesn’t really work on us. We’re also less afraid of what we don’t know, and more willing to try something risky. Because of that, college students have long been seen as trendsetters.
That’s not to say that we don’t like pop music — far from it. We like the things that inspire us and make us happy. In some sense, we have a responsibility to keep new music on our party playlists. It’s our college taste and tendency to listen socially that keep an otherwise autocratic corporate world on its toes. The Internet masses may not approve, but we created Arcade Fire.