What Arcade Fire Can Teach Us About Text Painting

This weekend at Lakeshore Community Church we are performing Modern Man by Arcade Fire. Initially I chose this song for the service because the text so clearly depicts a generation struggling to find purpose and direction (check out the review of their album Suburbs, which includes Modern Man, in Relevant Magazine), and the service has to do with commitment and maturity and the link between them.

Here are some of the lyrics:

So I wait in line, I’m a modern man
And the people behind me, they don’t understand
Makes me feel like
Something don’t feel right

Like a record that’s skipping, I’m a modern man
And the clock keeps ticking, I’m a modern man
Makes me feel like
Makes me feel like

And later in the song:

If it’s so right
Then how come you can’t sleep at night
In line for a number but you don’t understand
Like a modern man

Arcade Fire paints a picture of a world where we are going through the motions without knowing why, a world where a generation is lining up behind the previous generation in lock step without any real purpose. Here “modern” becomes more than just a moniker for today; “modern” also defines the current generation – modernity – and the upcoming generation – postmodernity. Everyone in the “postmodern” culture is in danger of simply walking in the footsteps of the “modern” culture without a thought as to why. Every generation through the ages has been in danger of simply doing things “the way they have always been done” without properly questioning and, ultimately, owning ways of life as their own.

Beyond the brilliant poetry, however, is something which only the music can tell. Listening to the song for the first few times I was puzzled by the changes in meter until I started seeing the music itself through one particular line in the song:

Like a record that’s skipping

The entire song is a skipping record. Truly genius. Most of the public will never catch on, I am sure, because it is subtle. The vibe of the music itself, without this consideration, already paints a picture of a grayscale world going through the motions. With this detail, however, Arcade Fire puts themeselves into a higher level of songwriter, employing the time tested technique of text-painting.

During the Renaissance text painting most referred to madrigals, defined as part songs for several voices without instrumental accompaniment, especially English and Italian songs of the late 16th and early 17th centuries “in a free style strongly influenced by the text.” [Thank you, Mac dictionary.] Text painting in this context was blatant: trills for birds, ascending melodies for climbing images, “fa-la-la” sections for fun and “indescribable situations,” etc. Here is a link to the King’s Singers performing Now Is the Month of Maying, by Thomas Morley. Please forgive the atrocious outfits; these guys are the best. Great lyrics:

Each with his bonnie lass
Upon the greeney grass
Fa-la-la-la-la

Hmmmmm. Wonder what that is all about. Probably exactly what you’re thinking. Those salacious songwriters . . .

We digress. Arcade Fire is somewhat more subtle and turns text painting to a higher task of describing the transition from one generation to the next.

Enjoy. You just had a music history lesson. Hopefully you didn’t fall asleep.

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