During Sunday night’s Grammy Awards something strange happened – something other than Cee-Lo Green’s Elton John inspired performance with puppets including Gwyneth Paltrow. Even Barbra Streisand was shocked as she slowly opened an envelope and hesitantly stuttered out “The S-s-s-suburbs.” Arcade Fire had won Album of The Year against four albums that sold better and had more hit singles. The most accurate reaction to the whole thing was given by lead singer Win Butler as he leaned down to a microphone that was too short for him and sighed out “What the hell?” What the hell indeed.
This was an award that Arcade Fire had no business winning. Not because their album isn’t deserving or of an extremely high quality, it’s just that these have never been criteria for the Grammy’s before. Take 2001, when Eminem’s Marshall Matthers LP, Radiohead’s Kid A and Beck’s Midnight Vultures (three progressive, challenging and great albums) lost out to an unremarkable Steely Dan record.
This year looked as if popularity was going to win out over quality again. The safe money was on Eminem who had been snubbed for the big prize before but had received 13 Grammy awards over the course of his career and released the best selling album of 2010 with Recovery. Lady Antebellum, who had already won Song of the Year and Record of the Year earlier that evening, was an easy second choice. With a category filled out by Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, there was no expectation that the Arcade Fire would actually win the award, especially considering they had already lost Best Alternative Album to The Black Keys earlier that night.
But they did win and left people to consider what it meant, if anything at all. It is easy to be hyperbolic about it, saying that this is a victory for indie music and “the little guy.” But Arcade Fire is anything but the David in this fight. Earlier last year they sold out two consecutive nights at Madison Square Garden, making them the biggest indie band in the world. The Suburbs had even debuted at number one on the Billboard charts, temporarily displacing Eminem for a week before he regained the title. And of course you have to take into account the credibility of the Grammy Awards, which are basically the Golden Globes of music.
But rather than being jaded, there is something about the Arcade Fire’s victory that should be celebrated. This is a band that received little to no radio play throughout their career. Their label, Merge Records, is an independent that released Neutral Milk Hotel’s classic In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, among other left-field records. Although Arcade Fire is relatively well known, their music is far from popular fare, as shown by the reaction to their win. “Who is Arcade Fire?” became a popular topic on Twitter and Facebook as people couldn’t figure out why this band no one had heard just won Album of the Year. A few nights later, Arcade Fire accepted a Brit Award for Best International Album with Win Butler stating, “Hi, we are Arcade Fire […] check it out on Google.” The most compelling reason to be happy about the Arcade Fire gaining this recognition is that this band deserved to win. They won this award by releasing an album – not a compilation of singles or hits, but rather a cohesive collection of songs that plays as one unit.
In the end, this award will probably not change anything that drastically. Pop stars will still dominate the charts and the Grammy’s will still be a poor metric for quality over popularity. But at least for one night, an eight-piece band from Canada proved that quality and popular acclaim are not anathemas to one another.