Earlier this year, Arcade Fire won Best Album at the Grammys. That album, The Suburbs, was a number one hit on the Billboard charts, with the band playing major venues like Madison Square Garden and headlining summer festivals alongside Lady Gaga and Soundgarden. Still, their acceptance into a larger mainstream ruffled many feathers, people perturbed at an “unknown” band winning such an important prize. The reactions, cataloged on a Tumblr, Who is Arcade Fire?, show a general populace angry and annoyed at the underground coup, unwilling to relinquish a prize whose main purpose, stated or otherwise, is mostly to confirm major stardom. With bands like The National, Vampire Weekend and Arcade Fire all having chart success, the emergence of a strong independent force in music sales is unquestionable. But in terms of popularity, unquestionably, there is a divide and a bias. Maybe that’s fair—Arcade Fire certainly lack the decadence of Lady Gaga or the entertaining gossip life of Kanye West—but clearly the walls of the split are crumbling.
In the UK, one of the major music prizes is the Mercury Prize, awarded to one single album out of a large pool of nominees. The most recent winner was The XX, another independent group, for the debut record. But this surprised no one, as that record was a strong force in British music, young kids hitting a synthesis of rock and dance that England feeds on. Across the Atlantic, Fucked Up were the big winners of Canada’s analogous Polaris Prize in 2009. A punk rock band from Toronto, they certainly live far from the mainstream in terms of both sales and visibility. But was their win really a confirmation of their musical superiority? After all, their singer, Pink Eyes, is an enormous man who is always shirtless at shows, who always beats himself in the forehead with a microphone until he bleeds. He’s had a stint as a talking head on Fox News. He is, quite literally, an outsize personality, and, unknown or otherwise, the public loves a spectacle.
This year, Arcade Fire are nominated for the prize and surely are favorites to win. Neil Young is the prize’s other big name, with some mid-size acts like Destroyer and Stars mixed in. This being the long list, there are a few long shot groups like Braids and Young Galaxy, bands loved by blogs and sometimes critics who slog through SXSW, log their vans with many miles. Curiously, though, Toronto’s The Weeknd is also nominated, for his mixtape, House of Balloons. Undoubtedly on his way to a greater popularity, the R&B singer’s mixtape is a great, adventurous, if not somewhat uneven release, with many meandering moments and some great ones too buried. Which is exactly what a first release should be. The mixtape was released online only, nonchalantly uploaded to file sharing services with no press push and a dearth of information. All of the attention stirred has been based solely on promise out of the gate. The Weeknd may plausibly some day reign as mainstream king, but that enormity is still many moons away, the way he clearly wants it. So why nominate House of Balloons? Surely it’s received more love than, say, fellow nominee Doug Paisley’s gorgeous folk album, but that’s a complete thought, presented as such. House of Balloons is only an inkling. So what does it mean that it was nominated for a nation’s prize? Has the mainstream dipped so far below the surface that there is no distinction? Or are the decision makers simply doing better, dirtier work? Or worse—should they continue to anoint already chosen kings and let the business of the underground continue unmolested? As frustrated fans bemoaning the unknown Arcade Fire’s Grammy win know, the given of rewarding stardom is clearly eroding. And, conjointly, so is stardom itself.