If the band Spoon can be trusted, then Billboard is about to announce (and here we are!) that the Arcade Fire and their label, Merge, have the #1 record in the country. (They’ve already done it in the UK.) The Suburbs sold 156,000 copies its first week out, better than M.I.A. (28K), The National (51K), and LCD Soundsystem (31K) combined, and a mere 20,000 less than no less a platinum gold certified artist than Rick Ross, whose Teflon Don shipped 176,000 copies when it debuted a few weeks back. With both Merge’s and the band’s first #1, the Arcade Fire will join a cadre of indie-oriented artists–LCD, Vampire Weekend, Spoon, MGMT, The National, M.I.A–in having records that cracked the national top ten. A few weeks ago J. Edward Keyes argued that the Arcade Fire “have become indie rock’s last great hope of finally expanding outside the boho bar scene and into something like normal middle America.” So have we made it or what?
By 2010 standards, a 156K bow is pretty good. This year, whole weeks have gone by without the Billboard #1 cracking the 100K Mendoza Line. With the exception of a few artists–Drake (462K), Eminem (741K), Sade (502K)–most artists slide into the number #1 slot with sales somewhere between 100K and 200K. 31K was good enough to put LCD Soundsystem’s This Is Happening in the top ten. In addition to outselling most of their indie brethren, the Arcade Fire seem to have topped debuts by Godsmack, B.o.B., The-Dream, and Ke$ha, among other more conventionally mainstream candidates. From this, we can draw some lessons. Is The Suburbs the exception or the rule? Well, let’s look at the rules:
Nobody Sells Records Anymore. Everybody knows this. It’s been the subject of much sadness and self-recrimination. Sleigh Bells sold 12,000 copies of Treats and shot all the way up to #39; MGMT hit #2 by selling only 66,000 copies of Congratulations. If you can manage to wrestle the zeitgeist to the ground on a slowish week (Vampire Weekend, ahem), you probably can have a #1 record, just by default.
It Helps to Be a Rapper or R&B Singer. For all agita that occurs when Jadakiss bricks, rappers are steady national presences on the Billboard charts. Drake and Eminem are two of only a handful of artists this year to go platinum. Sade sold 502K in one week. Even a record as ill conceived of as Lil Wayne’s Rebirth had a #2 debut. Hell, B.o.B.–a lightweight artist if there ever was one–went to #1 in 2010. The Nah Right salt mines continue to run 24 hours a day, but rap fans tend to actually buy CDs. Arcade Fire was going up against an Eminem album that’s already been out for a while. That’s about it. (Sorry Bun B.)
Perhaps You Can Find an Audience That Has No Idea How to Pirate Music? Hello, Susan Boyle! Also Sade, Lady Antebellum (481K debut!), and probably even Godsmack, whose May #1 represented one of the few triumphs of terrible rock music in this new decade we’re happily living in. No explanation here, vis a vis the Arcade Fire, except that maybe their Super Bowl appearance garnered them up a bunch of non- computer literate gridiron fans?
There’s No Such Thing As Indie Rock Anymore. 360 deals! Kochdependence! Fitness instructors in Hawaii listening to Sleigh Bells! Grizzly Bear in car commercials! Pavement on sold-out world tour! Whoever that guy is who books all those Jawbox-type bands on Jimmy Fallon! With the bottom falling out of the traditional, major label-dominated record industry, and a generation of slightly younger people–for whom indie-inflected alternative was pop culture–coming of age and taking the reigns at magazines, newspapers, and television shows across the land, a band like the Arcade Fire is actually pretty likely to be a familiar act to an adult interested in rock music in 2010. More so even than Godsmack, probably.
Not for nothing did the NFL license “Wake Up.” We are old and have money now and we are spread across this continent and we are desperate to find somewhere meaningful to put our consumer dollar. The Arcade Fire’s fulsome instrumentation, ten-part harmonies, songs-that-have-sequels bombast, and apocalyptically mournful lyrics about moving to, yup, the suburbs certainly fit that bill.
So sure, we made it, though “we” probably looks more like everyone else than we want to admit. Both in terms of sluggish sales and Merge-derived aesthetics. But hey, we’re #1! Let’s enjoy it before Susan Boyle releases another album.