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Arcade Fire, and the ‘Never Heard of It’ Grammys

Sunday night’s Grammy Awards seemed to have an unofficial theme: “People Tweeting That They Don’t Know Who People Are.”

This wasn’t just a matter of one big winner, either. Following along with the broadcast online was like watching someone plot a giant map of who pays attention to what, and how obstinate, dismissive, or confused they felt like being about it. Big-city music geeks shrugged and confessed (or maybe boasted) that they’d never really been exposed to the very-popular pop-country act Lady Antebellum. Howard Stern took a look at the Record of the Year nominees — all of them top ten hits — and asked: “Honestly does anyone know these songs?” Some consensus was reached around most everyone not having heard of Esperanza Spalding, who won Best New Artist, then immediately had her Wikipedia page vandalized by irate Justin Bieber fans: “WHO THE HECK ARE YOU ANYWAY?” (This is presumably the question her Wikipedia page was attempting to answer.) And then, of course, the climax, during which the Canadian indie band Arcade Fire won Album of the Year and various Twitter users expressed their surprise, bafflement, or apocalyptic rage at not ever having heard of such a thing. (You can scroll through some notable reactions at a Tumblr called Who Is Arcade Fire — or, in rejoinder to that one, Who Is Lady Antebellum, because not having heard of things now runs both ways.) Evidently Janelle Monae and her fashion sense are the only things left that make people happy to have learned about a new thing, rather than threatened and nose-crinkly.

There are some obvious jokes to be made about people with Internet access using Twitter to complain about not knowing something, as opposed to using Google to look it up. But for the most part, this reaction — all these examples cherry-picked from teenage pop fans and bemused adults — is just plain normal. “Never heard of it”: This has been the natural and traditional response of all sorts of ordinary American humans to all sorts of phenomena. It’s not really about knowledge or information. It’s an argument, for the most part, and a faintly aggressive one — a way of insisting that what you pay attention to really does define the world. What you’ve heard of is real, and everything else is marginal. The center holds, and you are that center. You are normal and aware, and not just some tiny atomized entity that can only hope to know one tiny corner of the universe.

It used to be a little easier to get away with that. You could presume that you were an informed person and anything truly notable would have been brought to your attention at some point — and enough people would share your vantage point that you wouldn’t often be challenged on it. (The truer this was, the more attractive it was to pull the reverse move: that of the music aficionado who’s proud to have never even heard of the most popular artists in the country.) I feel like I can remember people acting baffled, twenty years ago, when some “weird” band called R.E.M. won a few Grammys — and this was an act that had multiple top ten singles, videos on MTV, and all the other monocultural perks that are no longer available to any but the most successful musicians. (They would have also had some underground haters looking at them as over-popular, middlebrow college-rock sellouts who’d stopped being good sometime in the mid-eighties; it always goes both ways.)

But that “never heard of it” chauvinism is harder to pull off these days, and it’s a real problem with talking about music. The funny part is that while the Internet tends to make people feel like they’re more aware of what’s happening in music, and what “everyone” else is talking about, it’s just as effective at doing the opposite — sustaining all different kinds of huge and vibrant music worlds, to the point where whichever one you’re aware of is surely just a single weird corner among many, many more. Look at any forum or comments box where random strangers find themselves talking about music, and you wind up peering into some kind of chauvinistic Tower of Babel: so many people fiercely sure that their vantage point is normal, despite being surrounded by so many staggeringly, radically different backgrounds, perspectives, and frames of reference.

This, I think, is part of the beauty of Who Is Arcade Fire. The blog doesn’t actually make its motives clear. I’m sure some of the band’s fans look at it as an opportunity to laugh at the alleged cluelessness of the featured tweets. Others might just be fascinated by the heated reactions people can have to the revelation that there are successful young musicians they’ve never heard of. (I say “young” because the Grammys routinely give big awards to records by older artists who aren’t exactly dominating the top 40.) But of course there’s also the fact that, for a whole lot of listeners, Arcade Fire is the kind of band that’s too ubiquitous — the band backed by a huge, boring critical consensus, the middlebrow-crossover NPR darlings, the bland and tiresome more-of-the-same act that already plays Madison Square Garden and shows up on Saturday Night Live. Given that Who Is Arcade Fire appears on Tumblr, you assume that whoever put it together comes from something like that world, the online post-collegiate indie sphere where Arcade Fire might be one of the least interesting bands you could know about.

And the tweets on there offer a funny reminder that one kind of center really does hold: That no matter how dominant and predictable something might be in your world, it is still a weird, marginal thing to most everyone else. If there’s any deep attraction to looking at the blog, it’s the twinge of strangeness and bafflement that can come from thinking that over — the layers and layers of what’s ubiquitous in one sphere but unheard of in another.

All this despite the Grammys functioning much as they ever did. Arcade Fire’s win sees a slow-to-catch-up institution pretty much catching up with the nineties. And incompletely, at that: The broadcast still marginalizes hip-hop, handing out rap awards before the big show and declining to include Gang Starr’s Guru among the notable deaths. Apart from Dr. Dre, performances came from B.o.B, a rapper in the mold of a pop star; Drake, a rapper in the mold of an R&B star; and Grammy favorite Eminem, who is too big to ignore and different from the average rapper in more ways than race.

But some of the never-heard-of-its seem to indicate that people want something from the Grammys that might not have occurred to them before: for some grand institution to come on television for a few hours and assure them that there is indeed some predictable center of the world, and that it’s whichever one you were already aware of.

Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images