The Arcade Fire: Rock And Roll Champions Of The World

Their #1 album and Lollapalooza-closing set solidified their position atop the rock heap, in Bigger Than the Sound.

On Wednesday morning (August 11), the long-vacated Rock and Roll Championship belt finally found a new home: around the waists of multi-hyphenate Montreal rockers the [artist id="1802187"]Arcade Fire[/artist] (it’s a pretty big belt). With the rather startling #1 debut of their sublime third album The Suburbs here in the U.S. (and its slightly less startling #1 debut in the U.K.), they are now, officially, the heavyweight champions of the rock world. At least until Radiohead put something out.

Of course, this doesn’t mean they’re the biggest band in the world (because they’re not), or the best (because that’s purely subjective). It merely means they’re the standard-bearers for “important” rock, for globe-uniting, stadium-packing sentiment, for the betterment of mankind. They are the band that magazine editors slap on the cover along with the headline “Can _____ Save the World?” And while a #1 debut certainly helps, being champion of the rock world is less about album sales (because then, like, Nickelback would be the champs) than it is about mystique, about power, about intangibles. It is not easily definable, but you definitely know the Rock and Roll Champions when you see them.

And for me, that moment occurred this past weekend, during the Arcade Fire’s festival-closing set at Lollapalooza . Pitted opposite the reunited Soundgarden (themselves former holders of the belt), AF blew me away — along with the 50,000-something folks who packed in with me — with a set that was as hard-fought and far-reaching as it was grandiose. Sure, their older stuff packed a wallop, but the soaring choruses of songs like “Neighborhood #2 (Laika)” and “Wake Up” are tailor-made for huge crowds and even huger expanses. What impressed me the most was the way the band — and the husband/wife tandem of Win Butler and Regine Chassagne — translated the quieter, more personal sentiments of the songs from The Suburbs into universal, crowd-uniting statements. Songs like “Ready to Start,” “Rococo” and especially the title track are all deeply muted, winsome tragedies (the kind of uniquely suburban angst that plays out in most of our hearts and minds), and yet, on Sunday night, in Chicago’s Grant Park, they too became life-affirming, chill-inducing sing-alongs. It was cathartic: 50,000 people releasing their inner demons.

And during all that, I realized that the Arcade Fire had ascended to the heights of former champions like Radiohead and prime-era U2 and probably even Coldplay. Their shows had become events. Spiritual things. And yet, much like Radiohead (and unlike U2 or Coldplay), there was still an aura to them, a well-cultivated mystique. They emerged in silhouette at the beginning of their set, spoke very little during it and departed with a series of simple waves and bows. You don’t know very much about them, and they prefer to keep it that way. They seem genuinely unnerved by the attention they receive. This is the crucial part of any championship band: the mystery remains intact. And it’s from that mystery that the magic emerges.

That is why the Arcade Fire picked up the belt vacated by Radiohead sometime in 2007 (post-In Rainbows). They have the mystique of a champion. And while, using the WWE scale, the Rock and Roll Championship is sort of comparable to the Intercontinental belt these days (the Pop Championship would probably be the heavyweight division, which makes Lady Gaga Kane, and the Hip Hop Championship — currently held by Eminem or maybe Rick Ross — would be the WWE title), it’s nice to have a champion again. How long they hold the belt is anybody’s guess, but for now, it’s theirs to run with. Rock and roll is important again. And who knows? Maybe the Arcade Fire will be the band that finally figures out how to save the world. Long may they reign.

Do you agree, or would you give the Rock and Roll Championship belt to a different band? Share your thoughts in the comments!