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‘Wake Up’ Defined the Arcade Fire Era, for Better or Worse

They were a signature indie-rock band of the 2000s, their most indelible song representing a defiant hope during the darkness of the Bush years. But by speaking to their age, the group ended up being pigeonholed by it

Arcade Fire took a while figuring out their sound and their makeup. Formed around 2000, the band was co-founded by Win Butler, with other members coming in and out over the years. Music wasn’t his first passion: He played basketball, studied photography and eventually got turned on to songwriting after being introduced to groups like Radiohead and the Cure in high school. “It was like they weren’t just making a record, they were trying to express something important to them, something they had discovered or were searching their way through,” Butler said in 2005 about those foundational bands. “I started writing songs right away, not just here and there, but virtually all day.”

In 2003, Arcade Fire put out a self-titled EP, anchored by Butler, his younger brother Will and Régine Chassagne, a musician he married shortly thereafter. “I put on my ugliest jeans and white socks, and put my hair up so it looked like shit,” Chassagne recalled about accepting Butler’s initial invitation to join his group, which she had no intention to turn into a romantic thing. “I went to his apartment, and he played me songs. I had never seen someone play so maturely. He wasn’t pretending to be who he wanted to be.” They said “I do” at what Rolling Stone reported was a “a maple-sugar farm an hour east of Montreal.”

Arcade Fire was moody, arty, stripped-down, and it gained a cult following, especially in the band’s Montreal homebase, where they’d play small venues like art openings. But Butler had grander aspirations, and soon they were performing a more anthemic number called “Wake Up.” It didn’t go over well with the locals. “I remember singing that song in Montreal, in these lofts,” Butler said in 2020. “Most of our early fans, the first time we played that song, they were like ‘Fuck this shit, I want the acoustic shit.’ People were so negative. I remember a lot of early fans didn’t come to our shows after that because we were suddenly screaming at the top of our lungs and playing electric guitars. It was like, ‘Everyone here hates this, that means we must be going in the right direction.’”

Butler laughed at the memory. For him, the lesson of the initial vitriolic reaction to “Wake Up” was obvious. “Don’t be discouraged if people hate something. It doesn’t mean shit.”

Win Butler and Arcade Fire have been heeding that advice ever since, for better or worse. And “Wake Up” remains their defining song, not just because of its popularity but because of how it sums them up both musically and temperamentally. Featured on their 2004 full-length debut Funeral, it encapsulated the spirit of defiance and bruised optimism that were all anyone who opposed George W. Bush and the Iraq War had to cling to. In a time of wounded, reeling music, Arcade Fire were loud, earnest idealists. They seemed to stand for something. Their fans looked up to them. Now it’s 2022 and Arcade Fire are back with a new album, We. This year is different from 2004 in lots of ways, but one of them is how this band is perceived and what “Wake Up” means.

The story goes that Butler, who grew up in Houston, decided to move to Canada as a teenager on a whim. “I woke up one night in a cold sweat with the name Montreal on my lips,” he explained in a 2004 interview with Tiny Mix Tapes. “It was like I had never even noticed that the map went that far north, and I had to investigate.” In that same profile, Butler talked about meeting Chassagne, who hailed from Haiti — their first date was to see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which was shown in French, requiring her to translate the whole film in the theater for him — and what he wanted Arcade Fire’s then-forthcoming release Funeral to do for listeners. 

“I hope our music is uplifting in a really full sense,” he said. “We don’t just wanna make people feel good. Being scared or confused can be uplifting, too. Music has this rare potential to be creative and completely non-destructive at the same time, which is a really powerful idea, even though it is rarely seen. I know most people in the world would probably not get much from our music, but you can hope, right? Funerals are a lot more important than records.”

The title Funeral was inspired by several band members’ relatives who had passed around that time. Not that the record, which was released in the fall of 2004, was a concept album about dying — rather, it was a collection of emphatic tunes that touched on enigmatic moods and odd tales. Fading love, menacing ice storms, a vampire attack, a tribute to Chassagne’s home country, random worries about adulthood: Funeral was littered with drama both in the words and the music, staring down what’s scariest about living while trying to embrace what was potentially most rewarding. And it made Arcade Fire critics’ darlings and a mainstay of indie-rock radio. Music journalist Caryn Ganz, writing for Spin in January 2006, captured the album’s potent timeliness:

“In 2005 it wasn’t a bad idea to promote music that isn’t afraid to get weepy. ‘Funeral’ seemed to resonate as Americans grappled with war, hurricanes and a general sense of anxiety. Rather than laugh off their cares, people were drawn to art that captured futility and discomfort. With their sophisticated emotional palette, Arcade Fire paint in broad strokes, updating teenage angst for the yuppie-goth ‘Six Feet Under’ era. ‘Funeral’ provided a $12.99 therapy session for anyone who wanted to blurt out their fears and dreams to some of the catchiest riffs and most beautiful melodies in years.”

Read today, that description might seem cringe, but it’s a wholly accurate depiction of what the mid-2000s were like. The endless pummeling of the first years of the 21st century — a stolen presidential election, 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, Bush’s 2004 defeat of John Kerry and the botched handling of Hurricane Katrina the following year — were bound to make progressive sorts feel down in the mouth. At such a bleak moment, the theatricality of Funeral seemed to place those real-world woes into a more dramatic, almost literary framework, giving listeners a respite while still engaging their despondency. 

In that same Spin piece, Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner, who complimented Arcade Fire on their cover of his band’s “Maps,” calling it “very sincere,” proclaimed, “I like that they make very passionate and empathetic music without it being too precious. I get emotionally affected by their music, but it’s never in a ‘woe is me’ kind of way. I find their music really empowering.” 

Funeral never got more empowering than on “Wake Up,” which cranked up the amps for a song about accepting that life is filled with disappointment. Butler was approaching his mid-20s, and whether because of the death he’d experienced or the general state of the world, he sang about the end of childhood innocence — albeit with enough of a poetic distance that it could apply to anyone, or no one.

Something filled up 
My heart with nothing 
Someone told me not to cry 

But now that I’m older 
My heart’s colder 
And I can see that it’s a lie 

Then came a flurry of massed “Oooh oooh”s before Butler dove back in: 

Children, wake up 
Hold your mistake up 
Before they turn the summer into dust 

If the children don’t grow up 
Our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up 
We’re just a million little gods causing rain storms 
Turning every good thing to rust 
I guess we’ll just have to adjust

And then a bunch more “Oooh oooh”s, as if Arcade Fire were inviting us all to sing along with them. Among other things, popular music has always been a valuable outlet for each new generation to express their dismay and resilience in the face of encroaching maturity, rallying around each other as they see life’s limitless potential start to narrow. As such, “Wake Up” seemed to contain hard-earned wisdom, with Butler building to a shout, releasing every pent-up emotion he’d been holding inside. “I guess we’ll just have to adjust” became a handy mantra for anyone lowering his expectations for the future, a condition that’s become inevitable for every subsequent young person in an age of endless student debt and diminished job security. 

And yet, “Wake Up” sounded exultant, its rousing melody a counterpunch to the surrounding sorrow. (“‘Wake Up’ is like this sad euphoric song,” Butler once said. “We’re basically a Motown covers band doing ‘What Becomes of the Brokenhearted.’ That’s my favorite song of all time — this exact meeting point of two things at once.”) As with another Funeral standout, “Rebellion (Lies),” “Wake Up” was juiced by its refusal to succumb to cynicism — it was a song about never admitting defeat, to holding onto optimism. 

“Wake Up’s” communal spirit was also the byproduct of a group who evinced a hippie-ish mentality, especially around the time of Funeral, working without a manager or tour manager and doing most things themselves. David Viecelli, president of Arcade Fire’s booking agency, told the Los Angeles Times in 2005, “When anything happens this quickly for a band, there is this protective instinct in me that makes me get worried. There are so many opportunities to screw everything up by doing the wrong thing with the wrong people too fast. The single most remarkable thing about this band in many respects — beyond the music and everything that they create — is how singularly reasonable, cautious, intelligent and incredibly grounded they are. They know who they are and what they want.”

As a result, Arcade Fire inspired admiration in their fellow artists. During U2’s tour, the Irish quartet came on stage to “Wake Up,” no doubt seeing in the younger group the same yearning, anthemic quality that had made them famous. (“They’re not like a band,” Bono said during a show once. “It’s like a miraculous event or carnival of chaos.”) And Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze found their songs instrumental when he was developing his 2009 big-screen adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are. “For one I just love their music,” Jonze said in 2014. “From their first record, Funeral, I felt some inherent aesthetic bond to how they were. In fact their first record was about childhood and I was writing about childhood. I wrote Where the Wild Things Are to Funeral and ended up using ‘Wake Up’ in the trailer. As we were editing, I used it to cut to and it’s naturally part of the film’s music. … The way Win Butler writes is very cinematic and it’s also very emotional. Even though he’s coming from music and I’m coming from film, I think we both aspire to similar things.”

It wasn’t long before Arcade Fire were more than just a good indie-rock band. Soon, they symbolized an emotional purity — not to mention a principled focus on creativity rather than fame — that made people fall in love with them. In that 2006 Spin piece, Butler talked about preserving his band’s artistic integrity. “It’s so important for our music to be totally present,” he said. “If we are burned out when we are playing, there’s no reason to be there.” Butler came about this mindset naturally: Even during the early years, he was wary of signing with a major label. (Funeral was released through Merge, as were the group’s next three records.) 

“Record labels are strange but necessary,” he had told Tiny Mix Tapes, later adding, “On the one hand, we want as many people to hear our music as Bruce Springsteen or the Cure or people like that, but the music industry keeps getting worse, and it’s hard to realize that the same opportunities are not available. There are too many people trying to take advantage of you. … What are poor artists who want to communicate using mass media to do?”

“Wake Up” was actually the fifth single released from Funeral, with none of them cracking the Billboard Top 40. As for the album, it peaked at No. 123. But those weren’t really the proper metrics to measure the group’s rising stardom. Funeral was on plenty of critics’ Top 10 lists for 2004, Arcade Fire became buddies with influential artists like David Byrne and David Bowie, and they started playing major festivals such as Coachella. Their ascension could also be felt in the fact that their follow-up record, 2007’s Neon Bible, went to No. 2 and landed them on Saturday Night Live. “It definitely doesn’t consume my thoughts,” Butler said around Neon Bible’s release about the chances that it could be their commercial breakthrough, “but that possibility had occurred to me. It’s pretty wild. It’s pretty amazing for a band like us to be in that position. It’s funny in kind of a satisfying way.”

Neon Bible was equally anthemic, but the music grew darker, more overtly commenting on the Bush years without calling him out by name. But everyone could hear the paranoia and anguish in “Black Mirror,” “Intervention” and “My Body Is a Cage,” and in interviews Butler talked about his hope for a better tomorrow. “​​I’ve seen Barack Obama speak a couple of times, and I really like him,” he told the A.V. Club in 2007. “There’s something going on behind his eyes, and I think he’s really intelligent. But part of me just knows [the 2008 presidential election is] going to be Giuliani and Hillary Clinton, which really bums me out. But part of me wants to believe that it could be Barack Obama and John McCain, and there’d be an actual debate. The country needs a real debate so badly.” 

It’s not hyperbole to say that Arcade Fire were seen as one of the few cutting-edge bands — popular enough but also sufficiently hip — that stood in opposition to the Bush years. (The band performed at Obama’s inauguration.) And at a time when the idea of “selling out” was still a debatable subject, Arcade Fire allowed “Wake Up” to be used during Super Bowl XLIV, but only so they could give the money to Haitain relief after that country’s devastating 2010 earthquake. “That was very much an emergency situation and we were trying to figure out ways to make money fast to help Haiti,” Butler later told Pitchfork. “It was just such a no-brainer. At that time, I pretty much said we’d be open to licensing stuff we’d normally say no to — but we still couldn’t do a car commercial for ‘Keep the Car Running’ because it would change the song forever. Even in the emergency situation, there are still lines we couldn’t quite bring ourselves across.”

Arcade Fire only continued to earn plaudits with 2010’s The Suburbs, a record about the perils and pleasures of domesticity, which won the band the Album of the Year Grammy. The tours were bigger, and the group closed their shows with “Wake Up,” which was now firmly cemented as an era-defining song, often incorporated into movies when they needed some music to symbolize a character’s bighearted leap into the unknown — such as in the remake of Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, when his character decides to leave behind his humdrum existence and follow his bliss. 

Other artists’ desire to glom onto the fierce resilience of “Wake Up” spoke to Arcade Fire’s sincerity, their rejection of a world often compromised by commercialism and moral slipperiness. The band’s lack of cynicism made them a tonic during Bush’s reign, and when Obama came to office, their music’s sprawling beauty seemed to echo his message of change. Like zeitgeist-y entertainment that soon emerged, such as Parks and Recreation and Hamilton, Arcade Fire were held up as a paragon of earnestness, reflecting an openhearted vibe in the wake of Obama’s victory. Granted, that comparison doesn’t entirely work — for one thing, The Suburbs and its follow-up, 2013’s Reflektor, were full of uncertainty and dread — and Butler himself expressed misgivings about how much Obama could fundamentally change America. In 2018, he lamented the left’s laziness about staying engaged after Obama’s triumph at the polls: “The second he got elected it was like, ‘We did it!’ He was like, ‘Okay, I want to work on health care,’ but everyone was just like, ‘Cool, we did it! You’re the first Black president!’ I don’t even count it as Obama’s failure. It’s our failure as a people.”

That shattering of national optimism could also be felt in Arcade Fire’s subsequent work. After three acclaimed, commercially successful albums, Reflektor signaled a shift, moving the band in a more experimental dance-rock direction. The reviews weren’t as glowing but, more noticeably, there seemed to be a growing cultural fatigue as casual listeners tired of their outspoken, increasingly scolding music. 

Both Reflektor and 2017’s Everything Now were as earnest as anything Arcade Fire had done before, but the band’s ability to tap into a universal longing seemed to have vanished. Complaints about the internet, stardom and social media started to infuse the songs, and not unlike U2, who similarly wanted to elevate the consciousness of their audience, Arcade Fire provoked a backlash. Earnest was one thing — being perceived as humorless and self-righteous was something else entirely.

Butler insisted that backlash didn’t bother him. “It’s actually tremendously exciting to get a bunch of bad reviews,” he said when Everything Now came out. “It’s like, ‘Yes, finally!’ … I mean, I don’t know any artists that haven’t made things that have been extremely panned.” As far as he was concerned, “I think it’s probably our best record.” To be sure, musicians tend to double-down in the face of negative reviews, but it was hard not to think back to the band’s early days playing “Wake Up” to small crowds in Montreal who were angry that Arcade Fire had changed styles. Butler was right to follow his instincts back then, and clearly the succession of Reflektor, Everything Now and We suggests he’s not changing course now. But the band’s recent albums, despite their moments of brilliance, have often felt like the sound of 30-something (and now early-40-something) artists struggling to grapple with the adulthood they once warily viewed on the horizon. 

Perhaps tellingly, We was the product of the band learning how to live in Donald Trump’s America, Chassagne telling The Guardian, “It was pretty turbulent times in the U.S. You would wake up and you had no idea what was going to happen.” In the same piece, Butler said, “This shit is fucking rotten, but there’s beautiful things about it. I live in America, I can’t believe I still live in America. But there’s something about it that I can’t quit. And as an artist you’re trying to break something open and let the light in.” But where once Arcade Fire felt like the voice of their times, their stature had diminished in the last decade. They didn’t as often find the light. 

Amidst a sea of shiny, Instagram-savvy pop stars, Win Butler remains an endearing, giddy dork, perpetually awkward and well-meaning, happy not to be particularly fashionable. I’ll especially always cherish his performance during the 2016 NBA All-Star celebrity game, where he was voted MVP and took the opportunity to tell the at-home audience, “I just want to say that it’s an election year in the U.S. The U.S. has a lot they can learn from Canada: health care, taking care of people, and I think—” before he got cut off. While it wasn’t quite “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people,” it was nonetheless one of those unscripted moments of public protest that’s exceedingly rare and especially welcome. 

Still, in a culture with a short memory, Arcade Fire are now something of an artifact — a band that was a huge deal back in the 2000s, but is now a bit quaint. This was never clearer than by watching Mike Myers’ poorly-reviewed new Netflix series The Pentaverate, which features “Wake Up” at one point. Like all the other musty references Myers piles into the show — Eyes Wide Shut gags, a moment where one of Myers’ characters shakes hands with a dude dressed as Shrek — a “Wake Up” needle-drop just seemed badly out-of-date, an unwitting commentary on how passé that generational anthem had become.

John Legend and Macy Gray have each covered “Wake Up,” and while their renditions are fine, they’re a little too restrained, almost as if they’re embarrassed by Butler’s unbridled passion, his joy and terror at realizing how vast and unpredictable his looming adulthood looks. But both versions were better than Saturday Night Live’s use of the song during the last episode before the 2016 presidential election, which found Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon (who played Trump and Clinton, respectively) breaking character and going out into the streets of New York, connecting with regular folks and trying to throw off the shackles of a bitter campaign they had been spoofing for weeks. That SNL chose “Wake Up” as the song to soundtrack this moment of naive humanism was deeply cringe-y but also instructive. It was the moment that “Wake Up” officially became self-parody — through no fault of the band, except for the fact that they presumably allowed the show to use it. (The SNL clip is currently not available. Trust me, you don’t want to see it.)

I still like Arcade Fire, but I used to like them a lot more. Partly, that’s because their recent work hasn’t been as strong as their earlier, superior material. But it’s also due to that earlier, superior material being linked to a moment in time that’s gone forever. The age of “Wake Up” corresponded to a dark Bush era when people needed music that was a life preserver. And much of that music has not stood the test of time. (I defy you to try to get through Green Day’s American Idiot today.) 

But with “Wake Up,” it’s more complex than just being a time-capsule piece. In the song, Butler measures the inevitable toll that life will take on him and those close to him, these 20-somethings about to step out into the great unknown. What lies ahead? Neither he nor the listener knows for sure. Back in early 2005, when Funeral had begun to become a sensation, Butler had a sense of what was coming, but only a sense. “I know there are some annoying things on the horizon,” Butler told Rolling Stone. “People are gonna try and tear us down. I’m totally prepared for that.”

 But nobody ever really is.