Win Butler and I don’t seem to have much in common, but there is this one thing: We both attended boarding schools around the turn of the millennium — and, to be more specific, boarding schools that enforced dress codes. (Here’s his alma mater Phillips Exeter Academy’s.) If anything, this bit of shared experience has me even more baffled than your average Arcade Fire fan about the “formal attire or costume” requirement for their upcoming tour.
You see, if there’s one thing that growing up with a dress code will do to most people who haven’t already planned to spend their lives working on Wall Street or in corporate law, it’s imbue them with an eternal, semi-irrational aversion to being told what to wear. At least, that’s what it has done to me, and partially explains why I work in a field where I could conceivably wear pajamas to the office.
I congratulate Butler for having the psychological fortitude to not only revisit his dress code days, but also feel OK inflicting them on his audience, to the undeniably outsize rage of many. There has been much blog- and Twitter-based snarking over Arcade Fire’s assumption that their audience is wealthy enough to either shell out for a costume or grab a fancy suit out of their closet on top of paying high ticket prices. That genre of complaining actually seems like a cheap shot to me; just about anything can be a costume with a bit of creativity, no purchase necessary. Besides, the band recently clarified that the dress code is more a suggestion than a requirement: “To everyone really upset about us asking people to dress up at our shows… please relax. It’s super not mandatory. It just makes for a more fun carnival when we are all in it together.”
It’s this statement that really magnifies what has niggled at me about the dress code debacle from the moment I heard about it. In fact, the problem here is the same one Chris Richards identifies in the Washington Post Arcade Fire review that may go down in history as the most memorable hatchet job of 2013: “When a band this massively popular, this risk-averse, this patently un-weird takes heartfelt shots at the ‘norms,’ it’s hard to decide whether to laugh, barf or weep for the future of rock-and-roll itself” and ultimately pronounces Reflektor to be “something conservative pretending to be something bold.”
By dictating that fans dress up in some special way for their show — and then just politely asking them to do it, in a transparent plea to inject excitement into what would ostensibly be a quite dull affair otherwise — Arcade Fire are just taking Richards’ argument to its logical extreme. And what they’re finding out now is that you can’t pre-plan the kind of fun and creativity they’re seeking with this costume thing. In fact, there’s something a bit desperate about having to coax your fans into treating your performance like an affair worthy of sartorial effort. After all, Lady Gaga doesn’t have to tell the little monsters to wear costumes to her shows. They just do.