Caribbean Drag: How Arcade Fire’s Reflektor brand disguises dress-up as cultural exchange

How Arcade Fire's endless Reflektor marketing campaign has essentialized Haiti's vibrant culture to revitalize their own image.

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- Oct 30, 2013

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his week saw the release of Arcade Fire’s new album, Reflektor, which hopefully means their marketing push will let up. As part of the months-long reinvention campaign, the band covered every inch of themselves and their image in veve graffiti, Kanaval masks and facepaint, and spoke glowingly of the spiritual revitalization their travels to Haiti had given them. To call their discussion and treatment of Haiti in the lead-up to this album “clumsy” would be generous. They’ve taken Haiti’s vibrant culture and presented it as part of a “weird art project,” palatable to the existing racist framework that stresses that black culture is only valid if it can refresh or accessorize whiteness.

When Caribbean countries such as my native Bahamas develop our tourism, we aim to cater to as many different ideals of an authentic experience as possible. Any accusation of dishonesty is absurd, because “authentic” experiences of a culture are non-existent. The problem with this kind of essentialism for tourism’s sake is that it reinforces dehumanizing views of our culture and people, and even leads some to perpetuate them: We must sustain ourselves with many masks, but that doesn’t mean just anyone can wear them.

Since Western civilization began, white society has been the arbiters of black culture’s entrance into the mainstream, determining what’s acceptable for consumption and how it should be packaged. In this system Western music is what’s “normal” and other musical genres are an exoticized and idealized “other”; any sounds or rhythms that enchant or confuse us are ascribed the term "world music." Like the tourism industry does for Caribbean countries, these musics are presented as somehow more honest in their relative simplicity, and promise some kind of earthly rejuvenation disconnected from western civilization. Arcade Fire has tapped a similar strategy of commodified difference in their marketing campaign for Reflektor, without a country to profit from it.

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From the band's "Breakglass" video

Discussing the album with Zane Lowe, Win Butler described the new sound as “a mashup of Studio 54 and Haitian voodoo music.” It was the beginning of Arcade Fire’s campaign focus: using appropriated visuals to contrast their maroon beginnings as loudly as possible. This method of marketing does nothing to combat – and in all likelihood reinforces – this overarching perspective of Caribbean islands being resources for awakening of white souls.

Part of the responsibility that comes with discussing any culture, much less one that isn’t your own, is being aware of what effect certain representations will have on those who consume them. That involves accepting that most Arcade Fire fans would be ignorant of voodoo’s musical element, so describing your new sound as having “voodoo rhythms,” that are “basically how [Haitians] communicate” will lead your audience’s minds to the dolls and zombies of the terrifying old world blackness Hollywood has sold them for decades. It’s being aware that a white man wearing a cravat, the uniform of the French plantation owners who committed their own Haitian genocide centuries before Duvalier, is insensitive to Haiti's history.

 

arcade fire promo image

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010’s smash Grammy-winning album The Suburbs solidified Arcade Fire’s as the sincere band for insincere times. They carried themselves without a trace of smirking irony or intentional hollowness in their gestures, and so every risk seemed bigger and every success resounded louder. Defined by their unapologetic loyalty to honest self-expression, it follows that the problems inherent with the band’s adoption of Haitian culture would be brushed over by fans and critics. Their image dictates they would genuinely appreciate and be respectful of the cultures they are using to define themselves.

If there could be a tangible justification for these appropriations, it would lie with Régine Chassagne, the band’s singer/multi-instrumentalist and Win Butler’s wife. Her parents are said to have fled Haiti during the brutal regime of Francois Duvalier, whose regime murdered thousands, including her relatives (she’s listed on Wikipedia as being born in Montreal). She co-chairs Kanpe, a charity dedicated to “to assist and support Haitian society’s most vulnerable populations in their fight for a better future” and has lead the band through several fundraisers through portions of ticket sales, t-shirt giveaways and postcards.

It would appear just as cynical to dismiss the potential benefits of these endeavors as to claim that they are an all-access pass to a new cultural identity for her husband, her entire band, the record label distributing her band’s album, and the team commissioned to work their album’s marketing campaign. The benefits of Arcade Fire’s charitable work to Haiti do not make them (witting or unwitting) arbiters of their culture. But for many, these contributions to Haiti bolster their authority to express themselves in a borrowed language, creating the illusion of a cultural exchange when it’s predominantly just dress-up.

A veve; a Haitian voodoo symbol

Reflektor’s campaign is an example of what semiotics theorist Joshua Glenn calls “fake authenticity...an overly subjective, anti-bourgeois rebelliousness in which the cause of social and political revolution is furthered by wearing pre-frayed Dockers, driving a luxury version of a rancher’s utility vehicle, and maintaining a sarcastically vague and noncommittal suspicion of bourgeois society.” The rustic Haitian veve graffiti painted on steeled American buildings had all the appearances of a criticism, but was ultimately designed to have no more than 140 characters worth of substance. Fake authenticity is present in almost every single contemporary ad campaign, and every inartful delivery lessens the cultural cache of whatever’s associated with it. The stink of corniness begins to attach itself. Eventually even something as beautiful as a Kanaval mask can get reduced to a sight gag on The Colbert Report.

Some of the aspects of Haitian culture Arcade Fire are displaying have never had this much airtime and may never get it again given the hollowness that can now be associated with these symbols. When placed in the ever-shifting context of rock star image, these centuries-old cultural artifacts run the risk of being diminished as trends and soon disposed of, thanks to white western imperialism’s insatiable hunger for the next hot foreign thing.

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rcade Fire ’s relationship to the country is still very much a work-in-progress, which could explain some of the missteps. Butler has said Reflektor is “not Haitian,” but should be enough to be appreciated by actual Haitians. It seems like the experience of getting upstaged opening for Haitian band RAM in June 2011 informed the direction Butler took the band in; he wants to prove he can do Haitian culture just as well as Haitians can without actually doing it. To make authentic images that no one can accuse him of stealing.

This is a common albatross for white musicians dipping into other cultures, and shedding it for Butler could be difficult, given that Reflektor was written and recorded in Budapest, New York and Jamaica, where he noted the band had “similar experiences” as the ones in Haiti. (He doesn’t mention which one was more “transformative.” My bet’s on whichever place was least receptive to his music.) It’s fair to say that this kind of overlap might blur Win Butler’s movement from the individualist view of authenticity the band’s image has displayed previously to an external one, with roots in colourful black countries. It has not been a smooth transition.

Scenes from the "Reflektor" interactive music video

The band’s decision to align itself with a magical and troubled country is clear and conscious. The image of black life is always profitable because it promises excitement and grit to those who believe ennui and boredom are the sole domain of the white middle class. The interactive music video for “Reflektor” is shot in Haiti and stars Haitians; the band, liable to break this spell of authenticity, do not appear. The video is only viewable with a smart phone and high-end laptop, which would prevent the vast majority of host country’s population from viewing it. But that representation of Haiti is not for them.

More troublingly, "Afterlife”’s thirty second trailer unfolds as a series of slow motion shots of black, urban revelers, presumably Haitian, dancing in the street while stone-faced police officers watch silently. Again, the band are not present. It is a succinct summary of everything the band’s aesthetic allegiance with Haiti is meant to achieve: a mixture of joy and danger both primal and unrefined, a magic blend meant to shatter your numb, listless conventions of how to live life. In marketing the mystery, passion, danger of tropical black culture traditionally appetizing to white society, Arcade Fire’s Reflektor campaign only serves to obfuscate Haiti’s full humanity in favour of flavouring the band’s own creative passion and flair.

Perhaps most blatantly oblivious to accusations of appropriation, though, is their lyric video for the full album stream of Reflektor, set to the 1959 film Black Orpheus (it's been set to private since the album came out, but the same film is used for the lyric video for "Afterlife," below). Butler has said that this film inspired the album, but here the band are forming an explicit link between themselves and vibrant mystery of another culture, literally soundtracking it. Whether or not they were going for some Dark Side of the Moon/Wizard of Oz effect is irrelevant. They can deny their status as the foremost authority on the regenerative powers of tropical cultures all they like, but their actions say otherwise.

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t’s not that white and black cultures should not interact, or that musicians should not look outside their frame of existence for inspiration. But Arcade Fire’s primal, tribal, magical marketing only serves to reinforce white society’s narrow view of the black experience as such, by presenting it as creative reinvigoration to last a single album cycle. A vacation.

What’s important to remember is that at its core, the Reflektor campaign is making a series of unspoken promises to their fan base. Like camouflage, prayer beads and braided straw hats, Arcade Fire’s grinning papier-mâché faces promise to fill that perpetual void of authenticity we all seek to fill, but within existing white supremacist structures.

“We allowed ourselves to be transformed by our experiences in Haiti,” Win Butler said of the band’s trips to the country. “We changed as people in terms of what we wanted to express...” The band are now walking embodiments of the fetishes of black experience, selling albums with the same strategies meant to sell plane tickets, and as a white band society has given them the privilege to do so. For all its technology and guerilla marketing, Reflektor’s marketing campaign maintained the same recycled stereotypes about the role of the Caribbean Other in a white-dominated society, bundled in a colourful new package.


Jordan Darville is a Toronto-based, Bahamas-born writer with a Twitter account.

Special thanks to Magdalena Dabbour for help with interviews and research.

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