“The Suburbs” is a nostalgic look back at Win and William Butler’s upbringing and suburban life in general. The lyrics focus on the cultural phenomena that gave rise to the suburbs, the emotional atmosphere, and the time period in question. Most importantly, this song manages to bring out the good and bad sides of this lifestyle in a uniquely endearing way.
“The Suburbs” is the flagship track for the album of the same name. According to Win Butler, it was inspired by the simple receipt of a friendly photograph in the mail. Seeing an old friend (the photo’s subject) standing around his old stomping grounds inspired Butler. Once the creative gears started turning under nostalgia’s influence, this song (and the album) was quickly born.
In this article, we’ll perform an analysis of these deeply reflective lyrics to discover their hidden meaning. We’ll also take a look at the songwriting story and the universal human themes that make the track accessible to anyone. Without further ado, let’s get started!
For such an extremely complex song, the first line is pretty simple. It takes us to an experience many of us can relate to. “In the suburbs,” we’re told, the narrator “learned to drive.” This simple act quickly spirals into more complexity. The verse suddenly shifts from grabbing “mother’s keys” to the certainty of a “suburban war.” Why the abruptness?
Apparently, even the creators aren’t totally sure. Win Butler has stated that the purpose of the song is to “encapsulate the feelings” he had growing up in Texas suburbia. However, he also mentioned the idea that “somehow, suburbia and an apocalyptic outlook are related.”
How so? The answer, I think, becomes clearer in verse two. Nonetheless, verse one does offer some insight. For example, we’re told that “by the time the first bombs fell” in this “suburban war,” the fighters were “already bored.” Simply put, there is no zeal for whatever cause they’re fighting for – only apathy. This is a recurring concept, so keep it tucked away.
The chorus takes us to the present, not the past. We see that the narrator is now “moving past the feeling” that used to arrest him. The thoughts, sights, sounds, and significance of his old environment are no longer as important as they once were. At the same time, part of him “can’t believe” it’s happening.
In verse two, we examine the past again. This time, we’ll look at the social aspects of it instead of the individual ones. The kids in this suburb “want to be so hard,” but really they’re just playful children “running through the yard.” This verse follows the pattern of the first; right after it introduces something innocent, the apocalyptic tone takes over.
In verse two, this shows up when the “walls” and “houses” that were “built in the seventies” begin to fall. The world built by Win and William Butler’s parents (and their generation) is beginning to crumble, which explains the apocalyptic feel. As time moves forward, no way of life can ever last, no matter how idyllic it might seem. This is why suburbia, with its appearance of perfection, is haunting.
Even though this is dark, the final blow still hasn’t been delivered. In verse two, the narrator concludes that his past really “meant nothing at all” since it has fallen away. This explains the apathy of the “suburban war” fighters. If nothing will last, what is the point of moving forward and building new lives for future generations?
We get our answer in verse three. On the one hand, the narrator wants a “daughter” while he’s “still young.” This is because he wants to show her “some beauty before this damage is done.” Simply put, he’d like to share the wonders of the world with someone before his way of life also fades away.
Once again, now that the positive side has been introduced, the negative side surfaces. If the daughter is “too much to ask,” the narrator wants a “son.” Unlike the daughter, the son is equipped to deal with the harsh realities of the world. This is based on the difference between feminine and masculine virtue – the feminine can appreciate beauty, whereas the masculine is built to deal with hardship.
Verse three ends by transitioning back into scenic descriptions of the suburbs. Even though the scenery is familiar, his time has “already passed.” The solution he offers is bittersweet, but inspiring: “Move… from hot pavement and into the grass.” Basically, this means accepting the stages of life instead of lingering too long in one place. If you don’t, your feet will burn!
In summary, “The Suburbs” is about the different emotional sides of growing up and the struggle between hope for the future and despair for the past. This is truly a human universal, which explains the track’s success.
According to Win Butler, the story behind this remarkable song is fairly unremarkable. After receiving a photograph of an old friend “at the mall around the corner” from where he used to live, gears began turning in Butler’s mind.
Shortly after this, these inspirations became the basis for the collaborative work that produced not only this track but the entire album. Reflection on the past is definitely the underlying theme – something the fans of Arcade Fire have come to seriously appreciate.
As evidence of that, I present the outstanding success of “The Suburbs,” both critically and commercially. The track charted well on its own and managed to catapult its album into winning a Grammy Award in 2011. All in all, this can only be considered a great addition to Arcade Fire’s catalog.
The next time you play this sentimental tune, let these pieces of background information bring it to life!