Last night I finished reading Riddley Walker, which imagines a post-nuclear future where society has reverted to basic tribalism and language has devolved into a semblance of its former English glory (to make sense of the novel I read the entire thing out loud to Isaac). The characters’ creation (and destruction) myths are interspersed with vague notions of a scientific pinnacle, an astounding time when there were “boats in the air and picters on the wind.” This wonderfully reflective book posits an all-too-possible scenario of what it might mean to slide down the bell curve of modernity. But at present, what is life like on the shaky peak? Maybe a couple songs can describe it…
Just before the fiery guitar breaks in on Bad Religion’s “Modern Man,” careful listening will reveal Greg Graffin mumbling something about doing one “with attitude.” In just under two minutes, the song delivers by relentlessly showcasing the pessimism around being a human today. The opening lines lay out some of the robotic, unthinking aspects of our lives: “I’ve got nothing to say/ I’ve got nothing to do/ All of my neurons are functioning smoothly/ And still I’m a cyborg just like you.” The song races along with the pace of the society it criticizes, the narrator a familiar cog in an unstoppable machine. Sentiments like “I see my ancestors spend with careless abandon/ Assuming eternal supply” were already a concern when Against the Grain was released in 1990, even though it just now seems we are coming to terms with the implications. In closing, harmonies highlight the title between scathing examples of what it means to be a modern man: “evolutionary betrayer,” “ecosystem destroyer,” “pathetic example of Earth’s organic heritage,” “just a sample of carbon-based wastage.” If ever there were doomed robots, the song emphasizes, we are them.
Arcade Fire released their track twenty years later. American exceptionalism had reached its peak before bursting on 9/11, then soared again in pockets of divisive nationalism, unending wars, and a constant media feed of fear fear fear. This is the entire context of Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, and their “Modern Man” touches on a deflated, apathetic almost-acceptance of being a decade into a new millennium yet feeling even more confused than when it started. The narrator is anonymous as he waits in line, waits for a turn, acknowledges the press of people behind him. “Makes me feel like, makes me feel like/ Something don’t feel right”—this moody inarticulateness shows the frustrated urge to find meaning in a fractured space. “They said we were the chosen few/ But we wasted/ That’s why we’re still waiting.” The narrator wonders, Are we special still? Did we miss our chance? What is our goal? It has become the norm to not sleep at night, to live on the edge of anxiety: “In line for a number, but you don’t understand/ Like a modern man.”
The two songs really describe the same sprawl, and in both, the one thing the individual is sure of is that he/she is definitely part of the machine—the finger pointing is inward as much as outward. There is even a collective vibe in the endings–BR’s chorus harmonies align nicely with the spirited hand-claps that accompany Arcade Fire’s final chorus round. Other similarities include a recognition of society marching ever onward toward nothing, although seen through slightly different eras. Bad Religion penned a screed against mindless materialism and automation before we had become completely jaded about the topics themselves. Arcade Fire wrote theirs when depressing facts and patterns were consistently a click away, our dire situations so common as to be mundane. Their leisurely tour through “losing the feeling” is simply the flip side to the BR take of modern man as a “tragic epic of you and I.” As just another modern man, at least I have a couple tragic tracks with which to connect.
Winner: Bad Religion, not only for nailing the title’s subject matter, but as an example of an expertly written album opener.
Here is the audio to compare your modern men: