A couple of weeks ago I came across this news story on NME’s website. Not a huge connoisseur of Arcade Fire myself, for I only know a couple of songs pretty good, although I may’ve bought an album somewhen, but nonetheless I really had to read the whole article. In fact, my interest was already captured by the unusual headline used: “Arcade Fire’s Will Butler to write songs based on Guardian news stories”. The article is basically about this new thing the singer-songwriter Will Butler had agreed to do in collaboration with The Guardian from 23rd to 27th February where he’d write and release a song a day based on news stories produced by the liberal UK newspaper.
Well, I think this operation is at the same time very cool and really worrying. I’ve been interested in journalism and all its various forms and developments for a long time and, above all, I do consider it being a fundamental pillar of modern progressive societies, if functioning properly with discrete transparency and accountability. In addition to that, I’m at the moment interning at a journalism and society’s think tank called Polis based at my university (to be specific, I’m taking care of their Twitter profile), so I do feel a bit of a personal duty catalysing me to comment on this featuring.
On the one hand, I honestly see the collaboration as something useful to try out new forms of songwriting and inspiration generation in realms never really tried out before, particularly in an established way. As Butler himself – whose by the way solo debut album “Policy” is due to be released on 16th March via Merge Records – declared in an associated interview: “It’s a cruel thing, but sometimes you read something and think, ‘Uh oh. I could make something really meaty out of that'”. Thus, if he’s admitting to feel inspired by real-world phenomena and issues, who are we to stop him from doing that? After all, it was even the folk-Lord Bob Dylan himself who involuntarily kicked off his tradition, as he once declared that certain of his songs were actually based on news headlines. Yet, on the other hand, I’d have to ask myself: are songs and especially lyrics not always somehow triggered by what specific artists come across in their everyday life experience, whether consciously or unconsciously? I feel there is no real need to officially frame this process directly by setting up such kinds of collaboration. If one gets inspired by a newspaper’s story, then he/she should just go on and write the piece without feeling obliged to give back something in return or to somehow acknowledge the source of creativity. What is really missing here, for me, is the true point of the overall operation.
However, these may be considerations concerning more the artistic-musical dimension of the relationship. I think one should also be aware that The Guardian itself could really gain something by such a featuring with someone who’s without doubt a really valuable musician. I’m not only talking about a healthy portion of promotion across target audiences (even though I concede that it’s debatable who’s really profiting between Butler and The Guardian on a mere publicity-level). I’m actually also referring to an interesting analysis that could be done of how their news stories can get perceived by someone who’s deployed to turn them into musical pieces. What is being consider relevant? What can be left out? Are such conceptions of values shared across the two parties or is there a big discrepancy in the output? This is exactly where the operation gets really fascinating, in my opinion: to see how something rather static presenting events and facts happening in the world in a journalistic way gets converted into an art effort. Still I think it’s not extremely surprising that The Guardian has come up with something like this. Thus, it’s certainly right to say that the UK newspaper has always been very successful in re-inventing itself both on- and offline as well as in finding new ways to undertake ‘alternative’ approaches to traditional news reporting across time, being it by redesigning specific features, undertaking risky editorial choices, or simply establishing new columns. It’s almost become its recognised trademark, and probably also what it makes it so popular.
For those interested, the result of the featuring between Will Butler and The Guardian’s website can be admired and heard here. I’m not gonna judge on the five songs themselves – after all, this isn’t an ARM blogpost – I really just wanted to let these thoughts out on the overall collaboration. Which, at the end of the day, I’m not really sure if I genuinely like or quietly fear. The answer is probably that since it was The Guardian that was implied, maybe the whole thing doesn’t seem so out of control after all. Great initiative, yet with an obscure goal.
I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.