Since Arcade Fire is a serious “album band” and this is a serious concept album, Ready to Start begins—or, erm, starts—with a fade-in from the previous track, the first of five such segues on The Suburbs that tie the songs together. Now we hear the driving rhythm that matches my musical expectations—based on a vague, cultural-osmosis kind of awareness—of Arcade Fire. Next time you listen to this track, take note of the effect—I can only describe it as an “amping up” sound—buried in the mix that starts around 00:16, followed by a kind of feedback that drops out immediately before Win’s vocals come in at 00:30 (the effect is much more prominent in the Damian Taylor remix of the song). Combined with the progressive layering of the instruments, this almost-subliminal sound contributes volumes to the anticipatory nature of the rest of the song.
If the businessmen drink my blood
Like the kids in art school said they would
Then I guess I’ll just begin again
You say, “Can we still be friends?”
The lyrics open with a reference to blood-sucking businessmen—perhaps symbolizing a fear of “selling out”—whom our singer was warned about by those art student Kids. As Win has explained, “…the feeling of Ready to Start came from going to art school and meeting a lot of people who had really defined political ideas and rules about art. But I just wanted to make something in the world and worry about the rest of it later and not get too caught up in rules.” (Oh god, I sound like an art school kid!)
The ‘fear of selling out’ theme will return in earnest a few tracks later on City With No Children.
All the kids have always known that the emperor wears no clothes
But they bow down to him anyway—
It’s better than being alone
In this stanza we get deep into the conceptual meat of The Suburbs. Even though ‘us kids know’ these truths in our guts—that the king “is just a windbag in fancy clothes” (The Story of B, 263), or that the emperor is naked (the unpleasant reality that the adults don’t want to see)—we are compelled to suppress our instincts (for freedom, human connection, &c.) so that we can lead a ‘normal’ life; the Kids grow up continuing to bow down to the king, and so he maintains control over them, while the very few that don’t bow down are alienated.
I’m reminded at this point of Chapter 2.2 of Ishmael:
“Once you learn to discern the voice of Mother Culture humming in the background…you’ll never stop being conscious of it. Wherever you go for the rest of your life, you’ll be tempted to say to the people around you, ‘How can you listen to this stuff and not recognize it for what it is?’ And if you do this, people will look at you oddly and wonder what the devil you’re talking about. In other words, if you [learn to recognize the world for what it is/stop bowing down to the emperor/take the red pill &c.], you’re going to find yourself alienated from the people around you—friends, family, past associates, and so on” (37).
I think there’s a similar conceptual tie to ideas reflected in The Lottery in this verse: specifically, the notion that ideas of cultural change always originate with young people. Like the naked emperor, it’s a scary notion because it’s true. If you want to shift a culture in a new direction, you don’t direct your appeal at the current generation of parents, you direct it at their children.
Now you’re knocking at my door
Saying “Please come out with us tonight”
But I would rather be alone than pretend I feel alright
The singer’s friends want him to come out on the town with them, but he would prefer not to. And why does he not? Linking this to the previous verse is that key word alone. By going out with his friends (i.e., not being alone), he will be bowing down to the naked emperor and pretending everything in the world is hunky-dory, even if—as an intelligent, introspective man with an open mind—he knows it’s not. Or, as a uncharacteristically-perceptive user on the website SongMeanings observed,
“This is the most clear statement Butler makes in the song. He is explicitly saying that he does not wish to comply with this societal pressure to exist on such a plane of superficiality. He doesn’t wish to mask his pain and inadequacy behind a drunken night with friends or a numbing outing. He has no intention of softening life’s blow, like so much of society is designed to accomplish. Butler wants to actually feel what this world deals each and every one of us, not to hide in an illusory refuge of friendship.”
If I was scared, I would and if I was bored, you know I would/
If I was scared, I would and if I was pure, you know I would
And if I was yours, but I’m not, now I’m ready to start
I would rather be wrong than live in the shadows of your song
My mind is open wide and now I’m ready to start,
You’re not sure, you open the door and step out into the dark, now I’m ready
As for the refrain, I have little to say. Our singer, while neither scared, bored, or pure, is also apparently not loved by somebody (he’s not the “yours” of a special someone). Isn’t it funny how completely incomprehensible writing about ephemeral concepts like affection can be….
Also, note the identically-phrased “I would rather be ___ than _____” lines. Does he mean to connect being alone and being wrong, versus feeling alright and living “in the shadows of your song”? As we see later in Suburban War, our singer has been living ‘in the shadows of your song’, which means…what? The singer has been right? Has been wrong? About what?
And at last, as we leave the comfort of our familiar doorway for the darkness of the Wild, we can begin our journey through The Suburbs.