The year 2017 was not exactly ushered in with welcoming arms. Besides resolutions centred around personal gain (one less hangover per week, maybe?), nobody expected much. The only real objective was to shuffle away from the crippling sense of doom heralded by the year previous. It didn’t start well. Three weeks in, on the bleakest of January days, Donald Trump was sworn into office as US President. People were fragile. They still very much are. And in the background of every event that unfolded, there existed the question: how the fuck did we get here?
Many see the splintering of beliefs in society – something which felt magnified in 2017 – as linked to the rise of “fake news,” where misinformation was systemically spread online. Stories with a particular bias, regardless of their fact-checking, could be promoted to Facebook and Google news feeds. The former social media network was plagued with accusations of Russian interference – a reported 126 million Russia-backed posts reached American Facebook users between 2015 and 2017. The actual extent of outside influence in the US election, Brexit vote, and European elections remains disputed by the alleged fake news facilitators. Yet this is a serious issue. Even more so when a figurehead as bullish as Trump can use the term “fake news” to his advantage, applying it as a sound bite to rebuke every story levelled against him, and in the process actively eroding the reputation of skilled, talented journalists.
But this is a music site not Politico, and so – instead of diving headfirst into the chasm between Trump and Putin – we’re talking about how 2017 saw a handful of musicians embrace so-called fake news too. They did so partly through satire, partly as a means of exposing the futility of a 24/7 news cycle, and perhaps as a way to lighten up the mood in grievous times. But without fail, attempts to turn one of today’s more jarring, confusing issues into a clever marketing ploy were painfully unfunny. At their best, they made some of the world’s biggest acts seem mildly more #woke. At their worst, these same acts seemed to poke fun at their own fans.
Let’s start with Arcade Fire. Since debuting with wild, hollering LP Funeral, the Canadian group have grown to use their increasingly big status to play games. Follow-up Neon Bible was first announced via a cryptic hotline (1-866-NEON-BIBLE). The Suburbs launched via a lavish Spike Jonze-directed film, plus the first interactive music video to use Google Street View. By 2013’s Reflektor, these album rollouts seemed to drag on for months. Mysterious quasi-religious posters appeared worldwide in the summer. As word got out, the band played gigs in giant papier mache heads, and assumed the status of a fictional band, “The Reflektors.” Promotional ideas became grander with each record, and although it may have felt tiresome from an outsider’s perspective, fans of the band were rightly swept up in the excitement.
That tone changed in 2017 with fifth album Everything Now. In May, a Twitter page resembling a Russian spam account began to drop hints about new material. They established their own promotional company, Everything Now Corp, and acted out fake feuds with their apparent overlords. “Everything Now Corp doesn’t want to work with a band that’s content to be the ninth biggest in the world,” they posted alongside a video for ‘Creature Comfort’. So far, so kind of funny – a singular ‘ha’. As the album approached, the vaguely interesting fabrications took on a new light. They designed mock-up webpages for The Hollywood Reporter and Stereogum. With the latter, they hired journalists to write a fake ‘Pre Evaluation’ album review of Everything Now, ridiculing the site’s flippant criticism. After that, they set up a phoney profile piece on the site Fact Company, which claimed the group were considering selling ‘‘removable jihadi beards’’ and a USB fidget spinner edition of the new record. By this point, the hot takes – with about as much cutting edge as a sponge – had glued together into one boiling broth of self-important noise.
The problem with this pre-album campaign is less about poor execution and more about the original intent. Describing Everything Now’s build up as an “art experiment” to Beats 1’s Zane Lowe, frontman Win Butler added: “We did it kind of full well knowing that every review would be talking about the promotional campaign instead of the music, which is kind of exactly the point.” Lowe put Butler on the spot by saying it’s “dicey ground” to tackle the post-truth era, to which he didn’t offer up much of a response. “We want people to question what they read a little bit,” he said. “Around the record, there’s that noise anyway. No matter what you do, the noise and the whirlwind of garbage is what it is. We’re putting some chaos into that. It’s really not in a malicious way.” Butler sounded bored by the pre-album process, and it’s hard to blame him. But Everything Now didn’t just satirise the traditional promotional campaign. It dizzied fans, sent them down various wrong paths, and all for the sake of being able to say: this happens all the time! It’s so 2017!
Around the same time as Everything Now was released, word began to spread that Kid Rock, a diehard Republican, would be running for US Senate in Michigan. “You’ve never met a politician quite like me,” his campaign website proudly stated. In a post-Trump landscape, where celebrity status goes a long way to earning a place in the White House, it wasn’t hard to fall for the story. The LA Times said it was “no joke” that Kid Rock was running. An electoral watchdog accused him of violating federal law, because he hadn’t officially registered his candidacy. He even went as far as to stain “fake news” stories which claimed he was running on a far-right ticket. Fans posted with “KID ROCK 18” tees, local businesses showed their support. The whole thing began to gain serious momentum.
As it turned out, this was an elaborate and false story planted by the man himself. People naturally panicked when they heard Kid Rock, once pictured with the Confederate flag, might be dipping his toes into politics, riding on Trump’s celebrity-turned-authoritarian coattails. Speaking to Billboard, he later bemoaned how everyone “just took it seriously,” adding, “the climate was ripe, no doubt, with what happened with Trump.” And although he admitted the stunt was “one of the dumber things I’ve ever done,” it looked grossly insensitive to plant false stories in today’s climate.
On a smaller scale, Eminem toyed with falsehoods when cryptically announcing the title for his latest album. Posters appeared on billboards for a prescription drug called REVIVAL, which promised to “effectively treat people” with the made-up condition “Atrox Rithimus”. Inquisitive fans could call up a hotline (1-833-2GET-REV), to which they’d be read out a list of side effects over one of Em’s Dr Dre collaborations, “I Need a Doctor”. Again, many will consider this to be nothing but fun and games. A mystery trail doesn’t harm anyone. But in an age when it’s becoming harder to separate fact from fiction, any artist dabbling in their own ‘fake news’ doesn’t come out looking good.
It’s worth stating that neither Arcade Fire or Eminem are on the side of Trump. Everything Now’s cover art was shot in Death Valley, California, the lowest point in America (symbolic, right?). Slim Shady’s finger-pointing, spluttering BET Awards rap came closer than anyone previous to rhyming a word with “orange”. And although Kid Rock is a conservative, he’s distanced himself from the far-right movement. There’s no direct political agenda here.
But ultimately, these are three rich, white, clearly bored acts looking to stoke the wrong fire. Like every big act caught up in a headline-generating cycle, they are desperate to reinvent the wheel when musicians are told to do something drastic every time a new album is imminent. Frankly, all wealthy, established artists with considerable influence should be doing more to rally against the political power-holders, rather than putting their fans in a merry-go-round, or poking fun at an existing problem. Not just a problem, in fact, but one of the biggest threats to democracy today. These rollouts aren’t thought-provoking, funny, or even in tune with the music the respective artists make. They’ve also bordered on being disdainful, taking their fans at face value, perceiving them to be easily-duped pawns in a broken machine. In fairness to Arcade Fire, like any other stadium-bothering, gigantic band, they require eyeballs as much as ears. But they took on a subject that’s still unravelling in time with the U.S. President’s legality.
Fake news remains a sensitive topic, because we’re yet to understand the full extent, gravity and impact of it. Acts with the platform and capability to shape opinion should do so with tact. They ought to help fans steadily navigate troubled times, not make life more confusing. But through these lofty 2017 rollouts, they’ve commented from an elitist perspective, like someone laughing on the outside instead of fanning the flames. So – fuck all’a that and roll on 2018, eh.
You can find Jamie on Twitter.