We Are All Eurotrash Now

From Miley Cyrus to Arcade Fire, how the disco beats of Berlin conquered the world.

There's something perplexing about the new Arcade Fire record. After a career defined by punky energy, end-of-sleepaway-camp-esque sing-a-longs, and obscure acoustic instruments, Reflektor sounds awfully reminiscent of Euro disco, or at least its unshaven New York City offspring headquartered at DFA Records. That endless, pounding bass drum rhythm has completely taken over every other part of pop music, from glossy pop acts like The Black Eyed Peas and Katy Perry to cool-kid groups like Daft Punk, Passion Pit, and Hot Chip. Does the new Arcade Fire record represent the beat's ultimate conquest? Has EuroDance taken over the world completely?

About that beat: known as "four-on-the-floor," it's the bass-drum-on-every-quarter-note pulse that undergirds pretty much every disco hit you've ever heard. It's the "boots" in the "boots-n-cats" of house music. It's been around in popular music since at least 1966, when Eddie Floyd released "Knock on Wood," and then it began to take over the world in 1973, when Stevie Wonder's "Superstition," the O'Jays "Love Train," and the Ohio Players "Funky Worm," among others, hit the charts. Soon it was the sound of almost every disco hit of the decade, including (among literally hundreds of others) "I Will Survive," "Good Times," and "Stayin' Alive."

Disco's reign at the top of the pop charts ended, but four-on-the-floor didn't disappear. Mad European geniuses like Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder got their hands on it and fused it with more predominantly electronic sounds; in the early 1980s, early house pioneers in Chicago, such as Jesse Saunders, Larry Heard, and Jamie Principle, took this idea and ran with it. Soon, an array of sub-genres emerged, the diversity of which would overwhelm even the most dedicated record store employee: house, electro, electro house, acid house, deep house, techno, EBM, EDM, IDM, electronica ...we could be here all day. This universe of electronic music became the sound of dance clubs, and then raves as well, around the world. And with some notable interruptions along the way (drum and bass, jungle), the steady, quarter-note bass drum has proved remarkably resilient, tying together 30+ years of underground dance music.

Of course, the underground inevitably burbles up into the mainstream. The best pop music balances between two opposing poles: on the one hand, it distills the zeitgeist, capturing the sound and feel of right now. On the other hand, a great song has to sound new, fresh, tickling one's ears in a way they've never been tickled before. From Elvis through Madonna to the present day, there's always been a proud tradition of negotiating that tension by co-opting the novel sounds that are swirling around the fringes of culture and bringing them into the center. The list of massive four-on-the-floor hits from between 2007 and 2012 is expansive: Katy Perry's "Hot N Cold" and "California Gurls," Lady Gaga's "Poker Face," Kesha's "Tik Tok," absolutely everything by LMFAO -- to name some of the biggest examples. Even Adele's "Rolling in the Deep," which distinguished itself as an acoustic, organic antidote to ubiquitous club-based electronic pop music, is underpinned by a four-on-the-floor thump. For that matter, the Civil-War-chic movement of Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers et al., while ostensibly a folky, live-instruments-only reaction to electropop, trades almost exclusively on a straight quarter-note bass drum rhythm. And let's not forget the EDM mania of the last two years, a period that saw Skrillex become a multimillionaire, Diplo conquer the world, Calvin Harris seize Guinness records from Michael Jackson, and Vegas dance clubs earn more for their casinos than slot machines.

At the same time, pop always draws energy from shitting on the past. A great song feels so precisely right now because it sounds deliberately and emphatically unlike what happened yesterday. In 2007, after years of deliciously crooked and broken funk from Timbaland and Mark Ronson, four-on-the-floor felt exhilarating and propulsive. Its run, though, as the sound of moment, is over. A wonderful trio of songs sits at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 right now: Lorde's "Royals," Katy Perry's "Roar," Miley Cyrus's "Wrecking Ball," songs whose rhythms all are defiantly syncopated and/or slinky, decidedly lacking any kind of regular bass drum thump. (It's worth noting that both "Roar" and "Wrecking Ball" were spearheaded, co-written, and co-produced by the prolifically talented Dr. Luke, who has been responsible for many of the four-on-the-floor hits of the previous era, and who seems intent on proving his versatility.) Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" has become such a massive hit because -- video filled with naked ladies and cute animals aside -- its sexy, bubbly groove and playful sound stands out in such stark contrast to the black-leather-pants, duck-face-scowl affect of so much recent pop music.

Which is why Britney Spears's latest single, "Work Bitch" (or "Work B**ch" or "Work Work," depending on the delicacy of your constitution) just feels kind of sad. There are many problems with this song. For one thing, it sounds more like the intro to a great song than an actual song. But more to the point, it cranks up the regular, house-y bass drum, both in pitch and volume, so that it becomes the central focus of the song. The song celebrates that beat like an elderly banker flaunting his trophy wife at a party, oblivious to the fact that precisely what he thinks makes him look young and virile just highlights his frailty and pitifulness. During Britney's run as queen of pop, she had a great talent for picking/crafting (depending how responsible you imagine she was for her material) songs that seemed fresh and exciting. "...Baby One More Time" (along with Cher's "Believe") was an early importer of club house into the Top 40 (thanks to hitmaker, prolific Euro-house plunderer, and Dr. Luke mentor Max Martin -- it's all connected); "Toxic" is perhaps the only enduring song from that time when producers were convinced that bhangra was going to take over the world. No one could ever claim that Britney Spears was a maverick striving to push music into unexplored territory, but for many years she had a wonderful talent for making music that lived at that exciting junction of the now and the new.

Arcade Fire, on the other hand, is something different. They sell a bunch of records, and are tremendously popular, but they're not pop stars per se. Pop stars, of the breed discussed above, are more crassly commercial; we imagine them, their producers, and their executives conspiring to craft million-selling songs by chasing trends and imagining ways to maximize a tune's commercial potential. On the other hand, we imagine Arcade Fire operating from a more artistically pure place. They certainly see themselves that way; more than any other contemporary act, they take themselves seriously. Perhaps you find that tendency refreshing in a musical landscape otherwise dominated by self-aware, aw-shucks nonchalant posturing. Or perhaps it drives you crazy. Either way, between the ambitious interactive videos, mysterious global promotional campaigns, and emotive pantomimes inside mirrored boxes on national television, Arcade Fire proudly & loudly proclaim that they are explorers blazing a trail for others to follow. And their adventurousness is precisely the source of their popularity. Dr. Luke has our culture's permission to re-invent his music as tastes change; Arcade Fire is the type of group we expect to change those tastes.

Which is why the first samples of the new Arcade Fire record were perplexing. There had already been reports that they were working with James Murphy (the once-and-future king of indie dance music, founder of DFA, mastermind of LCD Soundsystem) on the new music. The songs they premiered on SNL seemed entirely in the thrall of Murphy's hyper-cool, disaffected disco sound. Which was disappointing in two ways: 1) The glacial cool of Murphy's sound seemed to anesthetize the band, removing the most distinctive and appealing aspects of their sound, -- namely the urgency and passion of Butler's delivery and ferocious instrumental builds; 2) the whole idea of reimagining the band as italo-disco hipsters seemed like something wanna-bes did in 2011 after listening to a lot of LCD Soundsystem. Imagining what the whole album would sound like, one could easily envision a worst-case scenario of house-inflected bangers, a collection of songs written by aging musicians desperately clinging to relevance. Moreover, such a record would represent a complete Borg-like swallowing of popular music by the incessant and unyielding four-on-the-floor. If the vanguard had been co-opted, then truly the takeover would be complete.

Happily, however, that's not the case. The album as a whole pulls off the neat trick -- often aspired to, rarely realized -- of taking the group down a new path (even if that path is well-tread or, in this case, well-glowsticked) while maintaining the group's sound and originality. For one thing, it's a diverse record; there are bouncy jams and anthemic straight-up rockers that comport with previous ideas of what the band can and should be doing. And even when it comes to the dance-ier tracks, it's not like the band simply programmed a quarter-note bass drum track under their songs. Some ingenious production details make even the four-on-the-floor tracks feel remarkably personal and non-generic. In particular, Murphy and Markus Dravs, Arcade Fire's other producer and long-time collaborator, perform some magic with the drum production, making the rhythm tracks sound simultaneously organic, groovy, and Arcade Fire-y. And the band's penchant for rich, original, and complex timbres -- perhaps their sonic hallmark -- remains as strong as ever. "Work Bitch" feels sycophantic primarily because the timbres involved seem imported directly from a bad dubstep sample pack; Reflektor sounds original because it operates in its own sonic universe.

More important than any other musical detail, though, is that Win Butler knows, better than any other songwriter working today, how to write a melody and lyric that suit his voice and delivery. Critics looking to score contrarian points love to isolate Butler's words and point out how facile they can seem laid bare on the page; "Is anything as strange as a normal person? Is anyone as cruel as a normal person?" or "Can we just work it out? Scream and shout till we work it out?" But those words weren't written to be read as prose; combined with his melody and delivery, in the context of the song, they form part of a remarkable whole. Arcade Fire backlash is driven primarily by the sense that the superficial spectacle of the band -- their grandiosity and propensity for elaborate gesture -- is what has positioned them as the sine qua non serious band of this era. And while their love of baroque costumery, mysterious gestures, and literary allusions have no doubt shaped public perception of the group, none of it would matter if Butler and the band couldn't write and perform songs that feel immediately classic.

But the question remains: why would Arcade Fire decide to explore in this direction? Why invite the accusations of shallow trend-following? Pop music can be great because it seems like the perfect summation of the present tense; it can also be great because it sounds like the future. But it can also simply be great because it's good. Any cultural artifact can get swept up as part of a fad, and then it's impossible to engage with that piece of culture without thinking about all the baggage that has become associated with it. All of a sudden, everything is bacon-flavored -- and then ordering bacon becomes some kind of referendum on your relationship with the foodie-hipster complex. But beyond the cultural trends, the original artifact still possesses its essential appeal. Strip away all the fad-iness, all the hipness, and four-on-the-floor is still intrinsically compelling. It's why, for more than three decades, it has underpinned music around the globe. Done right, it's just good.



What to Pack When You're Leaving a War

As the U.S. retrograde hits its peak, what will America really leave behind in Afghanistan?

Such a small word, such a giant operation. The drawdown of U.S. forces from Afghanistan -- known as the retrograde -- is to be completed by the end of 2014; in raw tonnage, it's the biggest single military logistical undertaking ever. For size and complexity, think of something in between D-Day and the moon landing. To the Taliban, the retrograde is the shortening shadow of a decade-long war against Western occupation, announcing the dawn of victory. Increasingly left to fend for itself, the Western-backed Hamid Karzai regime is under pressure to settle with the insurgents, or risk being swept away by a second Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. As America's Afghan war draws to a close, is there a way for the United States and its allies to snatch victory from the jaws of retreat? While it's too early to say for sure, history does not look kindly on retreating superpowers.

But before we get bogged down in the semantic quagmire of assessing what victory sounds like, let's first take a look at the hard numbers. The U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan will fill 40,000 containers, a task requiring 29,000 personnel, and costing more than $5.5 billion. The retrograde hits its peak just about now, at a rate of 2,000 containers and 1,000 vehicles repatriated each month, before winter snows make the mountains impassable.

In-country, the retrograde consists of sorting yards at Bagram Airfield and eight other bases, where vehicles and other military equipment will be dismantled and stripped of weapons and ammo before being stuck in a seaworthy box. In all, the army has to account for approximately 2 million pieces of non-rolling stock and 24,000 pieces of rolling stock that need to be retrograded, transferred, or disposed. About 10 percent of these items will remain in Afghanistan, for the benefit of the Afghan National Army or -- equally likely -- as a welcome addition to the livelihood of smugglers and other traders. The rest will be removed via one of three routes: by truck, to the Pakistani port of Karachi; north through the former Soviet 'stans of Central Asia and Russia proper to the Baltic and Black Seas on a combination of road and rail dubbed the Northern Distribution Network; or by air, to the Indian Ocean atoll of Diego Garcia and then directly into Fort Blair and other airbases in the continental United States. Each route is fraught with dangers and limitations, together providing the retrograde with that Biblical example of logistical improbability -- a camel passing through the eye of a needle.

Doubtlessly, the outbound convoys will suffer some Taliban strafing; but essentially, the insurgents are glad to see the back of the Americans. And emboldened: in July, the Taliban even opened an embassy-like office in Qatar, the better to pursue a talk-and-fight strategy. While it is not clear how much talking is being done -- the office closed in July -- continuing attacks on U.S. and Afghan bases are a clear sign the Taliban is testing the strength of the drawing down Western forces and their replacement, the Afghan national army.

No wonder that the U.S. retreat won't be complete, not even on Dec. 31, 2014. Afghan and U.S. officials are still haggling over the exact figures -- with an exasperated Obama reportedly threatening complete withdrawal -- but the numbers bandied about vary between 5,000 and 12,000 NATO troops to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014, plus a small counterterrorism force. The Afghan forces will then be solely responsible for fighting the Taliban on a "day-to-day basis," but even so a continuing U.S. military presence will be necessary to make their gains "sustainable," Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, told the New York Times in July.

Parallels spring to mind with the U.S. exit from that other Asian quagmire -- Vietnam. President Richard Nixon preceded the 1973 pullout from that conflict with a policy of "Vietnamization": the transfer of combat duties to the local army, as is happening now in Afghanistan. The exit itself was the result of a self-sustaining cycle of anti-war sentiment in the United States, which informed a gradual military disengagement, which in turn emboldened the opposition. It ended in April 1975, with U.S. helicopters pushed off the decks of war ships to accommodate a swelling number of refugees, choppered in from a beleaguered Saigon.

Modern wars dwarf those of antiquity, but some lessons, mostly of the non-cheerful variety, may be drawn from military history. Take the case of Hannibal. That Carthaginian general became the patron saint of supply-chain managers by spectacularly shipping 38,000 foot soldiers, 8,000 cavalry, and 38 war elephants from North Africa to European in order to wage war on Rome.

In 218 B.C., Hannibal marched his army 1,500 miles across Spain and France into Italy in five months. Together with his elephants, they crossed the Pyrenees, the Alps, and in between the river Rhone -- the animals and soldiers were ferried across on specially constructed rafts. The logistics involved in each of these crossings, especially the winter crossing of the Alps, were one of the most brilliant achievements of the Second Punic War. Unfortunately for Hannibal, it would turn out that he had extended his supply chain too far.

Hannibal ravaged the length and the breadth of Italy, never losing a battle to the Romans. At Cannae in 216 B.C., he inflicted the heaviest defeat ever on a Roman army in Italy, killing close to 80,000. But Rome itself was impregnable, and Hannibal was unable to peel off enough of Rome's allies to form a viable coalition. Hannibal was slowly ground down by the so-called Fabian Strategy, by which the Romans avoided pitched battles with the Carthaginians, but denied them a way out of Italy. When the Romans took the war to Carthage itself, Hannibal was recalled -- and defeated on his own turf.

Another general who seriously overestimated the reach of his formidable army was Napoleon, who marched into Russia with 442,000 men in June 1812, captured Moscow with his remaining 100,000 men in September, and stumbled out of Russia with a mere 10,000 soldiers three months later. The logistics of that dreadful campaign were captured to chilling effect in perhaps the best statistical chart ever: The Minard Map, created by 19th-century civil engineer Charles Joseph Minard, simultaneously represents the area's geography, the direction of Napoleon's advance and retreat, the size of his army (each shrinking millimeter represents 10,000 soldiers fewer), the temperature, and the elapsed time.

A century and a half later, the Russians would exploit the same combination of scorched-earth tactics -- the debilitating winter, the strategic depth of the country itself -- to do to Adolph Hitler's Wehrmacht what they had done to Napoleon's Grande Armée. The Red Army conquered Eastern Europe in spite of the gruesome losses to the Soviet Union: at least 20 million dead vs. 4 million German casualties on the Eastern Front.

For the next half century, and despite the rhetoric of socialist internationalism, the Soviets treated Eastern Europe essentially as war booty, turning their sphere of influence into a collection of satellite states obediently orbiting communism's global center of gravity in the Kremlin. But the Berlin Wall was the high-water mark of Moscow's plans for world domination. In 1989, the Wall fell, sparking its own retreat. The immensity of Soviet withdrawal from what was known as the Eastern Bloc is nowadays overshadowed by the 1992 collapse of the Soviet Union itself. But the drawback of half a million Red Army troops from eastern Germany in a mere three years, from 1991 to 1994, nevertheless stands as the largest pullout ever by an undefeated army.

The retreating Russians took along more than 8,200 armored vehicles, 4,200 tanks, 3,600 artillery pieces, 1,300 planes and helicopters -- plus an undisclosed number of tactical nuclear warheads. The East German contingent was the Soviet Union's largest, but not their only military presence in Eastern Europe. In all, it drew back to the Motherland 700,000 soldiers and 500,000 civilians -- a movement of troops and personnel so unprecedented in scale that many of the homecomers had to be billeted in tents and other temporary living accommodations.

Adding a perhaps typically Russian flair to a logistical operation of this size, the retreating soldiers were allowed to take home anything they could carry off the base. This included window frames, electrical outlets, even an entire runway, made up of thousands of 3,000-pound concrete slabs. The permission to strip the bases was granted to alleviate the poverty to which many of the post-Soviet troops would be returning. A concrete pole repatriated to Russia was reputed to be worth five pigs back home.

1989 wasn't only the year that Eastern Europe threw off the Soviet yoke; it was also the year the Soviets abandoned their own Afghan adventure. On Feb. 15, Gen. Boris Gromov crossed the Friendship Bridge into Uzbekistan, becoming the last soldier of the Soviet expeditionary force, which numbered 115,000 at its height, to leave the country. Gromov left after nine brutal years of war, which cost 15,000 Soviet and perhaps as many as 1 million Afghan lives. And all he left behind were a small cadre of Soviet advisors for an allied government increasingly isolated in Kabul. A giant Red Army tank graveyard to the east of Kabul serves as a stark, Ozymandias-like reminder of the fickleness of world history.

And we all know what happened next -- an outcome less than reassuring to the present retreating superpower or current President Hamid Karzai: President Mohammad Najibullah, the embattled Soviet ally, was deposed in 1992 and fled to the U.N. compound in Kabul. When the Taliban took power in 1996, they captured and castrated him, dragging his body through the streets and then hanging it from a traffic light. The Soviet legacy in Afghanistan is now limited to rusting tank bodies, 10 million land mines scattered across the country, and the burnt-out remains of buildings like the House of Science and Culture.

Will America's legacy in Afghanistan be equally disheartening and inconsequential? Today, even in the heart of Kabul, car bombs are a constant reminder of the state of insecurity. But perhaps the best footprint the United States can hope to leave in South Asia's poorest, most troubled country is a favorable impression left on the hearts and minds of its people. In that respect, maybe the Americans should learn from the Brits, who know a thing or two about failed Afghan missions. As they too prepare to pack up and leave, they can proudly look back on a cultural implant taking solid root in Afghan soil -- on October 4, Afghanistan's national cricket team defeated Kenya by 7 wickets, thereby qualifying the country to participate in the game's World Cup for the first time ever. Riotous celebrations erupted across Kabul, Kandahar, and other big cities. If the U.S. plays its cards right, the next generation of Afghan kids may yet turn their eyes away from the cricket pitches of England, and towards the basketball courts and baseball diamonds of America for inspiration. It might be worth quietly leaving behind a few balls and bats.