“There’s an essay by Kierkegaard called The Present Age that I was reading a lot that’s about the reflective age. This is like in , and it sounds like he’s talking about modern times. He’s talking about the press and alienation, and you kind of read it and you’re like, ‘Dude, you have no idea how insane it’s gonna get.’”—Win Butler in Rolling Stone
Arcade Fire’s newest album Reflektor has brought out the inner philosopher in just about every critic attempting a review the Canadian band. This is Arcade Fire’s first album since their Grammy winning 2011 effort The Suburbs. Thanks to an interview I recently read, I now am tossing my philosophical hat into the ring, and considering Reflektor through some ideas advanced by everyone’s favorite Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard (which received mention in the review of the album we recently posted at MB).
When I first listened to Reflektor, my mind immediately jumped to Jean Baudrillard and his ideas about simulation and simulacra (like this review from Tiny Mix Tapes), but according to Win Butler, lead singer, the album’s title and central theme comes from Kierkegaard and his essay, “The Present Age.” In the essay, published in 1846, Kierkegaard essentially argues that the present age has lost its passion and enthusiasm due to an overwhelming desire for cleverness, self-introspection, and reflection. It basically sounds like Kierkegaard called the whole “hipster” ordeal about a hundred and fifty years ago (which may actually make him an original hipster, especially considering his heavy influence on an Arcade Fire album, but I digress). Along with this prediction, though, Kierkegaard’s thoughts in “The Present Age” basically suggest that writing a critical review like this is useless…but here I go again, reflecting, proving his point.
“Therefore, one cannot really prosecute this generation, for its art, its understanding, its virtuosity and good sense lies in reaching a judgment or a decision, not in taking action.”—Kierkegaard
The title track, “Reflektor,” most straightforwardly displays Butler’s take on Kierkegaard’s essay. Amid swirling synths, driving drums, and pulsing bass, the message can be easy to miss, but the lyrics speak loud and clear: “It’s just a reflection of a reflection of a reflection of a reflection. Will I see you on the other side?” In a manner, Butler expands on Kierkegaard’s ideas, commenting on the pervasive nature of technology and social media which has turned our lives into reflecting performances. “We fell in love, alone on a stage, in the reflective age,” Butler sings, foregrounding the feeling that I know I get on my stage; and you know what I mean–that feeling that you need to manage and curate a persona (electronic or not), to show off the best side of you, put forward the best foot. As a result, we spend so much time thinking about how we present ourselves to others that all our actions become carefully calculated inner- and outer-judgments rather than the outpourings of passionate hearts. Once you start looking at Reflektor in this way, themes from Kierkegaard’s essay pop up all over the album.
“Like, if there was a piece of gold out on thin ice, in a passionate age, if someone went to try and get the gold, everyone would cheer them on and be like, “Go for it! Yeah you can do it!” And in a reflective age, if someone tried to walk out on the thin ice, everyone would criticize them and say, “What an idiot! I can’t believe you’re going out on the ice to try and risk something.” So it would kind of paralyze you to even act basically, and it just kind of resonated with me — wanting to try and make something in the world instead of just talking about things.”—Win Butler
Butler further indicts the reflective age in “Normal Person” with a healthy dose of self-awareness regarding the comfort of the normal. In “Normal Person,” the guitar riffs are salvaged from the graveyard of grunge, and they coalesce with Butler’s wry observations on being normal: “When they get excited, they try to hide it, look at those normals go!” Picking up where Kierkegaard left off, “Normal Person” perfectly illustrates the conundrum of the modern, normal person: we feel like we have to sit back and conform to a society where decorum and measured thinking rules. Any attempt to break free is met by resistance, where the feelingless and vain “will break you down till everything is normal now.” With trademark sarcasm, Butler revels in the very impossibility of “normalcy” at the end of the song: “I’ve never really ever met a normal person like you!” Fittingly, the first disc closes with “Joan of Arc,” a song about an individual who would be drastically out of place in the reflective age. “You had a vision they couldn’t see, so they put you down,” cries Butler, “they’re the ones who put you down, cause they got no heart, but I’m the one who will follow you, you’re my Joan of Arc.” In my own experience, I find it so easy to discount the experiences of those with a passionate, action-packed vision, and I would much rather sit back and contemplate, even putting down those who act on wild inspirations. And it is exactly this relentless thinking and over-analyzing that Butler aims at on “You Already Know.”
“The reflective tension this creates constitutes itself into a new principle, and just as in an age of passion enthusiasm is the unifying principle, so in a passionless age of reflection envy is the negative-unifying principle. This must not be understood as a moral term, but rather, the idea of reflection, as it were, is envy, and envy is therefore twofold: it is selfish in the individual and in the society around him. The envy of reflection in the individual hinders any passionate decision he might make; and if he wishes to free himself from reflection, the reflection of society around him re-captures him.”—Kierkegaard
With an addictive bass line and upbeat rhythm, it’s easy to revel in the joy of listening to “You Already Know” and dance past the larger point Butler is trying to make. “When your love is right, you can’t sleep at night…but when your love is bad, you don’t know why you’re so sad,” sings Butler, highlighting our tendency to over-think the good and bad things in our lives. Instead of being happy that we are in love, we stay up all night thinking about what could go wrong; conversely, when our relationships seem damaged, we analyze them and wonder why we are depressed. As Kierkegaard mentions, this approach to life hinders action and passion, as we get lost in a vicious cycle of reflection. Near the close of “You Already Know,” Butler attempts to hammer this point home with this repeated refrain: “Please stop wondering why you feel so bad, when you already know. Please stop wondering why you feel so sad, when you already know.” Most of the time, we know what’s wrong, but we insist on thinking about it over and over again, believing that if we can just find the right justification or explanation, the bad feeling will go away.
Speaking as a self-proclaimed overthinker, I can say with a fair amount of confidence that I don’t think I’ve ever been able to change my mood or my heart through my own thought processes. I already know why I feel bad and sad, but I want to avoid confronting those dark places in my heart. I’m not a normal person, but I want to hide my passions behind a façade of cool. My life is often a mess, but I set up reflections of myself to fool everyone around me as well as myself. Heck, even this essay probably falls into at least one of those categories above. In other words, Reflektor and Kierkegaard’s essay are just the things that I, and people like me, need to hear. There is still room for passionate action in the reflective age—just don’t think about it too much.