First things first: Another great song by Arcade Fire. I think it is one of their best more “traditional” type rock songs, vocally and musically.
Lyrically, I think it is, along with many of the songs on Reflektor, a song dealing with “collisions” happening in our society. I think the collision in this song is of people groups engaged in “culture war” battles that occur regarding who is entitled to the “status” of being considered “normal.”
I think that a “changing places” scenario is the underlying operative principle shown in the song. When cultural/societal/national values change peoples that are “normal” then become “sub-normal” and vice versa.
The question of who receives the status of “Normal People” can become extremely contentious, since “status” can and does influence benefiting from societal and legal rights. Withholding rights violates America’s Declaration of Independence which states:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
But it seems to me that Arcade Fire is more concerned with status problems that arise in the “cultural” realm. They see that peer acceptance in schools based on the desire for normalhood takes place in the context of cold “cool” -ness and terrible “cruel” -ty. (Of course such cool cruelty from the “normal persons” is not limited to school days.) There also seems to be a word of warning against an immoral or amoral egalitarian collectivism whose motto is “Break it down until everything is normal now.”
But “societal” normalcy seems to become evident in the reference to taking “tea” and “sleeping” while the rainforest shrinks. I think this means that as “normal people” i.e. normal Americans we become cogs, complicity contented in our consumer society, without thought for consequences such as those resulting in the natural world.
There is also a reference which seems to question whether rigid national language standards for “national” normalcy is constructive when it replaces peoples native dream language with “proper English.”
The song, through these interesting examples, challenges the utility of a standard of normalcy in relation to different aspects of our shared “communal” life.
So does Arcade Fire present a solution to the problem of standards of normalcy? The following part of the song seems to provide their answer:
Maybe if you hang together, you can make the changes in our hearts
And if you hang together, you can change us, just where should you start?
What this means is difficult to know for sure, being somewhat vague. The lyric is repeated elsewhere in the album, at the end of the song “We Exist.” That song seems to be a case study of someone or some persons that are excluded from the status of normalcy.
I think that the “you” that changes could be God, or could be the other person that we may not consider to be “normal.” So here’s my tentative guess at how their “answer” works:
- The problem is not solved by defining or becoming “Normal”
- The problem is solved by recognizing and forming community
- Familiarity and fellowship replaces xenophobia (fear of strangers) and leads us in the direction of recognition and community
- “You” changes our hearts to bring community
I think the song ends by playing out this scenario. A new and previously unknown “Normal Person” is welcomed. Before this a “Normal Person” has never yet been known. So it seems that what is going on is a change in the definition of “Normal” to denote someone that has not been involved with or created by false standards of admittance to the status of normalcy. They are “primally” normal. This all implies that if we want to meet a normal person we only need to reach for the hand of any person before us, and they are already normal by merely being themselves. There is no-one outside this status of normal, and the “standard” for normalcy has changed now to admit all humans.
Earlier I noted that there seemed to be a word of warning against an amoral egalitarian collectivism whose motto would be “break it down until everything is normal now.” Is their solution of accepting everyone as “Normal” any different than making everything normal? It seems to me that there is a difference. Breaking everything down to make everything normal is basing normalcy on practice. Accepting every person as normal is basing normalcy on essence. This raises an age old question of the relationship of practice to essence (or action to being).
This is the realm of philosophy, and I’m no philosopher. But I think in our western world, influenced by Greek philosophy and Judeo-Christian theology, the problem has been addressed by the proposition that every human person is created in the image of God. Furthermore, regardless of the practice of persons created thus, they remain image-bearers.
It seems to me that to avoid making “everything” or every practice normal, we must take this view. Arcade Fire is expressing a view of morality, steering away from immorality and amorality. We must grasp the fact that every person created in the image of God is thereby normal, but also practitioners of things that can be not normal.
The lesson in all of this is probably that the status of normalcy, for the sake of being entitled to cultural, social, or political rights, is simply based on our being human, and not based on our human practices.
There are many implications of this truth, and any truth is always subject to mis-application in life situations. For instance, this truth does not make a child an adult, a man a woman, or an unqualified person a qualified one. Many would like to use the truth to circumvent reality in certain situations, but the truth of normalhood or humanhood does not imply egalitarianism, that all humans are equal in every way.
In conclusion, it seems that to Arcade Fire simply being human admits us to “normalhood.” I do wonder if they imply that this “normalhood” admits us all, by our inalienable human rights, into “entitlement” to every human scenario. I think they probably do.
I would be glad if you post any comments, questions, or critiques!
Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2013. Excerpts, links, and reblogging may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.