After first hearing Arcade Fire's "We Exist" from 2013's Reflektor, it was obvious what the song was about. The meaning was plainly evident:
(meaning #1) It was a first person narrative sung by Jesus to God the Father, lamenting people's lack of belief in them. Here was a Jesus alive on earth in modern times, and even though he was right there in the flesh, everyone is "walking around, head full of sound, acting like we don't exist...but we exist"* (lyrics) As sung by Jesus, the song is a comment on the Nietzschean God-is-dead, post-theistic world we live in. How would Jesus approach a world that doesn't believe in him, even if he is right there living among them and what would his prayers back to God be? "We Exist" captures that scenario. What a fascinating perspective to capture in a song, I thought.
What made this interpretation obvious to me was the line "not the first betrayed by a kiss." Obviously, this is Jesus referencing his betrayal by Judas Iscariot into the hands of the Jewish leadership the night before he died. But wait. That doesn't make sense. If the person singing the song says he's not the first betrayed by a kiss, then maybe he's not Jesus at all. Maybe he's someone else entirely. On top of that, some of the lines in the bridge don't seem to fit the Jesus/God/atheist interpretation (those beginning with "You know we're going nowhere..."). Still, I liked my interpretation—I am a Christian after all and would love it if Arcade Fire became the next big Contemporary Christian band (wink wink).
But then I read several interviews with Win Butler (lead singer and songwriter for the band) where he revealed his intended meaning of the song. It was hard for me to see it at first, but after listening to it again it began to make sense:
"There’s a song on “Reflektor” called “We Exist”, which is about a gay kid talking to his dad [“Daddy, it’s true, I’m different from you. But tell me why they treat me like this?”]. In dominant cultures there’s what’s normal, and everything else is abnormal. It’s one of the darker tendencies of humanity to think everyone should fit into a mould."
Aha. So there you have it. (meaning #2) It's a bewildered son speaking to his father. He's gay and doesn't fit in. He's looking for guidance from his dad and also hoping his dad doesn't reject him too, just like everyone else has. He is looking to have his existence passively acknowledged by "they", but underneath the surface there is a deeper longing, a desire to be actively loved, specifically by his father who's love he fears losing.
Now, after giving a deep reading of the song, what I find interesting is there are still very prevalent parallels between the (possible) Jesus/God dialogue and gay son/father dialogue. For instance:
1. "Daddy it's true, I'm different from you, but tell me why they treat me like this." God the Father is fully Spirit, whereas Jesus is God made flesh. Jesus is different from God. There was much confusion throughout Jesus' life (and afterwards) as to who he really was. Was he God (or a god) or was he a man? Like a gay man, Jesus was ostracized from his society, so much so that it got him killed. Gay people are also not "normal". They don't fit in with those who live life conventionally, and the "normal people" don't quite know what to do with them.
2. The betrayed by a kiss line. This line is especially interesting because Butler equivocates the meaning of "betrayed". Jesus was betrayed by Judas differently than the narrator of the song was betrayed, apparently through a kiss that outed him as gay (as opposed to a kiss handing him over to the ruling Jewish authorities of Jesus' day).
3. "Oh Daddy don't turn away, you know that I'm so scared." This line, the cry of a son to his father not to forsake him has a direct parallel to Jesus' prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22, Matthew 26) as well as the cries of Jesus on the cross ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?", Matthew 27:46)
In the midst of noticing these parallels I then began to think of a 3rd possible meaning to this song: (meaning #3) The gay man is not necessarily talking to his biological father, but to God. It is God that he doesn't want to abandon him. This meaning is not obvious, but it is one valid way of looking at the song, adding another layer of depth to the woe of a man whose world does not want him, that has turned away from him and is actually hoping he doesn't exist at all.
But what if Win Butler added even another layer to his song? What if it is pleading to three different groups at the same time? What if the narrator fears rejection not only from his earthly father and his heavenly Father, but also from a larger group of people, namely the Church who are supposedly God's people? The narrator clues us in to this when speaking of the "they're" and "you're" who are hoping that "we don't exist". This possible meaning really hit me in the last lines of the bridge: "But will you watch us drown? What are you so afraid to lose?" Win Butler seems to be using a plea directed towards God to also confront God's people, a people notoriously known for hoping this whole LGBT thing would just go away.
So, one more interpretation (meaning #4) is that "We Exist" is a direct challenge to the Church, for them to turn their faces towards LGBT people and acknowledge they exist, to admit the "Others" are human too. This would seem to be the emphasis at the end of the song, where the lyrics apparently shift narrators from the young man to the "they" of the song, the group who acts like the LGBT community doesn't exist: "Maybe if you hang together/You can make the changes in our hearts.../...Just where should you start?" These lyrics are repeated word for word in "Normal Person", which comes later on in disc 1, also at the end of the song and again, like in "We Exist", seemingly from the people who were standing in judgment of the all Non-Normals.
And yet the end of the song is not clear, either in its narrative voice or in what exactly it is arguing for. Perhaps this is a case of lazy songwriting or maybe Win Butler has left the lyrics ambiguous on purpose. The closing lyrics, from the climactic bridge until the end, seems to shift narrators a few times, never making it apparent who is singing. Specifically, who is singing the line "praying that we don't exist" and who are they singing to? Is it really the "they" of the song, represented by the young man's father (or God or the Church), or is it the kid still, who is basically a symbol for LGBT people within the song? Who exactly is making the claim that "if you hang together you can make the changes in our hearts"? Is it the close-minded group ("they") speaking to the LGBT group, saying if you all can stay united perhaps we can change how we see you and accept you as a "normal person", or is the LGBT group approaching the "they" group, saying that they are the ones who could change? That is to say, who exactly is Butler implying has the potential to change; which of these polarized groups?
Now of course we know what Butler's intent in writing the song was because he has told us through numerous interviews. And yet why did he leave the lyrics so open-ended? Why does he switch back and forth between narrators, hardly giving a signal as to who is and is not talking? Does he perhaps view LGBT people more ambivalently than the rest of the song would lead us to believe?
Consider these lines from earlier in the song:
Oh Daddy don't turn away/You know that I'm so scared/
But will you watch me drown?/You know we're going nowhere
We know that we're young/And no s*** we're confused
But will you watch us drown?/What are you so afraid to lose?
Here we have a confused young man, unsure of himself even as he knows himself. In some senses "We Exist" is a surprising song coming from someone advocating for LGBT people and LGBT rights. Why didn't Butler take the message of the song further? Why is he only pleading that the "they" group simply acknowledge the existence of LGBT people? I have no definite answer to this but would argue that (meaning #5) based on the lyrics the song is mostly supportive and yet strangely ambivalent (see: "having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something or someone") towards LGBT people. That it is not an out and out anthem in support of who they are, but it instead exists in an uncomfortable middle ground, both for LGBT and "traditional" people, acknowledging the overall ambiguity of the issue and the state of things in our culture.
It is truly remarkable is how subtle Butler is in his approach to the issue of LGBT rights. Actually, the song is not about their rights at all, but is merely a challenge to those on what would be called the "traditional" or "conservative" or "bigoted" or "homophobic" side of the issue to acknowledge that LGBT people simply exist. "Can you even do that?", Butler is rhetorically asking, "Can you see that they are there and are 'going nowhere'? In some ways it lets the "traditionally"-minded people off too easy (of which, by the way, I would basically consider myself a part of [feel free to ostracize me now, even though I feel my approach is a continual attempt at nuance]). It is not cruel in its confrontation, it does not vilify the other side but offers a subtle plea to open your eyes and look (a theme echoed throughout all of Arcade Fire's work).
Finally, in a more general sense, the song is about the difficulty of being an outsider in the Reflective Age, an age of inactive passivity, wherein people sit around and ponder and "reflect" about all the important things in life, but never actually do anything about any of it (for a more in-depth definition of the "Reflective Age", see this article). And thus, there might be a more general (if abstract) underlying meaning to this song. What if (meaning #6) "We Exist" is a humanist manifesto, wherein the song is the declaration of a revolutionary agent alive in the passive Reflective Age and his message is he and the rest of humanity do in fact "exist", that they are in fact alive? What if to even do so is an act of defiance as part a culture fast asleep within the Reflective Age?
In order to see this we must juxtapose "We Exist" with the songs "Reflektor" and "Flashbulb Eyes", two songs that portray people who have gotten trapped within reflectors. "Reflektor" starts out "Trapped in a prison/in a prism of light/alone in a darkness/a darkness of white". The narrator wants to "connect" and find "a way to enter" into relationship with others and at one point thinks he has found the "resurrector" to help him do so, but he ultimately gives up, declaring "it's just a reflektor (it's just reflektor)". In "Flashbulb Eyes" the narrator anxiously wonders about the superstitious rumor that the a camera "really do take your soul", but then answers with an oddly numb response "Hit me with your flashbulb eyes/You know I got nothing to hide...you know I got nothing..." What if he has nothing to hide because he didn't have a soul to begin with? As opposed to the narrator in "We Exist" who was rebelling against the Reflective Age by defiantly declaring his existence, a man who so desperately wants to be alive and experience life, the narrator of "Flashbulb Eyes" conversely is a non-entity, a soulless chimera of a being lost within endless reflectors. The man in "We Exist" is declaring "We exist!" for himself but also for everyone else trapped in "Flashbulb Eyes". He wants them to wake them up to their own existence.
|Where have their faces gone? Why are there reflectors |
there instead? Has the camera taken their soul?
Put within the overarching themes of the album (see this article for more) people trapped within the Reflective Age are not there at all, but are just hollow men, with "head full of sound" and who "stare right through you". Thus, the narrator of "We Exist" is singing to the people of the Reflective Age through the guise of his father, hoping his father does not become one of them and does not treat him like they treat him. There is a possible double meaning here, with the narrator declaring his existence as a gay man (Win Butler's original intention) but also the declaration that he exists at all, as opposed to the soulless reflectors who surround him.
And so here are all the potential meanings listed out in condensed form: 1. Jesus lamenting to God about people's unbelief them.
2. A gay son talking to his father asking to not be rejected by him.
3. A gay man pleading to God.
4. A gay man pleading to the Church.
5. An ambivalent understanding of both LGBT people and people who refuse to accept LGBT people.
6. A universal declaration of human existence as a counter-narrative to the Reflective Age.
Of course, the most obvious meaning is meaning #2 (a gay son talking to his father), as it's what we have been told the song is about. And yet there are hints of truth to every potential meaning I have noted. If read and considered together they all deepen and enliven each other, simultaneously creating unresolved tensions and dissonances and new synthesized understandings of the song. What I constantly go back and forth in regarding Arcade Fire's work is thinking their writing is too abstract and does not take us far enough in what it is trying to convey while also seeing this underlying grand narrative linking all of their work together. I have seen evidence of this grand narrative at play frequently enough, that I usually interpret their lyrics out of this presumption, even when I don't fully understand what one of their songs means.
Perhaps interpreting great works of art is an endeavor without an end, as one of the songs off Reflektor says, "It's never over, it's never over, it's never over, it's never over..."
* This line in particular is has a parallel with the song "Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)" off of the second disk of Reflektor ("You and I were born in a little town/Before the awful sound started coming down..."). In both instances "sound" is seen as harmful, a negative oppressive force in the world. In the context of "We Exist" the "sound" numbs the people around the narrator, causing them not to see him to make him not exist. In "Oh Eurydice" the "sound" takes over the town, and isolates Eurydice from Orpheus, basically killing her and taking her to the afterlife. For more on the many parallels themes in the work of Arcade Fire, please see this article.
Other articles on Arcade Fire:
The Explanation and Inspiration Behind Aracade Fire's Reflektor
Wake Up! Uncovering Arcade Fire's Grand Narrative
Reflektor: A Listening Guide
The Reflected Lyrics of Arcade Fire's Reflektor: A List
Continual Themes and Subjects in the Work of Arcade Fire
Arcade Fire Songs Mentioning Light, Darkness, Mirrors, and Reflections
If you haven't yet, take a look at the powerful and controversial! video for "We Exist."