From time to time, I think about a specific childhood memory that I know left a mark on me. It was the result of a simple question asked by my mother as I was making my way through kindergarten, that led to the realization that maybe, just maybe, the things I was doing everyday — going to school, watching television, hanging out with the kids next door — was driving a wedge between my family and I that outlasted the time we spent apart.
“When you dream, what language is your dream in?” she asked. Not really thinking much of it, I answered “English,” expecting a nod of mutual agreement, but only getting a head shake in return. She explained to me that she didn’t dream like I did because her own dreams were in Spanish. It was really the first time I consciously remember thinking that I was any different than my parents were. It was unsettling.
Fast-forward a dozen years later, and I find myself sorely disappointed that the Nexus hasn’t commented on what I know is the musical event of the year for thousands of my peers here at UC Santa Barbara. On Oct. 28, indie rock band Arcade Fire released their fourth album Reflektor to critical acclaim. Fans found their sound evolved. What started as Baroque pop dressed up for a funeral, finds itself in a discothèque filled with bright lights and brighter sounds. The lyrics and themes however are still quintessential Arcade Fire. The foot tapping pathos that unfolded on earlier hits, like “Wake Up” and “Month of May,” are still present; songs touch upon family, growing up and the creeping sense of disillusionment with one another that comes with the rise of a technological presence in our day-to-day interactions.
The difference here though, may be the band’s trip taken to Haiti during early on in the recording process that must have shifted the band’s attention from first world problems in the suburbs, to global struggle based on race and sex. One of the typical Arcade Fire songs, sexy beat and bass line included, manages to simultaneously sound catchy as ever and comment on the dynamic of societal change between oppressors and oppressed. This song brought to mind the struggles of civil rights movements throughout our recent history. “We Exist” is just one of several songs that follow these lines.
The key moment of the album for me however, is the fifth track, “Normal People.” Opening with racially-tinged allusions to checking out the new kid on the playground, “Normal People” grabbed my attention with its exciting piano and dirty-simple, White Stripes-reminiscent chorus riff. Being so enthralled in the music, I was able to not only feel the anger behind the song, but enjoy the listening experience too. “They will break you down until everything is normal now/ I know/ They will break it down until everyone is normal now/ I know” sings Win Butler, with an angst-y growl.
The song manages to take me back in time though. The moment I first heard “You dream in English now, in perfect English, you do/ You’re just the same as me/ It’s through” I knew this was the album for an entire generation of people who were expected grow up and jump straight into the proverbial “melting pot.” In examining the decades since immigration laws opened up avenues for migration from East Asia and Latin America in 1965, it becomes clear that American society undoubtedly possesses an ever-present narrative of rejection and severe “othering.” Despite the patriotic fervor that stresses and fetishes the idea that people all over the world come to the United States to fit in and assimilate, this is not the reality.
This past year, I got the chance to take a class that centered on autobiographies of immigrants. Book after book, I read personal stories of old-world immigrants feeling alienated and pressured to fit in, each one ceding to the pressures of assimilation. One particular story that always got to me was the story of one Jewish immigrant eating ham at a dinner party amongst new friends to fit in despite her reservations. Her personal identity unraveled before my eyes. She soon hated her appearance, her native tongue and her cultural customs. It’s a common thread throughout the years that has transcended race, creed and sex — abandoning one’s own beliefs under the threat of alienation.
The thing is if it were not for this “melting pot” ideal, I know my mother’s question about my dreams wouldn’t be as big of a deal. For years, I slowly lost and even pushed away anything related to my cultural background because I believed that I had to be American. I had to be a “normal person.” For most people, the generation gap between themselves and their parents is annoying enough — I had to simultaneously deal with this and a cultural gap that I essentially imposed on myself. Fortunately enough, I happened to take a Chicano Studies class during my freshman year that opened my eyes in a way that only an ethnic studies class can, because it certainly doesn’t happen all that often in a regular history class. I learned about the Chicano Power movement and the truth behind assimilation. It’s only obvious to me now that the standard should be not just tolerating but embracing our differences. While I still dream in English, my cultural identity has never been more important. It is vital to keep alive the things that I know others have tried to suppress.
Rock and roll has never done much to solve the world’s problems (it certainly hasn’t been popular enough to do that in decades) but Reflektor succeeds because it brings these themes to the masses while Miley Cyrus and Avicii dominate the charts. I urge you to listen to this album if you’ve been seeking something more. Anyway, if bashing the melting pot doesn’t pique your interest, I’m willing to bet the synths on “Afterlife” will.
Mario Vasquez wonders how many times he can listen to Reflektor before he dreams exclusively in Arcade Fire lyrics.