Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Close Reading Top 40: "Mirrors," by Justin Timberlake

So, I have this thing, because I'm an English major, wherein I listen more closely to lyrics than are probably intended by their composers. I also listen to alternative rock and top-40 in the car (and NPR -- don't judge me). And as such, sometimes I'm just floored by what I'm hearing. Today, therefore, brings a close reading and feminist analysis of Justin Timberlake's "Mirrors," off his latest album The 20/20 Experience.

Now, the history behind this song is apparently very sweet -- he wrote it about his feelings for his then bride-to-be, Jessica Biel, along with being inspired by his grandparents. The video makes me tear up a bit, honestly -- it's very sweet, at least until you get to the clown women dancing in the mirror hall.



But honestly, if we're going by the lyrics, there are some issues here. Let's start at the beginning. Lyrics are courtesy of A-Z Lyrics.com.

1st verse:
Aren't you somethin' to admire?
'Cause your shine is somethin' like a mirror
And I can't help but notice
You reflect in this heart of mine
If you ever feel alone and
The glare makes me hard to find
Just know that I'm always
Parallel on the other side
From the first line, we have an object identification going on -- the beloved isn't someone, she's something. This falls afoul of the sexy lamp test -- which effectively states that if you can replace a woman in a song/story/movie with a sexy lamp, then that's a problem because she's not a person, she's a thing.

The beloved in question isn't even beautiful or soulful or gorgeous, she's shiny. Like a mirror.  But people aren't shiny, not unless they've been playing around in shellac or latex, neither of which have anything to do with people but rather things. In addition, the primary aspect of mirrors (as the next lines note) is reflection of those around them. Mirrors are empty -- they don't have any substance, they just reflect back the people who stand in front of them. What a horrible thing for a person to be, really. If he can't help but notice the beloved's shine, then she's pretty, I suppose, but more importantly, if she reflects like a mirror then there's a good chance of seeing himself in/on his beloved.

Now, I suspect that the next line might not be correct, but not having the album and any liner notes available, I can't say for sure. But lets interpret it two ways. If he can't help but notice that she "reflects in" this heart of mine, then his own heart is mirror like and they are similar in that way. That is the more charitable reading, although it turns his own heart into a sexy mirror, which is perhaps accurate but not ideal. The other reading, which is keeping with the syntax of the song, is "you reflectin' this heart of mine" meaning that she reflects his own heart. This would be sweet, except for the objectification that occurred in the lines previous. If his reflection is what he sees, then how would he know? And does that mean she is similar to him, or that he only sees himself? Is there anything to her beyond the reflection?

Now, in the next four lines we have an interesting set up, and the reason I think he is not setting up himself as a mirror to her. He acknowledges that she might feel lonely, specifically lonely without him (mirrors don't have agency to go have lives of their own, they wait wherever they are placed for someone to reflect back) and he won't always be there with her. He also notes that the "glare" might make him hard to see/find. Light does not come from her, it comes from him/outside. This has been interpreted as paparazzi flash or his own star power, but either way, she is not included inside it, but rather as an outsider. This is made even more apparent in his positioning as "parallel on the other side." Parallel lines do not touch -- a barrier of space is always between them, even as they seem close to one another. There is an implied distance here that can't be bridged, which he goes onto explore in the bridge (funnily enough).
'Cause with your hand in my hand and a pocket full of soul
I can tell you there's no place we couldn't go
Just put your hand on the glass
I'll be tryin' to pull you through
You just gotta be strong
So here we a future condition of them holding hands -- but again, it's notable that it's not presented as a couple holding hands, but her hand in his. There is no action imputed to her, no agency. Soul is likewise made oddly quantifiable as something held in a pocket, implying a small amount. There is "no place they couldn't go," suggesting something that hasn't happened yet but might in future. So she is still not a person with agency -- still a thing. In fact, she is trapped within the glass of a mirror. Now she's no longer a person at all, but purely a reflection -- and by extension, a reflection of him specifically. She no longer exists if he moves away from the mirror, where he is looking at himself. There is a hint of the princess in the tower, sort of, but really, it's much simpler. The earlier parallel lines are the glass between him and his idealized self -- his reflection, which is his beloved. We'll explore that further in the chorus.

Chorus:

'Cause I don't wanna lose you now
I'm lookin' right at the other half of me
The vacancy that sat in my heart
Is a space that now you hold
Show me how to fight for now
And I'll tell you, baby, it was easy
Comin' back here to you once I figured it out
You were right here all along 
It's like you're my mirror
My mirror staring back at me
I couldn't get any bigger
With anyone else beside of me
And now it's clear as this promise
That we're making two reflections into one
'Cause it's like you're my mirror
My mirror staring back at me, staring back at me
He doesn't want to lose this reflection and is staring at the other half of himself, which is himself as the beloved. Like Narcissus, he is enamored of his own reflection to the extent that it has taken up residence in his heart as the beloved, in the form of a woman/mirror (ostensibly). He wants to fight for preservation of this moment (again playing with the princess trapped in a tower theme). He says it was easy to come back once he figured out what he wanted (his reflection) because obviously, the mirror doesn't move. It stays put, given that it has nothing beyond himself that he recognizes.

If this seems like I'm reading in, the second half of the chorus states it plainly. The beloved is his mirror/reflection. He feels increased by this in some way, "bigger," as though he is somehow multiplied by standing next to his reflection and prefers it to all others. There is a promise (lover's vow) implying marriage or joining, where "two reflections [become] one." That is actually an interesting line, as it potentially implies he is nothing more than a reflection himself. The end result, though, is that he and his reflection join to become one whole him, rather than joining with someone else to become something new -- a union. His reflection stares back at him, and he sees nothing but himself.

2nd verse:
Aren't you somethin', an original
'Cause it doesn't seem merely a sample
And I can't help but stare, 'cause
I see truth somewhere in your eyes
I can't ever change without you
You reflect me, I love that about you
And if I could, I would look at us all the time
Here in the second verse, we see the theme continued. He calls his beloved an original rather than a sample, meaning a musical sample gotten from somewhere else. And yet if she is merely his reflection, she can't be original, except in that she allows him to see himself, who is supposedly unique. He "can't help but stare, 'cause / I see truth somewhere in your eyes," -- again, we see Narcissus rear his pretty head here, as he cannot stop looking at the truth of his reflection, searching it for meaning. The next line is unintentionally funny, I feel, as "I can't ever change without you" calls up ideas of the role of mirrors in changing clothes and checking your look, whereas the intention was doubtlessly more on the level of personal internalized change, yet I feel the previous meaning is far stronger, particularly when connected to the next line "you reflect me, I love that about you." A mirror cannot instigate change, and here he says quite plainly that what he loves about the beloved is his own reflection, his ability to see himself in her/it. Her qualities begin and end with what he sees about himself and the extent to which she enables him to see them. He would look at the two of them together constantly if he could, meaning he would stare at himself, as Narcissus stares down into the waters of the pond, wanting what he cannot have.

Final bridge:
Yesterday is history
Tomorrow's a mystery
I can see you lookin' back at me
Keep your eyes on me
Baby, keep your eyes on me
The past and future are both relegated to nothing in the first two lines -- we are given an eternal present of him staring into his beloved mirror, talking to his reflection, urging it to gaze back at him always.

And then we get into the latter part of the song, where he dedicates the song to the mirror woman and decides to buy it/her and take her home, where she can reflect him all the time as he pledges his undying love -- to himself, strangely. And we'll just leave it with his words, I think.

You are, you are the love of my life [x10]
Now you're the inspiration for this precious song
And I just wanna see your face light up since you put me on
So now I say goodbye to the old me, it's already gone
And I can't wait wait wait wait wait to get you home
Just to let you know, you are
You are, you are the love of my life [x8]
Girl you're my reflection, all I see is you
My reflection, in everything I do
You're my reflection and all I see is you
My reflection, in everything I do
You are, you are the love of my life [x16]