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The Absurd in the 1975's "Being Funny in a Foreign Language"

Pop Culture

December 05, 2022

French writer Albert Camus believed "the only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion." He is remembered for any number of things, from his famously misattributed remark about having a cup of coffee to his lavishly good looks, which earned him the title of honorary TikTok sexyman. However, his most significant contribution to Western literature is by far the theory of absurdism. Camus proposed the ultimate question: what to do when confronted with the futility of human existence? Does one sink into nihilism, as Nietchze did in decrying “God is dead,” does one turn to religion, as Heidegger did in saying “transcendence constitutes selfhood?

To Camus, the dilemma is much more complex. He postulated human existence as the discrepancy between the aimlessness of the universe and the human drive for meaning. He called this contradiction "the absurd," the essential state of humanity, to which he proposed two solutions: ignorance, through sedation, from drugs to sex to crocheting frog beanies at 3 am, or the truly radical option: acceptance. What could be more radical than to embrace meaninglessness and choose to live life regardless? To Camus, to choose life, instead of consciously floating through it, is the only way to truly live.

Matty Healy in Buenos Aires 2017, courtesy of Carla Huysmans under CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 License.

This, however, is not an article about Camus, but an unlikely partner to his theory of absurdism: British rock band 1975's newest album, Being Funny in a Foreign Language, released 14th October this year. As we know, there is no better supplement for confronting the absurd than self-indulgent, pretentious britpop: frontman Matty Healy’s double reputation as emblematic front man on one side and avant-garde cultural analyst on the other parallels to Camus’s reputation as handsome thinker by day and tragic bad boy by night.

How can an 80-year-old philosophical concept be found in a post-ironic britpop album? Let's find out.

Compared to The 1975’s previous work, Being Funny blends humanistic self-awareness into an emotional package with a postmodern twist. “One could criticize me for,” says Matty,” loads of things, but you can’t criticize me for being insincere,” ironic considering the popularity of their 2018 song Sincerity is Scary. Clearly, there is always subtext lurking through the corners on a pop record, and this is where Being Funny shines: it is absurdism made profitable, radio-friendly, and catchy.

In this article I will attempt to explain the thematic liaisons between Matty Healy's oeuvre and Camus’s theory of absurdism, ultimately concluding that the album’s message begins and ends with a desire to embrace life, embrace love, and embrace the absurd.

As Camus states in The Myth of Sysyphus, “The absurd comes with the realization that the world is not rational.”

In an era of continually spiraling political issues, economic downturns and social media frenzy, it is easy to spew criticism without providing an answer. According to this theory, this represents an act of surrender to the absurd. This proves a perfect recipe for living passively, numbing ourselves with entertainment, drugs and the internet - all topics close to Healy’s heart.

In the past, songs like Love it we made it have dealt with complex global issues like misinformation, climate change and immigration. Beyond making a simple statement, the song reaffirms a sense of dumbfounded optimism as our sustenance through these trying times, with each verse casting a prayer of hope in the line “and I’d love it if we made it.” In Being Funny, this concept is repeated with the eponymous The 1975, an orchestral [censored] on the anxieties and troubles of the modern day, which opens the album with poignant perspectives on the oversexualization of teens, the comfortable numbness of the internet, and right-wing populist conspiracy theories.

In stark contrast to Love it if We Made it, this song is marked by a lack of optimistic affirmations: instead, Matty repeats the line “it’s about time” after each confession. Viewed through an absurdist lens, this represents Camus’s “definitive awakening,” the moment of reckoning in which we confront the absurd face to face.

Camus writes, “weariness comes at the end of the acts of a mechanical life, but at the same time it inaugurates the impulse of consciousness,” implying that we can never become truly aware of our lives if not by confronting their meaninglessness. As a result, The 1975 functions as a genesis for the message of the album: the only place we’ll find salvation is by choosing to live in our imperfect world.

Consequently, each song provides a unique response to the question of living with Camus's theory of the absurd. As a result, Being Funny contrasts with The 1975’s earlier releases in the depiction of extreme subject matter with a humorous twist. Looking for Somebody (To Love) dramatizes the extent to which this extreme is taken, with Healy singing his heart out in catchy synth pop melodies over an upbeat drum track. When looking at the lyrics, the alarming narrative of a masculine crisis emerges: “I wanna show him he's a [censored]/ I wanna [censored] him up good/ I wanna smash the competition, go and kill it like a man should.”

Albert Camus, courtesy of Antonio Marín Segovia under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Licence.

As intended, the proximity of the lyrics is obscured by the serotonin-inducing dance song atmosphere. According to Healy himself, the song is about a school shooting. "But how could I not notice?" asks the average The 1975 listener, "it's such a happy song." Here's why: one of the album's strongest thematic qualities is juxtaposition.

Healy twists soulful dance songs into horror stories in a symbiotic duality, paralleling the meaning and meaninglessness of his view on human existence. Similarly, in a line from The Myth of Sisyphus, “I see others paradoxically getting killed for the ideas or illusions that give them a reason for living (what is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying),” Camus underlines the contrast between death and life as inherent to our constant state of crisis.

In the context of the song, this “reason for living” becomes the desire for control, posing this question: how else to resolve the emptiness of life but by taking away that of others? The reaction of the character may seem absurd, and this is exactly what Healy seeks to elicit.

In the case of the young man, Healy also stresses how this violence results in an existential dog biting its own tail. As stated in an interview for Vulture, “it does tend to be young white boys who spend too much time on the internet that are doing most of that terrorism in America.” If according to Camus, all forms of ignorance are meaningless in the face of the absurd, the paradoxical scope of the song is to relay the futility of the young man’s struggle, and in the process, the futility of this ignorance. That is why the lyrics are contrasted with the upbeat tone: how do you criticize an issue while avoiding trivialization?

The answer is, you render it utterly absurd. You make the listener feel guilty for failing to look deeper. This parallels Camus’s claims in The Myth of Sisyphus: It is only when the audience reads between the lines that they can grasp the true meaning of the song, in the same way our consciousness according to absurdism can only be achieved by breaking free of our comfortable ignorance.

Matty Healy in Bilbao 2017, courtesy of Dena Flows under CC BY-NC-ND Licence.

So, if violence is not the answer, why not love? The songs Oh Caroline and Happiness detail how we construct meaning around interpersonal relationships: if nothing means anything, we might as well love for the [censored] of it, right? In the 3rd song on the album, Matty outlines a nonchalant, passive confession of love to a woman named Caroline, hoping to be given another shot.

The line “getting suicidal? / It’s honestly not for me” is particularly interesting in this sense: Camus was notoriously fascinated with the idea of suicide. Not only did he view it as a philosophical mystery, but as an extreme surrender to the power of the absurd.

He writes in such, claiming that “killing yourself amounts to confessing. It is confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it.” As a consequence, he implies that if the strive for meaning in life amounts to nothing, neither does the reclaiming of agency through death. In Camus’s eyes, therefore, suicide is a form of submission, to realization that there is no governing force that is responsible for our lives.

All in a simple rhetorical statement, the song seems to capture the culmination of these accumulated realizations, where once again the upbeat, groovy baseline and rhythmic percussion emphasize this duality. Unpeeling these layers, a secondary theme crystallizes: a constant desire for resistance, not only to authority but to nihilism, banality, the meaninglessness of modern life. Interestingly enough, lyrics in the song express the idea of continuity, like “I don’t wanna waste my life without you.” Here, the laid-back choice of language echoes another passage from The Myth of Sysyphus: “Just as there are days when under the familiar face of a woman, we see as a stranger her we had loved months or years ago, perhaps we shall come even to desire what suddenly leaves us so alone.” In so doing, the question is raised: how do we reconcile our purpose as social beings when the person we’ve attributed our meaning to suddenly leaves?

In this sense, the character of Caroline pays homage Camus by implying that only if we reject other people as systems of belief that give our lives meaning, can we truly learn to appreciate them, a bleak but ultimately reassuring message about the power of personal choice. This is the perspective I find enthralling: according to this album, belief without meaning hinges on the individual, in the dumbfounded and often reckless process of accepting apathy as a roadblock in the process of finding our identity.

In this sense, Caroline represents the desire to embrace innocent, dumbstruck love as a middle finger to the meaninglessness of the void.

However, if there’s one thing we know about Matty Healy, it’s that there is always more space for ruthless self-interrogation. This is where Happiness shines an introspective light: what brings us true satisfaction? Self-fulfillment?

Comedy? Love? When Matty sings the line “She showed me what love is / I’m acting like i know myself,” he confronts "the self" as defined by others' perception.

In the same way Camus said “it is others who beget us. Only in association do we receive a human value, as distinct from an animal value,” the metaphysical allure of Happiness mixed with the pop funk swing bass and phased ear candy paint the picture of a troubled man who finds salvation in the affection of his lover. “Confidence is comical,” he sings in the verse, followed by the line “and I’m, I’m happy,” as if rejecting the images we manufacture for ourselves as another conscious look away from the truth. If we attribute purpose to others, according to Healy, we also attribute purpose to ourselves, just as the affection we receive shapes the affection we offer. For this reason, the song encapsulates such contradictory statements as “show me your love, why don’t you?” and “I'm never gonna love again” without sounding contrived or meaningless.

The 1975 in Nottingham 2020, courtesy of Jasminewallis24 under CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International Licence.

Imbued with the crystal clarity of an emblematic The 1975 anthem, Happiness perfectly captures the duality of the absurd: is the speaker rejecting passive love in favor of “the one”, or accepting that no romance will make them feel as intense dopamine rush as the melodies they sing in the song? By rejecting Camus’s assertion that love is an act of rebellion, Happiness thus becomes either a crushing song about surrendering to nihilism, or a hopeful celebration of love as our salvation.

In short, this is what The 1975 does best: the delicious duality of hopefulness and misery, the true postmodern lens.

There are at least a dozen more surprise examples of the absurd on this album, many of which are at once too cryptic and generic to assign meaning to, but which nonetheless infuse Being Funny with the melancholic nonchalance that has become characteristic of the band’s radio sound. In the end, Camus embodied the same revolutionary sentiment, advocating for a return to individualism after the Second World War and urging readers to embrace life, embrace culture, embrace love.

It is no surprise, then, that cynicism finds its antidote in unlikely places, but if love really is our salvation, it can only be found in a marriage of opposites.

For more on The 1975, check out:

The 1975’s Matty Healy Prefers Writing Lyrics He’s Afraid Of

Love Songs of a Dirtbag

The 1975’s Matty Healy Is Still Trying to Be Funny, Sincerely

Audrey Fabbri
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Writer since Apr, 2022 · 7 published articles

Audrey is a student of Political Science at the University of Amsterdam. She loves freshly baked bread.