Here there is something we call elucidation
Is it the truth, or is it merely a description?
This is a movie about David Byrne. It's also a lot of other things, but at its core, David Byrne's American Utopia is just that. A film about one man's journey to look inward, to change himself, and to understand just a little bit better who he is, and through this journey he aims to inspire the rest of the world to do the same. He begins by pondering the connections in his own brain, and how those connections define our perception of the world, and then begins to expand, soon questioning the connections between people. He pleads and hopes for empathy between people, for brotherhood within humanity. Eventually, he realizes that on our current path, we're headed towards a dark void, an empty, meaningless world, and yet - we're not without hope.
Byrne starts out the show reflective and complacent - in his song “Don’t Worry About the Government”, he’s relaxed, a happy consumer, living in a place full of convenience. The government is nothing to worry about, because it doesn’t affect him. In his place of privilege, he sees infrastructure, parks, roads, the beauty of the nation. The government is good to him and he has every opportunity to spend time with his loved ones. He goes on in “Lazy” to strut himself as a lazy, laid back man, imagining a perfect life. He appears to the world as cool and collected, because that’s what everyone wants, but inside he’s full of turmoil and pain, and he doesn’t know what to do with it. Byrne is a white man in America, and he lives a life of privilege. His life consists of keeping up appearances, which comes with its own difficulties, but ultimately, he doesn’t have much to worry about.
Despite the relative ease of his life, Byrne still has questions for the world. Before moving on to his next set of songs, he begins to ponder human connection. He says, “objectively, I could never figure out why looking at a person should be any more interesting than looking at any other thing. Say, a bicycle, a beautiful sunset, a nice bag of potato chips. But yeah, looking at people? That’s the best.” It's as if his attitude on life is starting to shift - maybe his simple life, full of perceived laid-back laziness and luxury, could afford him a view of a beautiful sunset while chowing down on a bag of potato chips, but the connections we make with others, ultimately, are what matter. He starts to relax and feel free, foregoing the aggressive, driving enthusiasm desperate to make appearances in “Lazy” for the relaxing, upbeat vibe of “This Must Be The Place”. Here he’s full of hope, love and happiness. He’s shed his pretentious exterior, now feeling more vulnerable and open. He’s no longer pretending to be cool in the hopes a woman will be allured by his act, he’s actively seeking love, and admitting it to the world. He’s just an animal, looking for a home, to share the same space for a minute or two. He’s also seeking answers, for a new way to look at the world, so he turns to nonsense. Before singing “I Zimbra”, Byrne explains his fondness for Dadaism, a 20th century art movement that consisted of, as he puts it, “using nonsense to make sense of a world that didn’t make sense.” Byrne’s exploration of the movement helps open his eyes, and now not only is he beginning to break free of his emotional restraint, but perhaps his social restraint as well. This realization that independent thought exists outside of war and nationalism is an important step for his character - it’s time to start thinking about the world as a whole more critically. He starts to seek out ways to learn more about the world, and he starts by watching TV. He begins to open himself up to the world around him, and the more he does the more free he truly feels. Through his television screen he sees a kneeling Colin Kaepernick, and begins to question the narrative he’s been fed his whole life. Are we really as dissimilar as I’ve been told? He starts to not just imagine a perfect future for himself, but for others, where humans can collectively be more empathetic and understanding.
Byrne’s world is changing rapidly now, inside and outside. He begins to wake up, becoming more aware of the life of privilege he leads, and asks himself, well, “how did I get here?” He’s happy, but what’s it all been for? He’s been trying to open himself up to the world around, but nothing seems to be changing. For him, everything is just… same as it ever was. In stark contrast from “Don’t Worry About The Government”, where he looks with glee at the highway’s convenience, he now asks himself “where does that highway go to?” The more he thinks about the way his life is, the more his perception of it starts to change. He begins to look at his comfortable life and realize that maybe it isn’t so special. Where he lives is just glass, concrete and stone, it’s not a true home. Maybe he isn’t as happy as he thought. Now is where Byrne’s character starts to truly change. Before beginning the second half of the show, he addresses the audience. He talks about going out and being an activist, encouraging people to vote, not just in federal elections, but local ones, too. His growth as a person has led him to an important point - observation, understanding, empathy, it’s all important, but it’s all for nought if we fail to stand up and do something about it. “We’ve gotta do better,” he says, before jumping into the final half of the show.
In “Born Under Punches”, Byrne’s increasing distaste for the government comes to a head, as he becomes not just aware of the government’s hand, but scared of it, fully aware of its strength and the level of oppression it enacts on its people. He’s starting to feel suffocated, beat down. The heat goes on, the people are becoming more aware but at the same time the government continues its ways, cycles continue and little changes. In the second half of the show, Byrne is angry, at the ready to fight for what he believes in, rallying against the government - but he also feels conflicted. His knowledge has liberated him, and he feels free. Though he feels animosity towards the government, he feels hope within people, and his struggle between those two things is reflected in his contradictory song choices. In one moment, he wants to dance and be free, and in the next he has somber thoughts of the way the government can rip through and destroy happy people. He views every day as a beautiful miracle, an opportunity for love and hope, but too many are blind, closed off, jumping to conclusions and uninterested in compassion. Finally, he ends his series of conflicted thoughts with “Burning Down the House”, a culmination of these thoughts - he’s angry, seemingly ready to jump ship on the status quo and burn it all down, we’re a country swimming in debt with no support and most of the people have become complacent, either ignorant or simply hoping for change while staring at the television.
Byrne has seemingly completed his journey now, reaching a boiling point and ready to make his final statements. Before he begins the final three songs of the show, he addresses the crowd, discussing his intent behind playing Janelle Monae's "Hell You Talmbout." This song is different, he refers to it as "a requiem for lives that have been senselessly taken," but makes an important distinction before the band starts playing. "It's also about the possibility of change. Not just in the imperfect world out there, but in myself, too. I also need to change." This is the film's coda, a plea that echoes and reflects the ideas Byrne has been meditating on for the last 85 minutes. Our world is imperfect. We've indulged in hatred, apathy, and cynicism for too long, and on our current trajectory we are headed for nothing but a cold oblivion, but if we truly take advantage of the time we have and do everything in our power to be a force of change for the better, maybe it's not far, that one fine day.