Coping with one’s self is a natural process in life. Questioning who we are, but also how we appear to others and how others appear to us. These reflections form an image of who we are, who we believe to be. In addition, we want keep ourselves consistent, so we tend not to change much of who we think we are. But we change. People change a lot.
Because one may refuse to admit these changes, it is possible we cling onto an image of us that may no longer reflect the reality of who we really are. This feeling may be really hard to deal with, as we may have the impression we are not ourselves anymore at a certain point. Moreover, it seems that this image of ourselves can be heavily guided by society. What people expect you to be. What people wish you to be. So can we truly be who we are, regardless of what people expect? It seems everyone struggles with these thoughts at some point, but why don’t we seem to talk about it? It is with this struggle in mind that I would like to present the lyrics of Mudvayne’s “Shadow of a Man”, the 10th song of the album “The End Of All Things To Come” (2002).
The lyrics start of with the introduction of a scene depicting someone standing in front of the mirror, asking a question:
Mirror mirror upon the wall I’m asking you,
Who is the most confused of them all?
Notice how we are pulled into the middle of a situation. The phrasing and word choice implies that the person has been struggling with this question for a while now. In only two sentences we are drawn into someone’s deep thoughts. However, at this point, we don’t know what the thoughts are about. Confused about what? Who is he referring to?
Mirror mirror subservient twin screams back
At me “You”.
You sick flawless mime, I want to break you
Yeah, you’re a clever one
Here we get a glimpse in the conflict the person is pondering about. Notice the immediate aggression [screams back at me]. The person is frustrated, annoyed by the person in front of the mirror, annoyed by the question. It seems to the subservient twin that the answer is obvious [You]. Until now, the possibility of being confused oneself was excluded, as the question was “Who is the most confused of them all” not “us all”.
At this point, we can appreciate the writing as we are presented with a dialogue between two interlocutors who do not agree although they are the same person. This is where the lyrics stress the feeling of the type of struggle we can have with ourselves. I am who I am, but I do not agree on who I am, I do not appreciate who I am [I want to break you]. Notice the last sentence of the paragraph and how it shows the despise of not thinking the question through by the expression of a sarcastic, mocking reply [Yeah, you’re a clever one]. But this paragraph goes deeper as well as it expresses the frustration of one with oneself, but only the “twin” is expressing the hateful feelings, although they both blame others. In a moment of lucidity, the person asks what the mirror represents.
Is this a tool, can I step through, to find
Or just a shadow of a man
A superficial tool, to support the vanity,
Of weak, when you don’t love yourself
We suddenly are pulled out of a “conversation with oneself” and into a monologue. The mirror itself and its use is questioned [is this a tool? Can I step through?]. Personally I would suggest this is metaphoric to the breakthrough of trying to be oneself and consistent. These questions aim to see if there is another world (and another societal image) in the mirror’s world where a person (that is me) is accepted as oneself? [To find another plane] Or is it the same struggle of identity as in here? [Or just a shadow of a man]. The mirror and its use is questioned again, but more in depth. Is it the incorrect image of ourselves that we so desperately try to maintain? Is it supported by the mirror and its reflection? Are we proud of our appearance and abilities, even if they seem no longer ours? [A superficial tool, to support the vanity…] Especially for the ones who are doubtful of themselves. Who are weak against the expectations of others [Of weak]. Who feel like the person they have to be is inconsistent with who they are, but still maintain the “mime” of the person that they are expected to be, resulting in the resentment of oneself [when you don’t love yourself].
And the thoughts are pushed further.
If life’s as painful on your side, I’ll break your
Existence and cut through mine
You’re a clever one
This paragraph is one of my favourite lyrical writings and I find the poetic prowess should be acknowledged and appreciated. In the previous paragraph the person is trying to find out if there is another world in the mirror, a world that would accept the person for who he is. If there is not, the suffering must be as unbearable as here [If life’s as painful on your side]. So a solution is pondered. If we no longer are, we can no longer suffer from not being and being who we are at the same time. So break the mirror, ending the existence of one’s reflection [I’ll break your existence], and use the shattered glass to end the existence of oneself [and cut through mine]. This is a dark passage, but I personally think it’s an inevitable one. People who struggle with these questions exist, and this should not be ignored. In my opinion, these type of thoughts should not be ignored and should be discussed. Suicidal thoughts are often considered taboo, but can spontaneously emerge in some people. It happens to me too. That’s alright, this happens. I personally think that these darker thoughts are not to be considered negatively per se. We do not talk about these, it’s taboo, because it may seem macabre or make other people uncomfortable. But this is exactly a part of a point made in this song: we are who we are. We need to be who we are, not a reflection of ourselves forged by others. If we have these profound existential thoughts, it’s a part of us and we should be able to talk about it and think them through. Note that I say think them through and not act them through. Please, if you feel the urge to act on ending your existence, call out to someone. If you don’t know who to talk to, have a look here.
Now, this dark passage may not be as drastic as taking one’s own life. It can also be interpreted differently. The thought and intention may refer to one questioning to end the existence of the image created through the expectations of the world. The image that is not consistent with oneself. By breaking this existence of this image [I’ll break your existence], it ‘ll cut the ties with having to act who one is supposed to be, according to expectations, and make room for who one is […and cut through mine]. Although I personally think this alternative to be less likely intended by the writer, as the protagonist still considers their fate to be intertwined and keeps struggling with this concept throughout the song.
Finally, being unable to share (and discuss) the thoughts mentioned throughout the song is suggested in the last paragraph we’ll be discussing.
Mirror upon the wall, am I the reflection
Mirror upon the wall, are you staring back
Understanding has no place within my world
On your side
Notice that there is still confusion about one’s identity and doubt about the mirror’s reflection. The last phrase then refers to the understanding of the reflections that emerge from the individual, but that seems to have no place in the world. Notice how both worlds (in the mirror and here) flow into one [within my world on your side], answering previously asked questions. But the questions will stay remain. They always will, and that’s alright.