“Live fast, die young” is an expression meant to illustrate the lifestyle of the rich and famous. It’s not true in every case—some people are too stubborn for that— although not all deaths are physical. Some, however, do find balance even in the fast-paced environment of the elite. Of course, often they accomplish this by rejecting the fast-paced part, and unfortunately, not everyone is so lucky.
The song “Whatever it Takes” by Imagine Dragons is the embodiment of that ideal. For those who haven’t heard this hugely popular hit, I would recommend having a listen before reading this analysis, or if you are more of a visual person, give the lyrics a read. Breaking this song down almost line by line reveals plenty of (not so) hidden meaning; meaning that has the potential to enlighten us to some of the more unhealthy aspects of the twenty-first-century pursuit of a perfect “Instagram-able” life.
Let’s start with “Run me like a racehorse.” It’s one of the first lines of the chorus, so you hear it a lot. For those of you that are privy to the behind-the-scenes of that industry, you don’t need an explanation of why this is a problematic statement. For those that are not, let me shine a light on the seedy underbelly of professional horse racing. Horses live, on average, 25–30 years as reported in Horses and Horsemanship: Animal Agricultural Series. A Thoroughbred racehorse, however, has an average life expectancy of just 3–5 years according to <horseracingkills.org>.
If we do some quick math, that means a racehorse lives at best one-fifth the average expectancy of a regular horse and at worst one-tenth. This is due to the tremendous physical, and most likely mental, strain that these horses are made to endure. This can also be applied to the life of human athletes, who retire on average in their mid-to-late twenties according to ESPN. Those who do not find balance often get hurt or push themselves too hard, thus ending their career as an athlete (a metaphorical death) and are forced to re-evaluate their lives and come up with a new way of being.
In his biography, Micheal Jordan’s second season playing basketball was “marred by injury,” but he returned to break records and defy expectation not only because of his superior athletic talents, but also because of his leadership abilities. Those who are not able to reconcile this problem can end up bitter and cursing their luck, or worse, they attempt to return to the lifestyle they had once lived and end up getting hurt again, sometimes worse.
This is what the band Imagine Dragons are singing that they want out of their life or, perhaps, career. The line is followed by another about living fast, with the request to “Pull me like a ripcord.” However, what a ripcord does is unleash a parachute. The parachute here might relate to a line that comes later: “I’m just a symbol to remind you that there’s more to see.” Imagine Dragons are offering themselves as martyrs. They will be an example of how not live so that others may have a parachute and not hit the ground when being thrown out of the airplane and into the freefall of life.
Now that the stage has been set, I want to talk about why it is important to live in this manner. Let’s look at how lead singer and songwriter Dan Reynolds lays out the struggle of the modern age. It starts with a line in the first verse—which is largely about the desire for the destruction of the world as we know it—that goes “Everybody hoping they could be the one.”
This is a commentary on the idealistic nature of youth. Just to be clear, I define “youth” here as a sense of naivety rather than actual physical youth. We tend to see things in terms of all or nothing, missing the nuance and power of the day-to-day, the in-between, the grey area as it were. What this way of thinking tends to lead us toward is a feeling that our lives are not good enough, we are not rich enough, we are not famous enough, we are not smart enough, we are not good-looking enough.
This leads into the next verse. Social media is a highly visual medium, so it prizes looks above all else. Here Dan Reynolds highlights the detrimental effects of social media and fame addiction in the lines “Looking at my body feeling miserable / Always hanging on to the visual / I wanna be invisible.” The whole verse is a commentary on the cognitive dissonance created by simultaneously thinking that we are both not good enough and having the overwhelming desire to be the best that has ever been.
In the final verse, Dan Reynolds sings two words at the start of the verse, “Hypocritical, egotistical.” These I believe are the two most poignant words to describe the society of today. The pursuits that this song is raving about can be hypocritical when undertaken purely for reasons of puffing up the ego. When we are purely ego-driven, we are often able to pick out the lies and hypocritical nature of others while simultaneously not being able to see it in ourselves. When we are unable to see our own nature clearly we begin to rely on the validation of others to understand our own value. However, once that validation is withheld, by anyone, it has the potential to send us spiralling into a world of despair as outlined by the lines: “I’m just a product of the system / a catastrophe and yet a masterpiece / and yet I’m half-diseased.” In the end, no matter how rich and famous someone becomes, by following a system of ideals set by extrinsic means they will never truly be whole.
In the twenty-first century, we are so involved with material, vain pursuits, and the day-to-day drudgery that is a majority of our existence that often we lose sight of the bigger picture. Life is not meant to be lived in the fast lane, forever chasing that next hit of adrenaline. No matter how appealing that life may seem, it is ultimately empty. Although this may seem a sad fate, Dan Reynolds is not bitter about his lot in life. He believes that he can stand as an example, “An epoxy to the world and the vision we’ve lost,” and go to the grave “happily,” returning his body and soul to something bigger than himself. So—I urge those reading to ask yourself: what is the world and vision we’ve lost? And how do we get it back?