Interpretations of the Reflex

I knew that as soon as I mentioned diving into the various songs and their meanings one song in particular would come up.  Of course, that song is the Reflex, Duran’s first number one in the US way back in 1984.  This song means a lot to me and not because of what it means or how I interpret it but because of where it fits into my Duranie history.  In the spring of 1984, I was pretty young.  I was very young.  My best friend and I were spending a lot of time watching MTV and singing Duran Duran songs.  Yet, I wasn’t a Duranie, officially, until the Reflex came out and began its non-stop playing on the radio and on every video show imaginable.  My best friend and I were pathetic about it.  Why?  We would actually call each other up whenever we saw the video even if that was during dinner time or if it was the 15th call of the day.  To say that we were addicted would be an understatement.  Perhaps, more importantly to my Duranie history, it was this video that made me a John Taylor fan.  One look into the camera and I was a goner.  A complete goner.  Before that, I might have even said that I liked Simon best (*gasp*).  After that, though, I was a John girl all the way and still am, twenty-eight, almost twenty-nine years, later.  Thus, this song is an important one to me and one that I have thought quite a bit about, both musically and lyrically.  Today’s blog, of course, focuses more on the lyrics.  Before we get into it, let’s take a look at the video and check out the lyrics.

Here are the lyrics:

You’ve gone too far this time
But I’m dancing on the valentine
I tell you somebody’s fooling around
With my chances on the dangerline
I’ll cross that bridge when I find it
Another day to make my stand
High time is no time for deciding
If I should find a helping hand

CHORUS
So why don’t you use it?
Try not to bruise it
Buy time don’t lose it
The reflex is an only child he’s waiting in the park
The reflex is in charge of finding treasure in the dark
And watching over lucky clover isn’t that bizarre
Every little thing the reflex does
Leaves you answered with a question mark

I’m on a ride and I want to get off
But they won’t slow down the roundabout
I sold the Renoir and the TV set
Don’t want to be around when this gets out

CHORUS

Oh the reflex what a game he’s hiding all the cards
The reflex is in charge of finding treasure in the dark
And watching over lucky clover isn’t that bizarre
Every little thing the reflex does
Leaves you answered with a question mark

Now, of course, because I’m a researcher, I was curious as to the interpretations that can found on the internet.  There are many.  I will list the ones I found that were either plausible and/or interesting.

*About an erection/sex/masturbation

*Gaining confidence

*Drugs-use and/or selling

*About Nick

*Following instincts

The majority of interpretations online seem to either be about the erection idea or the drug idea.  What, of course, is interesting, in and of itself, is that no one really knows and yet the discussion, even after this blog, will remain.  Let’s comb through the lyrics and see which of these theories make the most sense.

Do the lyrics support the idea of something sexual, maybe an erection, maybe masturbation?  Could “dancing on the valentine” refer to something sexual?  Valentine could refer to affairs of the heart and dancing could lead to sexual activity or could be a metaphor for sex.  “Make my stand” definitely could be a reference to an erection.   “High time” could also be a reference to an erection and “helping hand” could refer to masturbation, specifically.  What about the other verses?  Do those match with this idea?  “I’m on a ride and I want to get off” definitely could be a reference to sexual activity.  I’m not sure what the Renoir or the TV set would have to do with sex other than, maybe, people get sexually aroused by what they see in art or on TV.  Now, what about the chorus?  An erection is definitely something that is used and, certainly, stretching time during sexual activity is something appreciated.  The only child part could be more of a reference to masturbation again.  The treasure in the dark seems like it could be sexual.  I’m not sure why it would be left with a question mark but, in general, the song really could be about sexual activity, specifically masturbation.

The next theory as to the song’s meaning is about gaining confidence.  Making a stand could be about standing up with pride, with confidence.  Would help be something wanted to get confidence or when one has confidence?  Not sure.  That first verse doesn’t hold up as well.  The second verse doesn’t help much either.  Why wouldn’t you want to be around when “it” gets out if the “it” is confidence?  That doesn’t make much sense to me.  What about the chorus?  Would confidence leave you with questions?  I get that you would want to use it and wouldn’t want to bruise it but that still feels like a stretch. Likewise, the idea that it is about following instincts seem like a stretch, too.  I get how the word “reflex” means just reacting, which could be an instinct but I struggle with the rest of the lyrics beyond the chorus of using it and trying not to bruise it.  What about dancing on the valentine or high time?  That doesn’t seem to follow easily, either.

I’m not sure what to say about the idea that it is Nick.  There are some lines that fit.  He is an only child, for example.  We all know that Nick likes art and was collecting art in the 80s.  Likewise, he took many photographs for his book, Interference, from TV sets.  Is Nick in charge of finding treasure in the dark?  Musically, that might be the case.  Does Nick’s behavior leave us or the band with questions?  Maybe so.  What is the “it” in the chorus, though?  Nick’s talent?  Maybe.  I’m not sure how to evaluate the first verse.  Who has gone too far?  Nick?  Who is fooling around?  Was the band fooling around when Nick wanted to work?  Maybe.  From what I have read, the song was written on John’s birthday after enjoying some wine or champagne.  Thus, it is possible that some members weren’t very focused when they should have been.  Maybe they were a bit drunk and/or high and that wouldn’t be a good time to battle Nick.

Speaking of the partying, a lot of people on the internet seemed to think that it really could be about drugs.  Is that possible?  “Gone too far this time” could mean that someone enjoyed a little too much.  “Dancing on the valentine” could translate to being high.  Using alcohol or drugs could be dangerous, for sure.  Yes, decisions probably shouldn’t be made during “high time”.  The next verse could imply that the “high” went wrong and that the person isn’t enjoying the high anymore with the line, “I’m on a ride and I want to get off”.  Also, one could sell art and TVs in order to pay for the drugs.  What about the chorus?  The “it” could be drugs and using it is obvious then.  Why would time need to be bought?  What about the bruising part?  Is that a reference to using needles?  As for the reflex “waiting in the park” that could be the drug deal and the treasure could be the drug.  The use would leave many with questions.

So, what’s the conclusion?  Honestly, it could be about drugs, masturbation or Nick.  There are lines that could translate well to those theories.  Of course, the reality is that the song could be about none of those or it could be about all of those.  We won’t ever really know.  Yet, if pushed, I can’t imagine that they would make a song about drugs despite their use of drugs.  It just doesn’t feel like Simon’s style.  Could it be about sex or about masturbation?  That seems like a likely topic of Simon’s, especially in 1983.  I could also see Simon writing a song about Nick, especially one done in a cheeky fashion.  Which theory do you think makes the most sense or do you have a different idea?

-A

P.S. Which song should I tackle next week?

27 thoughts on “Interpretations of the Reflex”

  1. To reference that gaining confidence theory – for me parts of the song are just about having problems, not being able to float to the surface socially and generally in life, and trying to over come it, to get to a better place.

    I like your comments on the other theories too and I agree that Simon's usual topic is sexual lol!

    For next week maybe “Palomino”? 🙂

  2. I think its about the battle between Id and the Ego/Super Ego, with the reflex being the Id. (am I over thinking this? or did I just read that interpretation somewhere?)

    Look at the lyrics though…Its kind of about the Id from the Super Ego's perspective. “you've gone too far this time”

    or maybe I just have way too many therapists in my family…..

    btw I loved that comment about your best friend calling you when a duran duran video would come on. My best friend at the time would let the phone ring once…that was our signal that a duran video was on. To this day when ever the phone rings only once I still immediately think “is there a Duran Duran video on??”

  3. I've heard similar interpretations of this song, Michele – so I don't think it's just you.

    I really don't know that I believe the song is truly about sex or masturbation, though. I guess it *could* be, but I tend to think that Simon's writing is a little deeper than that MOST of the time. I think it could easily be a veiled commentary on friendship and helping one another out…but the truth is that I have no idea. The Reflex has never been a song that I've really tried to gain deeper meaning out of the lyrics.

    I will say this though, if it IS about masturbation…I think we all look pretty damn silly singing Ta Na Na Na with Simon at the shows, in retrospect. 😀

    -R

  4. I never thought it was about, ahem, self service, but I always picked up a sexual overtone to it. I always thought The Reflex referred to orgasm, but then maybe I just had a dirty mind and overactive teenage hormones 😉

    then again, they could have just been really drunk at the time they wrote it and thought “hey, let's just leave it as is”. Simon's lyrics have always been so ambiguous they could mean anything anyway. Isn't that what a good poet does? writes the words and leaves interpretation up to the listener?

    ta na na na……. 😀

  5. If you've ever seen VH1 Classic's series All Time Top 10 featuring Duran Duran's top 10 videos, the host Mark Goodman introduces The Reflex by saying that Simon has said that he doesn't even know what the meaning to the lyrics of the song really are. Whether that's true or not, who knows.

  6. All I know is that the idea gives an entirely new meaning to a group sing-a-long….

    And Andy, do you really believe that Simon doesn't know what the lyrics mean? He seriously just wrote gibberish, and probably takes great joy in watching everyone try to figure it out. Hmm…on second thought,…that's probably exactly right!

    -R

  7. I swear I read in an early book-one of those 80's Duran photo books that can be obtained at a Bargain Books warehouse clearout- that it was about ambition. Ambition to masturbate? LOL.
    I seriously think that best way to call this one is that Simon's lyrics are indeed ambiguous and can be interpreted in a number of ways. I think that's another reason they are my favorite band. Hours of discussion and theories abound whenever I discuss them with friends of mine(Duran pun intended).
    As for the video, it's still awesome. That wasn't the one that led me down the path of ruin with JT- mine was Hungry Like the Wolf. Something about him running in that white outfit with that hat- I was done for. So my moment of revelation with JT was that. I was a Simon girl before that(Still am, but John is my favorite).

  8. On some live bootleg from that era I remember Simon introducing it as a song “about a friend of mine,” which doesn't shed light on anything…well, remember John's answer when asked if “Hold Back the Rain” is about him? “Aren't they all about me?” So…I say it's about John. Or Nick. Or…

    PS-Next, please analyze “Shotgun.” Or “Yo Bad Aziz.” (sorry couldn't resist…)

  9. Sorry, just stumbled on this site while researching the meaning of “Friends of Mine” and I couldn’t believe it because I was just analyzing this exact song on the ride home from work!!! As a kid I had no idea what it was about but back then I didn’t care–like the person who wrote this, that video was what dragged me in and created a lifelong obsession that is still going 32 years later, and YES EXACTLY JOHN LOOKING INTO THE CAMERA KILLED ME. I was a fan and John girl forever after that. I couldn’t have cared less what the words were except to sing them.

    However, listening to it as an adult I decided it’s about instinct, that gut feeling that jumps in and takes over when we’re in trouble or in an unfamiliar situation. If you substitute the word “instinct” for “reflex” it actually makes a lot of sense. Who knows what Simon was really going on about but that fits for me. There are lines where “fate” works too.

    I don’t even know if anyone still uses this site, it’s been two years since this thread was commented on, but I had to have my say. I don’t want people to look back on this and say it’s about sex when I think it’s so much more.

    1. Hi Kellie,

      We are always happy to have people find an old post and comment on, especially when it comes to meanings of songs. I like your idea of instinct being the focus of the song. This type of discussion always reminds me of one of the best parts of Simon’s lyrics, which is that they can be interpreted in many ways.

      As far as this site goes, it is actually updated daily so we hope that you take a look around and see what else is here. 🙂 -A

  10. I’ve always loved this song, in part because I’m in the video! The vid was shot in Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. The guy dancing like a fool at 1 min 32 seconds is me. I’ve taken a lot of ribbing about it over the years but now I actually think it’s pretty cool.

    1. I love that you were the guy dancing in the video! I think it is more than pretty cool. I think it’s awesome!!! -A

      1. Thanks! I didn’t know the camera was on me (obviously!) And it was only after the video came out that friends started saying they thought it was me……and sure enough……!

  11. This is all very interesting to me. I thought that the reflex was about maybe having too much partying going on and the possibility of getting involved with a minor. That’s what I thought the lonely child was about. If you think about it they often times young girls under the age of 18 with throwing themselves at them so they sort of had to be careful about hooking up with particular women if they hooked up at all.

  12. During the 1990s, I was persuaded by the explanation that, “the Reflex” is literally a recurring erection. The song’s lyrical commentary is the deliberation and subsequent recommendations on what should be done about it. The metaphorical lyrical references within the song seemed to be an attempt to throw in just enough ambiguity to grant Mr. Le Bon sufficient deniability.

    It is possibly easier for males to fully comprehend why it might be referred to as, “the reflex.” For adolescent males, ‘reflexes’ can become an inconvenient nuisance that occurs and persists at inopportune and occasionally even unwanted times. Once you accept the above literal explanation, a few of the lyrics are pretty darned straight forward:

    “The Reflex is in charge of finding treasure in the dark.”
    “I’m on a ride and I want to get off.”
    “Why don’t you use it? Try not to bruise it.”

    Most of the rest of lyrics are abstract enough to sufficiently obscure the subject matter, while cleverly still preserving the overall context.

    Simon’s lyrical performance itself has a few interesting subtle anomalies. A simple test to determine whether a given individual is simply a pedestrian Duranite, or is an authentic Duranie, is to watch them carefully while they sing along during, “The Reflex.” Only a dedicated Duranie will remember the correct subtle differences within each refrain/chorus:

    1. The ‘only child’ is . . .

    “waiting BY the park,” during the 1st refrain,
    “waiting IN the park,” during the 2nd refrain, and
    “waiting BY the park,” during the 3rd refrain.

    2. The “question mark” line also has three slightly different variations: “Every little thing the reflex does . . .”

    “leaves YOU answered with a question mark,” during the 1st refrain,
    “is AN ANSWER with a question mark,” during the 2nd refrain,
    “leaves ME answered with a question mark,” during the 3rd refrain.

    Anyone who gets all of these correct from memory, while singling along, is a true Duranie-Ninja.

  13. It’s about cruising for sex – finding pleasure in the dark, overlooking clover. A helping hand may, as it says, help…

  14. Forgive me but I totally disapprove of the sexual interpretation of the song.
    Listened for the first time yesterday.
    I looked for the biography of Simon Lebon and as I thought he studied at the University of Birmingham. There he certainly studied the Greek philosophy on which my Western culture is based.
    The reflex is a distorted image of an object. It is the symbol of the realm of appearances, opposed to the realm of truth. But if you positively judge the words “distorted image” then you can discover the essence of contemporary art. Television, Painting, Cinema, Music, theire all an interpretation of the truth, the creation of a new world based on different rules.
    The real world is based on mathematics and logic. The world of appearance, on the other hand, does not have absolute certainties and gropes in the oxen, but it is like a game based on luck, you can find incredible treasures. The child alone in the park I think refers to the Greek child symbol playing dice,he is the symbol of Greek Gods. The ancient Gods were not good and fair, They were unpredictable and spiteful like a child, and they used their magical powers arbitrarily, like a dice roll.
    So the Duran Duran song tells the listener: Why do not use the world of image and its rules to your advantage instead of judging it an illusion and reject it? There are risks. it’s like a race that never slows down, nobody helps you, if you are looking for answers you will not find them because everything here is based on appearance and luck.
    Thanks (google traslator)

    1. It’s OK that you disapprove of that interpretation. Truth be told, I think Amanda and I always have with the sexual interpretation of the song as well! I always felt it was just an “easy”, expected answer that Simon clung to in order to avoid answering the question. Now why he might avoid explaining his lyrics is another question altogether.

      I like your explanation, it comes from a direction I hadn’t considered before. I don’t know a lot about Greek philosophy – virtually nothing – because it isn’t an area I’ve studied. I had no idea that so much of the lyrics translates so well from that study, and as you explain it, I can’t help but think you’re on to something, certainly. Thank you for taking the time to share! -R

    2. I appreciate that you gave your interpretation to the lyrics. I hope you realize that in my blog post, I did not really give my interpretation as much as I analyzed the interpretations that I found on the internet. Besides, I provided a number of theories about it beyond the sexual one. I would like to hear what you thought of those others. -A

  15. I had a lot of fun reading the other theories, I was surprised Simon was considered a champion of sex and drugs like Jim Morrison, I find your blog very interesting and probably reflect the opinions of those times. After all sexuality stay in the false realm of appearence opposed to the soul and the true life beyond death. And Simon asks Why don’t u use it? I mean it’s not totally wrong that it can be a a hymn to sexuality, but not uniquely and strictly necessary.
    That’s my opinion I bow infont of yours and thank you for the time shared.

  16. I was a young teenager when The Reflex was released. I considered Duran Duran to be uncool at the time, but now I realise now that back then, I was the one who was uncool! Just the other day, I was listened to some 80s music and actually began to appreciate Duran Duran a bit more. I used to think they were a band you’d only like if you had a girly crush, but now I’m mature enough to realise that they were men who sang about real-life emotional issues experienced by men (and women too!).

    That led me to think about the meaning of The Reflex. I’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s interpretations of the song’s meaning. But what I think people don’t see is how actually most of the interpretations weave together. All of them are right in a way, except Francesco’s, whose is very wrong. Perhaps you have to be a man to appreciate the songs’ meaning. Perhaps you have to be a man who is realistic.

    The protagonist of the song is alone on Valentine’s Day because he’s failed to get a girl to have sex with him (the “danger line” is the front line of sexual conquest where he risks rejection).
    Perhaps he is trying to resist the urge to masturbate (“why don’t you use it?” when you are turned on), because he hopes to get a girl who is willing to have sex with him (“a helping hand”) and knows that masturbating would impede his sex drive (“don’t lose it”) and his performance (“try not to bruise it”) if he did get lucky in the near future. He’s trying to distract his mind (“buy time”), but when he’s turned on (“high time”), it’s very difficult to resist (“no time for deciding”). If he does find a girl who wants to sleep with him, he may not be up to the job (“don’t want to be around when this gets out”).

    Probably, the protagonist is already masturbating (“dancing”) and knows he is beyond the point of being able to stop (“you’ve gone too far this time”) and is going to carry on “I’m on a ride”) until completion i.e. orgasm (“and I want to get off”), so he must just get on with the job in hand (hence “flex, flex, flex”). It’s also possible he’s watching pornography where people are having sex (“watching over lucky clover”) or fantasising about having himself or other people having sex. He has attempted to remove temptation in the past (Renoir was famous for painting nudes and the TV has plenty of sexy images). Is it about drugs? Surely only in so far as sex, masturbation and porn are drugs.

    The reflex is the urge to masturbate. Psychologically speaking, the sexual urge is instinctual (“they won’t slow down the roundabout”) and masturbation is thought to come from a wounded place (“an only child”, who feels abandoned “waiting in the park”). But in reality, it’s about finding an outlet for the sexual instinct (“finding treasure in the dark”) in a society which places barriers to sexual expression.

    As fulfilling as masturbation can be in the moment, it “leaves you with a question mark”: You realise that the fantasies which you manifested during masturbation are illusionary (a manifestation of the conflict between appearance and reality). a deflated ego which leads one to lose self-confidence generally) compared to when you actually have sex with a person (your “lucky clover”).

    Can it be any deeper than this? Simon Le Bon studied drama at university, not philosophy. That’s not to say any of the band members understood more about philosophy, but as young men, I doubt they would really be concerned about it. But let’s recognise that that’s actually a good thing. Civilisations (whether theistic or otherwise) have attempted to control the sexual instinct through logic and reason. Doing so is a double-edged sword: we have to weight the blessings of the stable family unit, but with the distortions of sexual repression (masturbation, voyeurism, pornography and the hypocrisy of extramarital affairs). Even the ancient Greeks weren’t immune from this dilemma: when otherwise heterosexual men spent so much time in the company of other men (spending endless hours intellectualising, with their wives stuck at home and their slaves busy tending to their physical chores) that they were drawn into homosexual (often paedophilic) liaisons between master and student.

    Let’s not forget that when the Reflex was released in 1984, sexual conservatism was making a come-back. Christianity was being evangelised more actively in the USA (promoting virginity and monogamy) and AIDS was inducing fear of sex. Compared to the sexual freedom of the 60s/70s, the band probably felt that the early 1980s was a less than optimal time to be young, male and famous.

    So the band said they didn’t mean for this song to have a meaning. That’s probably because they don’t dare to tell the truth. So Simon Le Bon said once “This is a song about Nick”. Well, it is clear from the photos that Nick was the guy least likely to pull a girl (sorry Nick) and maybe it was based on some of Nick’s disclosures about his adolescence experiences. But the reality is, it could be about any one of the band at any point in their lives or about any man (or indeed about any woman) with an active sex drive.

We (Amanda and Rhonda) appreciate discussion and differences of opinion. We respectfully ask that you fully read the blog before bitching us out. If you're only here to take us down a notch, note that we moderate replies (meaning we're not printing rude comments). Thanks a bunch!