Talking to Myself: Fifth Harmony’s “Reflection”

So much of girlhood feels guilty sometimes. Everything is marketed at teenage girls, but when teenage girls consume what is thrown at them, the object of their consumption is pushed aside, relegated as low brow, unworthy of the attention of men in scruffy beards and leather boots, unworthy of cultural examination. There’s this sense, when you’re 15 and still wearing the Kohl’s jeans your mother bought you, that the only way you can operate successfully in this world as a girl is if you co-opted male angst as your own. You’ll get to a point, of course, when you, a 16 year old girl, will embody male angst better than any boy, you’ll get to a point, of course, when you will realize, I am better than this boy talking to me about Led Zeppelin.

If someone was to scoop that fleeting moment of knowledge, and unroll it, they would come up with Fifth Harmony’s Reflection. Reflection is the mythology of your origin story, Reflection is your most intimate moment of self knowledge, spread out over a pop album. Reflection is that small, packed moment of enlightened, empowered possibility, it’s you, asking yourself: what if I was the one in control, what if my experiences were standardized, what if I had all the power and men just had to deal with it? Reflection is the journey from What If, to This Is, it’s the journey from finding your confidence, and negotiating it into power.

Fifth Harmony is the girl band of your dreams, closer maybe to TLC than the Spice Girls, but they’ve struck a perfect in-between. There are five girls in Fifth Harmony, and it’s time you memorize their names: Ally Brooke Hernandez, Normani Kordei, Dinah Jane Hansen, Camila Cabello, and Lauren Jauregui. They were put together in 2012 on the second season of the (now cancelled) American X Factor, after none of them were able to continue on as soloists. They’ve toured with Demi Lovato, they’ve released a commercially successful EP, and this debut album has been a long time coming.

Reflection is experimental. Not just in sound, but conceptually, Reflection is about discovering yourself and tasting that discovery, playing dress up with it, trying on all the different iterations of it until you find the place that feels Solid, the place that can Command. The first half of the album is a declaration–it’s making sense of your secret and learning it’s boundaries. The second half is a power trip–it’s the smug, knowing execution of your secret.

“Top Down” announces the album with a saunter, “Top Down” is letting yourself in on your own secret, it’s deciding: I like it here, and I want to stay. “BO$$” spells out c-o-n-f-i-d-e-n-t and molds it into a persona, gives it a traceable shape, and sasses you around while doing it. “Sledgehammer” is learning how you feel when you have a crush, it’s labeling the intensity of your desire, discovering its extremity, and celebrating it.

Then there’s “Worth it,” and here’s the thing about “Worth It,” and confidence, and you: Learning how to wear confidence is not always intuitive, no one figures out how to express their confidence in a way that fits right, right away. There’s a vulnerability to learning how to show your confidence, and “Worth It” embodies that vulnerability. It is a song about learning how to speak your confidence out loud for the first time, “give it to me / I’m worth it / baby I’m worth it,” it wills others to see your secret the way you see it, and validate you. It demands attention rather than compels it. And maybe that’s not sustainable, to demand attention, to put your hand on someone’s shoulder and say hey, hey listen, I’m Worth it. But it’s so right though, isn’t it? “Worth it” is like that one time you shared one of your best friend’s secrets: the knowledge you had only seemed interesting and important if it could be shared and whispered about with others.

At “This is How We Roll,” the album dips, not in quality, but in feeling. On every album there’s a song you seem to love against your better judgement, and this Dr. Luke produced track is it on Reflection. “This is How We Roll” is a Kesha song, it’s about survival, it’s about participating in the gestures of life when you feel a little bit hollow, “pull your camera out / ‘cause someone’s gonna wanna see this / take this picture, snap it / post it for the world to see,” is going through the motions of life for the sake of other’s consumption. This is what you listen to when someone’s picked at your strings, when someone’s made you doubt yourself a little bit, and you feel like you’re at a loss. So you reinforce your lifestyle, you repeat it, half heartedly, but incessantly, until it starts to feel real again and your body gets some of its blood back.

Reflection has two clear love songs: “Everlasting Love” and “Like Mariah.” “Everlasting Love” is as indulgent as a love song can get; it is, more than anything, not about a specific person, but an admission that you believe in a soul mate, and it details what that will look for you. It is aspirational, it’s saying I know what I want, and then pointing to it. “Like Mariah,” from a pop standpoint, is the most important song on the album. It’s Fifth Harmony cunningly inserting themselves into the pop landscape, and pulling it off.

“Them Girls Be Like,” is a fun, attitude-infused, and daring, if fleeting, song. This is the song that will make every boy talking about Led Zeppelin bristle, he will shake his head, “what a shame, a song about Instagram,” he’ll say, and you’ll side eye him and post an unfiltered selfie from his messy room. “Them Girls Be Like” is rooted deeply in its time, it negotiates the self with today’s vocabulary (“Do you ever post your pics with no filter / hashtag I woke up like this too?” / “Take a selfie every night / get at least a hundred likes”) and it’s one of the highlights of Reflection. This is when the album begins to challenge the deeper claws of girlhood, this is when Reflection starts to know that there is a bridge from What If, to This Is, that there is a way to perform confidence that ignores its audience. There is a way to perform confidence that is celebratory and self sustaining, there is a way to perform confidence that is powerful.

The turning point happens at “Reflection,” the title track. “Reflection” is a “***Flawless” manifesto. It’s what has to happen before ***Flawless. “Reflection” is you when you’ve figured how out to become pervasive to yourself. It’s the soundtrack to your selfies, the soundtrack to that sadness that sometimes lingers in your bones. “Reflection” is about standing in front of a mirror (or, more likely, staring into your front facing camera) and talking to yourself out loud, having a sensory, tactile experience of yourself, both embodied and disembodied. “Reflection” is about consciously reworking your secret. Your self knowledge is powerful now not because it can be shared, but because it gives you the upper hand, “don’t need no filters on pictures before you post them on the ‘gram / you could shut down the internet / they don’t even understand.” They don’t even understand, they don’t even know, but you do,  you know, and that’s enough.

“Reflection” is a celebration, not just of you and your unfiltered selfies, but of the act of inserting yourself into the world with your vision. “Reflection” is also your map; in the second verse, Lauren threatens, not once but twice, “don’t you ever get it confused,” and it’s hard not to think that she directs this threat both at the world, and then at herself. At the bridge, Aly asks, “mirror mirror, on the wall, should I even return his call?” and she’s not asking because she’s trying to protect herself from potential hurt, she’s asking: knowing everything I know about myself, is he even worth it? (the answer is no, he is not worth it, but you will probably return his call anyway and that’s why you’re the best). “Reflection” is a jam, it is edgy and smooth, it sways and shakes, it pleads and declares, and it deserves a place on every playlist.

From there, the album feels rooted, it doesn’t need to vocalize its knowledge of itself, that knowledge exists intuitively. The best thing, maybe, about so many of the songs on the second half of Reflection is they live in a world in which women are inherently better than men to the point that it no longer needs mentioning. At the same time, all the songs recognize that men are a thing we have to contend with, that men are sometimes a thing we want to contend with, and the second half is asking, how do we contend with men while maintaining our power, how do we do that without letting men take all that power again?

All the songs after “Reflection” look at men with a raised eyebrow.  In “Suga Mama,” the girls ask, “Is you gon’ get a job? I guess I got the cash / I’ll take one for the team.” “We Know,” is a song about girls huddling together, telling each other their secrets, helping each other navigate themselves (and men) tenderly, delicately, but with that quiet regal power of girlhood.

“Going Nowhere,” is what would happen if your raised eyebrow had its own special vocabulary. “Going Nowhere” is how I wish I could have spoken to so many dismissive boys in the past, it’s how I hope to speak to so many dismissive boys in the future. No other song on Reflection captures, with such refinery, the experience of vocalizing your powerful confidence. This is a song that demands emotional and intellectual equality in a relationship, and says, bluntly, “I still want you / but I don’t need you / You should be happy that I’m still here for you / I don’t have to be.” This is “Reflection” when “Reflection” is in a relationship, it’s a whole song of five girls yelling I am better than you, but that doesn’t mean I still don’t like you or want to be with you.

The album ends with “Brave Honest Beautiful,” and there’s no other way the album could have ended. If Reflection, from its first track to its last, is about negotiating confidence into power, then “Brave Honest Beautiful” is you that whole time you were figuring it out. “Brave Honest Beautiful” is when Fifth Harmony announce themselves as Fifth Harmony, the song starts with a chorus of Ooh’s and a shout out to each individual girl in the band. That detail alone maybe sums up “Brave Honest Beautiful.”

“Brave Honest Beautiful” is your definition, it’s all that stuff that makes you you, beneath your confidence, beneath your power. It’s full of big dreams and humbled, tortured reassurances. The rest of the album might be you, talking to yourself but “Brave Honest Beautiful” is the girls of Fifth Harmony talking to you (and themselves).

Reflection is ultimately adolescent, in that it’s about adolescence, but it is also adolescent itself, it’s young, it’s about learning yourself when you’re young. It is adolescent in a way that you’ll never quite lose, because that bridge between confidence and power is constant, it’s always happening, when you’re 15 and 19 and 25 and 31. Some days will always feel like “Worth It,” like you tugging at sleeves and saying don’t you see me, come, look at me. Some days will feel like “Top Down,” like you relearning your secrets with a sway of your shoulders. Some days will feel like “Sledgehammer,” and some like “Reflection.” You’ll always feel a little young about everything, and that’s the point of Reflection, it’s the adolescent girly language you’ll always need to figure yourself out.

Mariam

About Mariam

Mariam doesn’t know how to write about herself without referencing Lorde songs. She fakes glory in California, where nothing is wrong, and nothing is true.

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