“Hotel California” – Philosophical Music: Rock

In memory of Glenn Frey, please enjoy this repost of an examination of one of his most beloved songs

Many mysteries surround the Eagles’ popular classic tune Hotel California, from the warm smell of colitas (marijuana buds) rising up in the air to the nature of the immortal beast in the master’s chambers. By far, however, the most central mystery is the nature of the eponymous hotel itself. Is it a real hotel? The city of Los Angeles? A state of mind?

I would suggest that the answer is found in existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1994 play No Exit (original French title, Huis Clos). In the play three unpleasant and recently deceased people wind up in Hell, and are surprised to find, instead of fire, brimstone and devils, what appears to be the inside of a locked hotel room, and each other.

The underlying message is that we each create hell –or, presumably heaven –through our own existential choices (or lack thereof). The presence of three people who mutually torture each other, just by their clashing personalities, adds dramatic interest for the purpose of the play. Sartre’s real point, however, could have just as easily been created with one person: From an existential point of view, life is making choices, death is the refusal to make real choices (and accept the responsibility that comes with it), and the only thing that can ever really trap us is ourselves. Accordingly, the climax of the play comes when one of the main characters, Garcin, unexpectedly confronts an open and unlocked door, after spending the entire rest of the play raging against being locked in, and demanding to be let out. After contemplating it for a long moment, he closes it himself. It is only then that we, the audience, understand how completely and inescapably he is trapped. The locked door is just a convenient prop for his theatrics. His real imprisonment is carried within.

Hotel California, in my view, although it appears initially as an earthly paradise, is actually one with the hellish hotel in No Exit. An extended metaphor for the Southern California mindset and the materialistic Los Angeles lifestyle, the hotel traps those who come seeking its glitz, glamor and superficial warmth –or rather, provides the setting in which they trap themselves. An artificial substitute for an ever receding real life, the hotel is a place where (as in No Exit) you can “check out” any time you like, but you can never leave.

4 thoughts on ““Hotel California” – Philosophical Music: Rock

  1. “Hotel California” is one of my favorites. Many years (decades?) ago, during an interview, Don Henley talked about reading “Huis Clos,” by Sartre. He talked about how that book influenced him on the absurdity of Existentialism. During that same interview, he said much of The Eagles’ lyrics channels Existentialism. It’s true, though. What could be more Existential than the following line?

    “So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know we have the key.”

    We do like to build our walls, one text at a time.

  2. What actually alerted me to the connection was hearing a Chinese in friend at a karaoke in Shanghai singing the entire song in almost flawless English but clearly with no comprehension of anything but the cadence. her rendition made me listen as, like many another, I had let it wash over me as yet another product of heavy dope-taking and it was only the line about “checking out” that somehow brought the irony of the “prisoners” in Sartre’s play into sharp focus and, as the cliche has it: “The penny finally dropped.”
    After that it was easy to see connections in everything, even to the initials in the title and, rightly or wrongly, I arrived at the same conclusion as the writer of this piece.
    Are we in some tiny minority of deluded souls I wonder?
    Bob

  3. We also have to take into account the history of music in the 70’s. The song was released in 76, written in a time, when musicians can still vividly remember the 60’s but also see how the promise of it will never be fulfilled. The rebel spirit was supposed to break the system, not the other way round. And if we take an honest look into ourselves, we all took part in it. The human spirit has given in to the temptation of sex, money, drugs, feasts, the high life of the lowest instincts.

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