Defining Music

Before you press play and long after the song has ended, sound can still be heard.  Whether it’s the background noise of a bus or the sound of headphones being removed from the ear — we continuously hear sound each day.  Listening to the sounds of birds in the morning in combination with the natural sounds of the outdoor environment can sooth and perhaps even allow us to hear patterns of melody in the noisy nothingness.  A woodpecker tapping on a tree might match nicely with the sound of the rain – it is in this context in which the listener has transformed what was at first noise, into music.

Music is what we are presently hearing, but only if it is realized to be so.  Turning on an album and then focusing upon another activity – is the album still considered music, or has it become background noise?  The artist may have intended for it to have been heard as music, but when placed in a context where music is unwanted, it is simply one more layer of noise to tune out.  Therefore, music is not a theoretical record yet to have been played, nor is it the next thirty seconds approaching in the song – music is now.  If you consider it to be music, you are actively listening to it in the present moment.

Music is response-oriented – focusing upon the listener’s reaction, rather than the music itself.  Music is not a pop melody unless you recognize it to be one.  It is based on the listener’s state-of-mind and intention.  The sounds we hear are either aimless, formless noise or they are cohesive, consciously crafted statements of creativity made solely for our enlightenment.   At any given moment, we make the decision on how to classify receptive sound.

Thus, focus is the determining factor in musical preference.  Beyond the simple notion of “paying attention” to sound intended (and hoping-to-be-realized) as music, there is the ability to comprehend music at greater levels of clarity.  Simply paying attention in greater detail can allow for an increase in musical understanding.  Imagine a song you strongly detest, regardless of genre.  What caused the discomfort you feel?  Was it the sound itself, or was it the fact that the sound conflicted with a personalized mental attachment to what you consider “music”?  What happens when someone listens to the same song, but this person finds immense enjoyment in the material?  The song matches with their ideal for what can be considered music.  Music is completely response-oriented, and thus, all sound can be potentially experienced as music with a broad enough personal standard.  This standard adjusts at whim.  If you find yourself meditating on a mountaintop, you may find yourself at peace, and all is music.  If you find yourself in a traffic jam, limited patience will limit this standard, etc.

Conscious awareness of the fact that sound exists allows us to perceive sound in a way which goes beyond noise.  Music is sound which, through personalized context, sparks inspiration within the listener.

Lyrical Analysis: “Bizness” by Tune-Yards

The lyrics are found here.  Here is the official music video:

“Don’t take my life away / Don’t take my life away”

The manner in which she sings this, rapidly and frantic, suggests that this song may work best if you take the lyrics on a literal level before analyzing interpretatively.  In the main chorus of the song, it sounds as if Garbus is describing a mugging.  From the opening line (“What’s the business?“) asking just what the hell is happening, to the realization that the mugger is moving closer (“From a distance“) finally to the attempt to try to empathize with her perpetrator (“I’m a victim!” / “I’m addicted!“) It all paints a very visual picture.  The intensity of this image obvious increases with every repeated plea (“Don’t take my life away!“).

WhoKill as an album seems to deal with similar subject matter upon the surface, and then on a deeper level one can interpret these things to act as metaphors for more intimate personal issues and insecurities expressed in song.  If you look at the opening verse in this same “Mugger” mindset, you can see how well it fits with just about every line.  The opening, in particular, makes much more sense on a surface level when analyzed from this perspective:

“If I represent the one that did this to you / Then can away the part that represents the thing that scarred you”

It seems to be an extended plea intended to be said to the mugger, only to be mentally pondered.  Muggers obviously don’t personalize or discriminate in terms of the individual; though if they are robbing you chances are you have a look of wealth or content.  She rationalizes, “If you are mugging me because I look like everything you aren’t and desire to be (in terms of wealth), then you need to get over whatever it is that personally traumatized you.”  Such a powerful, opening line.  Obviously, we are starting to see the deeper intentions of the song.

Immediately after this declaration of “Fix yourself before you hurt me”, she declares (“Get up / Stand up / Get on it!“) both the listener and herself to defend against the situation as to change the outcome (“I am no longer who you thought this one would be“).  A victim can be mugged, but a victim in self-defense is not such an easy target.

After this confidence boosting declaration, it’s revealed that she (as a victim) still ends up running into this mugger once more (“We end up around the mountain that I climb to lose you“) and despite how bold she was just moments before, meeting this mugger causes her to enter a state of shock (“Ask me, Tell me / but all my wisdom departed“).  Finally we enter in the main chorus, the confrontation, where all she can ask is “What the hell is going on / How did I get here / Don’t take my life away / I’m just like you!”

This entire time we have seen how simply the song reads in a literal manner, but it’s during the third verse where we start to realize that the song works much more beautifully on a symbolic level.  Regardless, finishing up the mugger theme, the victim in the song tries one final plea.  She states how “I’ll bleed if you ask me”, and we see how the mugger’s response is a simple “No” (“That’s when he said no“) before we enter back into the confrontational chorus once more.  I’d like to point out that the song ends asking the question “What’s the business?” repeatedly, as if Garbus is restating her disbelief of the entire situation.

Obviously, you can replace the whole Mugger / Victim theme with many concepts and interpretations, but what will remain consistent is the general narrative between the two parties.  If you go for the relationship-route, the song becomes a symbolic tale of frustration between two would-be lovers.  I see it as someone meeting someone who has been hurt in a prior relationship, so badly, that they see all of that heartbreak in every new person they meet, including the protagonist of the song.

This is very similar in subject matter to the song “Abducted” by Cults (I analyzed this here), the major difference is that Garbus is attempting a solution to the problem, whereas Cults focused on the sad cyclical nature of the whole thing.  The first verse then declares the protagonist of the song to be their own individual and not connected to any horrific past relationships.  The second verse reveals how the protagonist of the song does NOT enter into the relationship (“The mountain that I climb to lose you“), but ends up meeting this person again in life anyways (“We end up around the mountain“), this time demanding why things can’t work out (“Answer me this!“).  At the same time, there is a realization that no one wants to throw their time away with someone who is just going to hurt them (“Don’t take my life away“), so the protagonist is repeatedly asking in the chorus “What’s the business” — what hurt you before/are you ready for this/I don’t want to be hurt — before finally revealing she does fall in love (“I’m addicted yeah!“).

Writing this, I see a plethora of abstract and less direct ways (ex- an internal dialogue) of looking at this song from several perspectives, but the two general interpretations I’ve provided do indicate that the song is a song about frustration stemming from misunderstanding and miscommunication.  The protagonist attempts to overcome this (in whatever the medium is which the frustration is occurring, depending on personal interpretation), and in the end she finds herself addicted.  The real question, is to what?  To heartbreak?  To falling in love with those who are scarred?  The song’s brilliance lies in how many windows it can be seen through, and I hope my interpretation has provided some insight into whatever your personal interpretation of the song happens to be.