Crimes of the Mind
Leave me out with the waste
This is not what I’d do
It’s the wrong kind of place
To be thinking of you
It’s the wrong time
For somebody new
It’s a small crime
And I’ve got no excuse
So begins the song 9 Crimes, the first track off Damien Rice’s album 9. What is this song about? I’ll give you a hint: In a later verse, the fourth line above is changed to, “To be cheating on you.” Yup, we’ve got a cheater on our hands.
When I hear this song, however, I think of something different altogether. I immediately lose control of what’s going on inside my head. I’m sitting by a pool in Siem Reap, Cambodia, in a slick plastic deck chair. It’s sticky hot, my eyes are closed, and I’m listening to headphones. I feel drained and my bones are heavy. I am stuck in some clip running on a repetitive loop. All sorts of emotions rush to the surface. By the time the chorus kicks in, with the overlapping vocals of the two singers, I’m actually dragged into the past—or the closest thing to it possible.
Overreaction to a pop song? Perhaps, but that song and album are forever decorated with the memory of a trip I took halfway across the world to Cambodia and Thailand. During this trip, I was going through all sorts of personal turmoil back home. By chance I had just discovered this album, and although the song didn’t really fit my situation, something struck a emotional chord. Maybe I was just being sensitive, but I played it over and over. Say what you will about Damien Rice, but whenever I listen to him, it is always December 2006, and I’m always poolside in Siem Reap.
But I bet when you listen to the song, your emotions are not affected in the same way. Perhaps you have an emotional relationship with that song; perhaps you don’t. Either way, you probably don’t think of Cambodia. This is because the power of great music is unleashed when the listener finds resonance in her own set of experiences.
In search of a better, more universal example, I turn to Bob Dylan. Check this out:
Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near
She’s delicate and seems like the mirror
But she just makes it all too concise and too clear
That Johanna’s not here
The ghost of ’lectricity howls in the bones of her face
Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place
I’ll give you a moment to lift your jaw off the floor. This comes from the second verse of the immortal Visions of Johanna. How many different interpretations could we come up with for this snippet of lyric? And in the end, what would they matter? The immediacy of the emotion dwarfs what we think this song is really “about” in any conventional sense. When he growls, “The ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face,” what do you see? Do we see the same thing? Does it matter?
I’d never want to ask Dylan what he meant with this passage. That’s less than half the equation. Yes, Dylan wrote the song, but once he put down the guitar and released the song into the world, it became a living, breathing thing. Its life is no longer in his hands. His interpretation is now just one of many.
I like examples, don’t you? Let’s try another one.
Stay out super late tonight
picking apples, making pies
put a little something in our lemonade and take it with us
we’re half awake in a fake empire
we’re half awake in a fake empire
The National is one of the great underappreciated bands making music right now. If you haven’t heard them before, go listen to their album Boxer— I’ll still be here when you get back. Pretty good, right?
The National’s lyrics flow through sets of images that exist within a sparse narrative structure. What do we make of the words above? What’s the “fake empire”? Is it a relationship that’s built on lies? Is it referring to something larger, like our country? Even talking about it in this way siphons off some of the juice. The delicious tension in the lyrics comes from the juxtaposition of the micro (apple pies and lemonade) and the macro (a fake empire). What more do we need?
Of course, music isn’t just lyrics. That’d be, um, poetry. Music is also sound, noise, instrumentation. Sometimes it’s the music that magnifies the feeling of the lyrics. And sometimes the most powerful musical moments are to be had in the instrumental passages.
Ever listen to the Miles Davis album A Tribute to Jack Johnson? No, it’s not about everyone’s favorite Hawaiian-born troubadour. It’s the soundtrack to a biopic about the legendary Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Without the use of a single word, Miles communicates his message. Racial tension and bigotry is recast through the prism of his primal, screaming trumpet. You don’t need to know the history of Jack Johnson or of Miles Davis or even of prejudice in the United States to feel what Miles is feeling on this album. The message, strong and true, is there in the music. We can relate to the anger and frustration by sitting back and listening to the throb of his untouchable fusion band.
I enjoy artists that demand something of their listeners. Simply stated, music is a form of communication. All communication requires three things: a sender, a message, and a recipient. A relatively small number of people are involved in the creation and transmission of a song, but there is an almost unlimited number of recipients. Why shouldn’t we want our music to reveal something different every time we approach it, every time we find another way to un-package or understand it? Each recipient brings her own values and judgments to the table. No wonder there are so many ways to interpret and appreciate a single song.
Let me try to reel this back in. Not everything is an uncertain, hazy mess. Songs still have meanings. Many song lyrics are direct and are attempting to communicate in a less obtuse way. Some of those lyrics are fantastic and moving and powerful. I happen to think that Lady Gaga is one the most interesting and relevant artists out there (seriously). But her art comes from a different place than, say, Dylan’s. She’s at an intersection of image and music and social commentary which is better served by relatively straightforward lyrics. And that’s OK. There’s no right way to go about this. Every artist has to find her own space and means of expression and way of communicating with the audience.
My point is that art (and in particular music) is wonderfully subjective. We can make value judgments and we can formulate criticisms. That’s fun and engaging and often enlightening. But when it gets down the nitty gritty, nothing you’ll ever say will change my mind about Lady Gaga. And whatever his original intentions were, Damien Rice’s 9 Crimes will always transport me to Southeast Asia.