“All I Know Is”

“All I Know Is”


On Perceiving Physicality in Music

I just discovered Wet. In the few hours since being introduced to the band over a friend’s speakers, I have listened to their song “You’re the Best” an estimated thirty or forty times, and counting. I should clarify that “You’re the Best” has been released by Wet in three different versions; the one to which I am referring appears on the band’s 2013 self-titled EP.

Listening to a piece of music on repeat is an act of satisfying a visceral desire to be, and to remain, among a certain set of sounds—it is a curious exercise in sustained interaction. The last piece of music with which I remember having developed such an obsession was Luciano Pavarotti’s “Nessun Dorma.” Before that, it was Led Zeppelin’s “Hey, Hey, What Can I Do.” On all three occasions, the songs in question have been all that sounds good to my ears for the duration of my obsession with them. I cannot rationally control my incessant desire to hear “You’re the Best”—it will be satisfied at a seemingly arbitrary time in the future, and I will have no conscious say in the decision. The transaction will occur between my sensual responses and the piece of music itself, with my body acting as a mere vessel for their communication. Or, at least, that is the way it has tended to work in the past.

The sheer fact that I cannot stop listening to “You’re the Best,” that the song has taken control of my mind, makes me want to spend time analyzing it, dissecting it into minute parts, and perhaps becoming more conscious of my obsessive relationship with it in the process. I want to imagine what meanings might be contained within its distinct musical parts. I am concerned, though. There is something preciously mysterious about my need for the song at this moment, and, in analyzing it, I run the risk of ruining the enigma.

Music comprises a collection of alternate realities, ones formed by musicians and by listeners alike; in this way, both are artists. In some sense, the music mediates a conversation between the distinct minds that engage with it. Musicians are inevitably subjective in their creative processes by virtue of their inherent individuality, and the music they create must, in turn, be distinct in accordance with this subjectivity. When these fragments of individuality become contained within a finite piece of music, they exist and take on meaning within contexts beyond the musician’s own life, and are thus part of a new reality. It is an alternate reality, one inspired by yet distinct from the musician’s life, that begins and ends with the beginning and end of the song. In an interview with The New York Times, Kelly Zutrau, Wet’s singer and songwriter, was asked whether it was “difficult to perform songs steeped in real personal conflict,” to which she responded:

“On a bad night, if I’m really nervous and the crowd doesn’t feel right, sometimes it can feel a little traumatic. I’m up here, I feel very vulnerable, I feel embarrassed, I hate myself right now for singing these pathetic words. Those are unpleasant shows. But it can go the opposite way: If you feel supported and feel like you’re really connecting with your audience and reliving something that was traumatic, it’s the most cathartic thing in the world. It’s therapeutic.” 1

When a listener opts to engage with a piece of music, they make the choice to enter into the musician’s constructed reality. The listener, too, constructs a distinct reality within the piece of music based on what they perceive in its sound. Again, because each listener is a different person, their individuality will render distinct their experience listening to a musical work. A listener might, for example, allow the work to reflect certain truths about their own life and, in the process, feel as though the music provides empathy. Alternately, a listener might be able to live vicariously through a reality that exists for them only within the context of the work.

Music is intangible and invisible, yet it is difficult for me to listen to a piece of music without putting its sound in tactile or visual terms. Music is an inherently physical art form, from a musician’s vocal or instrumental performance, to a listener’s propensity for humming along to a melody or responding corporeally to a beat. Friedrich Schiller devised the term “play impulse” to refer to the coming together of formal and sensuous qualities in a piece of art. He writes, “this play impulse would aim at the extinction of time in time and the reconciliation of becoming with absolute being, of variation with identity.”2 A piece of music is a space for musicians and listeners alike to act—or play—out realities. As a listener, understanding a piece of music in physical terms can make the work feel more tangible and less fleeting, aiding in the construction of inhabitable realities within its sound.

Songs are special in that they contain the aesthetic forces of both music and poetry. The lyrics of “You’re the Best” are crucial in my understanding of the song’s physicality and of how it operates. Everything about the lyrics matters, from the way in which they are chosen and organized to the way in which they engage with the song’s music. Words and phrases that seem normal and ubiquitous can become instantly more meaningful when presented in poetic and musical contexts.

The lyrics of “You’re the Best” are as follows:

“All I know is
When you hold me
I still feel lonely
Lonely when you hold me

All I know is
I can’t focus
On these arms around me
Think of how you found me
Found me in those arms
So large and dark and holding on

All I know is
When you hold me
Are you thinking Rosalie?
Or is she in me?
And all the rest

But, baby, you’re the best,
We’ll figure out the rest,
And maybe it’s a test,
I think we’d better quit while we’re ahead

All I know is
When we’re sleeping
Our friends, they creep in
And all the rest

All I know is
You hardly know me
But you still own me
And all the rest

But, baby, you’re the best,
We’ll figure out the rest,
And maybe it’s a test,
I think we’d better quit while we’re ahead” 3

Each of the song’s verses begins with the phrase “All I know is.” The lyrics that follow each appearance of that phrase differ from verse to verse, but they are all related to physical acts: “When you hold me,” “these arms around me,” “is she in me,” “you still own me” (with ownership being thought of in terms of tangible property). The lyric “All I know is” conveys certainty, and the intensely physical lyrics that follow it in each verse imply that certainty can be found in what is physical. Although Zutrau seems to be contradicting herself by singing that all she knows is something different in each verse, the verses are united under a common umbrella of physical lyrical content.

So writes Audre Lorde about poetry:

“The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized. This is poetry as illumination, for it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are—until the poem—nameless and formless, about to be birthed, but already felt. That distillation of experience from which true poetry springs births thought as dream births concept, as feeling births idea, as knowledge births (precedes) understanding.”4

The verse lyrics of “You’re The Best” seem to express carefully thought-out qualms, while those of the song’s choruses appear like sudden releases of visceral joy, as in the lines, “But, baby, you’re the best / We’ll figure out the rest.” The song is a contained space in which the negative realities of the verse lyrics can coexist with the positive realities of the first lines of the chorus lyrics—in this way, the song presents a reality that is based on a person’s (the musician’s) fluctuating mindset. Perhaps the lyrics are an opportunity for Zutrau to lay out the highs and lows of the subject about which she is singing in the context of an alternate, musical reality in order to realize, as suggests Lorde, “changes which [she hopes] to bring about” in her own life. 5

I distinctly remember the first time I listened to “You’re The Best.” Before I was aware of the lyrics or of my perception of the song’s meaning, I was immediately attracted to and felt physically affected by instrumental expressions in the music, which lend themselves well to the song’s lyrical content. Each verse appears against a distinct instrumental backdrop, allowing each one to manifest a different reality. My first experience listening to “You’re The Best” felt significant because, as the song progressed through its instrumental changes, I felt my body progress through a series of different physical reactions to the sounds that were being presented. When I listen to the song now, I am aware of the physical realities that are housed for me in each portion of its varied instrumentation—I feel physically invested in the song.

Musician and writer W.A. Mathieu accounts for the variety of experiences that a listener might have with different musical pitches by referencing gravity, explaining that, “Even though a low sound doesn’t weigh more than a high one, our life experience as a body navigating within earth’s gravitational field has given us an ability to construct this map of reality in our minds . . . your feet seek the floor on the low drum sounds of downbeats, and your body rises against gravity on the high cymbal sounds of upbeats.”6 His suggestion that music can be thought of as inherently imitative of the natural physicality of bodies gives credence to the initial, visceral reaction I had to the music of “You’re The Best.”

The only instrumentation present in the song’s first verse comes from a drum machine, and the first two beats that are used respectively mimic the physical, corporeal sounds of a heartbeat and of hand clapping. Meanwhile, Zutrau sings, “When you hold me / I still feel lonely”—her words feel lonely, too, against the barren and spacious, solely percussive instrumental backdrop.

The instrumentation of the second verse remains the same as that of the first until the third line of lyric. As Zutrau sings “On these arms around me,” an electric guitar appears in the song’s instrumental landscape with the first in a series of shimmering chords. The lyric “I can’t focus” precedes the guitar chords and warns of their imminent, distracting arrival. The electric guitar, whose high-pitched and crystalline quality contrasts the percussive foundation established by the drum machine, demands all of my attention when it appears, making me feel as though I were being wrapped up and pulled into the song’s reality, and in effect allowing me to experience the action described in the lyric of arms wrapped around.

The third verse, which precedes the first chorus, contains smooth instrumentation that makes my body feel as though it were floating, albeit in a forward-moving direction. The electric guitar performs a picking pattern that complements the rhythm of the drum machine—these two sound sources imbue the third verse with motion and give my body a syncopated rhythm to which to respond. Meanwhile, a blanket of quiet synthesizer lurks in the background like a thick fog, clouding my mind and making my body feel detached from the ground.

The first three verses of the song grow increasingly instrumentally opaque, building towards the climactic instrumental density of the chorus, which features a reappearance of the blinding and shimmering electric guitar. Complementing this immense and unavoidable instrumentation are the first lines of chorus lyrics, “But, baby, you’re the best / We’ll figure out the rest,” whose unconcerned and ecstatic nature contrasts the physical negativity that pervades the lyrics of the preceding verses. However, this uninhibited and confident expression fades with the latter half of the chorus lyrics, in which Zutrau sings, “But maybe it’s a test / I think we’d better quit while we’re ahead.” Following the lyrical deflation is a brief instrumental interlude, with the disappearance of vocals mimicking the act of “quitting” described in the preceding line of lyric. The subsequent fourth verse is as much a manifestation of “quitting,” only this time, on the part of the instruments: like the vocals during the instrumental interlude, in the fourth verse, the instruments disappear from the track, giving way to solitary vocal harmonies. This lack of instrumentation also parallels the physicality present in the lyrics of the fourth verse: “When we’re sleeping / Our friends, they creep in.” The silence inherent in the acts of “sleeping” and “creeping” feels more meaningful when those lyrics are presented against a backdrop of instrumental quiet.

By the time of the last verse, all that Zutrau knows is, “You hardly know me / But you still own me / And all the rest.” Instrumentation reappears in the song’s landscape, engulfing her lyrics in a manner that feels reflective of the ownership about which she is singing. The chorus follows once more, responsible for leaving a final impression: “I think we’d better quit while we’re ahead.”

I ignore the lyric, and instead start the song over again.

  1. Chow, Andrew R. “Kelly Zutrau of the Band Wet Has Plenty to Say.” The New York  Times, January 21, 2016. Accessed April 11, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/24/arts/music/kelly-zutrau-of-the-band-wet-has-plenty-to-say.html?_r=0.
  2. Schiller, Friedrich. On the Aesthetic Education of Man. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover  Publications, 2004.
  3. “You’re the Best (EP Version).” By Wet. On Wet. By Wet. Columbia, 2013, purchased aac file.
  4. Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Berkeley: Crossing Press, 2007.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Mathieu, W. A. Bridge of Waves: What Music Is and How Listening to It Changes the World. Boston: Shambhala, 2010.
Back to Top