Final Project: Chromatic Thought, the podcast

Chromatic Thought

Episode 1: Finding Freedom while Working for the Knife

Show Notes

Have you ever noticed how music can set forth this glorious feeling of freedom inside yourself? Have you ever pondered how philosophically-geared your favorite artists write their music? In this podcast episode, I analyze the singer-songwriter, Mitski’s, latest song, “Working for the Knife” under an existential lens. I’ll delve into the lyrics and take a close look at its ideas of freedom according to French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. Despite this song dealing with the harsh realities of life, its themes and motifs express and demonstrate how to approach one’s existential sense of freedom. Thanks for tuning in!

Podcast Template 

1) Introduction to Podcast 

2) How music can be freeing 

  • Audio sound bytes from friends 
  • Transition into Mitski 
  • Mitski develops philosophically-themed music 

4) Introduce the featured song: “Working for the Knife” 

  • Background of the song 

3) Explanation of Simone de Beauvoir’s idea of freedom 

  • How does existential freedom connect to the song? 
  • What does Mitski’s comeback with this song say about existential freedom 

4) Analyze song verse by chorus 

  • Song clip 1 
  • Close “reading”/listening of the lyrics 
  • Analysis ~ How does each section of lyrics approach or express existential freedom
  • Creation is a concrete project 
  • Paradox of “wanting to make things too” but having written the song – example of exercising freedom 
  • Moving beyond one’s past 
  • Song clip 2 
  • Close “reading”/listening of the lyrics 
  • Analysis ~
  • External values can deny someone their freedom 
  • Song clip 3 
  • Close “reading”/listening of the lyrics 
  • Analysis ~
  • Taking action today (despite the past) is generating and verifying your freedom 
  • Song clip 4 
  • Close “reading”/listening of the lyrics 
  • Analysis ~
  • Ambiguity: contending with facticity + earthly pressures vs. transcendence and achieving freedom 
  • Nothingness allows for freedom 
  • Song clip 5 
  • Close “reading”/listening of the lyrics 
  • Analysis ~
  • Power of choice allows for freedom 
  • Can dying for the knife also equal freedom? 

5) Describe the end of the “Working for the Knife” music video 

  • Analyse Mitski’s movements: 
  • Restrained, exhausting herself for others 
  • Vs. Allowing herself to create solely for herself – contentment 

6) Wrap up

Reflective Paragraph

I had a great time creating this podcast episode. I really connected with the idea that music can put you into different mindsets and think about the world from a larger perspective. After listening to Mitski’s newest song since it came out, I realized that it’s pretty existential and decided I could analyze it from what I learned about in our readings of Beauvoir. Coming up with the content for the project was the most straightforward part; I then had to decide what medium to present it in. I’m more familiar with visual mediums, such as video, so was going to do a YouTube essay, but decided to take on the challenge of a podcast recording. This mode lent itself well to the content analyzing a very audio-based piece of media, a song. However, I do analyze parts of the music video, which would have benefitted from a visual depiction. This led me to creating the logo for the podcast, which was fun because it was a way to capture and express the essence of ideas that I share verbally in an aesthetically pleasing visual medium! Thank you, Professor Anderson, for a wonderful semester of existentialism, and the opportunities to share existential thoughts creatively with others.

Podcast Episode Transcript

[Intro music]

Welcome to Chromatic Thought, the podcast that links philosophy to music.

Music has a way of transporting us to different worlds of emotion—we often link specific songs with emotionally-intense memories, and I know when I’m in a certain mood, I’ll turn to music to either really lean into that feeling or use it as levity to pull me out of it. Music can provide a reset from the pressures and immediacy of the world, being able to vibe with it in a liminal space. That is… freeing. I asked some of my friends if they’ve experienced this, too, and what songs elicit it.

[Audio bytes of friend accounts]

But how do you really define freedom? Simone de Beauvoir analyzes what constitutes human freedom in her book “The Ethics of Ambiguity,” published in 1947. Beauvoir’s idea of freedom is this spontaneous internal drive that must exist for itself while also contending with the external weight of the world. Every human encompasses their own freedom, but the actual effort towards practicing one’s freedom helps generate more freedom: as Beauvoir says, “it is a matter of pursuing the expansion of [one’s] existence.” She also thinks that the ultimate freedom is that which helps others be free.

So, what does this have to do with music? So many songs have come out lately that I feel are existential. And one of my favorite musical artists, Mitski, has historically created (in my mind) philosophically themed music.

Mitski is a Japanese-American singer-songwriter who has released 5 albums since 2012. Her music falls under the indie rock/art pop genre with usually a melancholy undertone. No matter how you categorize them, her songs are filled with emotion. Some of the ones that are more well-known in popular media include “Nobody” which is based around searching for a connection and finding loneliness despite being surrounded by people and “I bet on losing dogs” about losing mental battles.

Mitski most recently came out with a new song on October 5th, 2021, called “Working for the Knife.” It’s about the biting aspects of reality, it’s not super carefree, BUT this song totally connects to Simone de Beauvoir’s idea of existential freedom, and if you keep listening, I’ll explain why.

Mitski says it’s about “being confronted with a world that doesn’t recognize your humanity and seeing no way out.” This song was released 2 years after Mitski declared an indefinite hiatus from music. She deleted all social media and sort of disappeared, but now she’s back. To me, Mitski’s song uniquely captures a sort of existentialist attitude about the process of living and creating.

Mitski grapples with her sense of freedom in “Working for the Knife”, which I feel is quite succinctly described by Beauvoir on the first page of “The Ethics of Ambiguity.” The 20thcentury French philosopher says humans try to assert themselves as “pure internality against which no external power can take hold, and [they] also experience [themselves] as a thing crushed by the dark weight of other things.” This is such a raw and powerful quote. It illuminates the desire that people have in exercising their freedom to create their own realities but the weighted pressures they face in doing so, an experience that Mitski puts to music. Her song engages with the purpose of work and one’s satisfaction with the trajectory of life.

Beauvoir says that freedom is not a fixed quality or thing that is given. We all have it, but we have to actually assume our freedom via action to fully legitimize it. And it’s not a whim of simply doing what you want when you want: Beauvoir describes that freedom requires work and effort to realize, and constantly needs to be renewed and engaged with. Mitski takes freedom into her own hands by coming back and releasing a new song despite the circumstances which caused her to take a pause, presumably the overbearing grind of the industry. In her latest song, she speaks about feeling limited by this entity she labels “the knife,” but she paradoxically defies it by writing and releasing the song. Her actions speak for themselves, expressing her freedom. And through this paradox, listeners realize how attaining one’s freedom is an effortful process, but taking concrete action is a positive.

An important tenet of Beauvoir’s idea of true freedom is that it works towards ensuring the freedom of others. At this point in time, the music video for “Working for the Knife” has over 2 and a half million views, and the multitude (26,000) of comments under the video seem to support the fact that her song has resonated with an audience. Mitski sharing her sentiments on life via this new song is a gift of freedom to others since it allows them to potentially recognize themselves in it, reflect on their own form of existence and do something about it.

So what exactly does Mitski say in this comeback? How do her lyrics reinforce or reflect existential freedom? We’re now going to listen to it and discuss.

Song Analysis:

I cry at the start of every movie

Maybe it’s because I wish I was making things, too

But I’m working for the knife

So first we hear this intro which is reminiscent of cogs in a wheel, a modern steampunk feel of the clink and grind of a well-oiled machine, or a worker punching in and out for the day. And just a quick visual aside–in the music video, Mitski enters in a cowboy hat, wearing a blue silk pantsuit under a long coat… later she’s in a red bra with the blue bottoms… hello American flag and the corporate work system in the USA. Are you really the land of the (existentially) free? We’ll see.

Okay so then we leap into her first lyrics. She’s lamenting that she isn’t “making things” which is sort of paradoxical because she has obviously created her own music!

But the “I wish I was making things too” shows us the intrinsic draw towards creation, towards freedom that Beauvoir says we all harbor. But because she’s “working for the knife,” she’s held back. The knife can be interpreted as a unfulfilling 9-5 job, or simply the pressures of externality that crush freedom’s vitality and drive. Being caught in the affair of everyday life has seemed to squelch Mitski’s freedom.

HOWEVER, at this point in the music video, Mitski does this dance move that flips the cowboy hat off her head onto the floor. Her last album was called “Be the Cowboy,” with the premise of taking on the unapologetic arrogance of cowboys in western movies during a time when Mitski said she struggled to claim space as an Asian-American woman in the music industry. I see the spurning of her hat in “Working for the Knife” as a rejection of her old era, or at least a signifier that she is moving on, and that she can take up space truly as she is without an external prop of confidence. With this choice, Mitski begins exercising her freedom and taking the future into her own hands. Beauvoir says that a creator’s “present project embraces the past and places confidence in the freedom to come, a confidence which is never disappointed… at each moment freedom is confirmed through all creation” (28). In visually referencing her past album, Mitski nods to her past, recognizing that it helped her get to where she is today as an artist. But she is ready to move on. And despite the tendency of this song’s lyrics to wade in the past, Mitski’s actions of creating the new piece affirm her freedom moving forward.

Okay, onto the next bit.

I used to think I would tell stories

But nobody cared for the stories I had

about no good guys

This part reminds me of Beauvoir’s idea that people determine their own freedom as much as they do the freedom of others. Beauvoir says, “freedom, in order to fulfill itself, requires that it emerge into an open future” (88) and that other people allow or deny someone to constructively participate in that open future. So, it makes sense how Mitski has felt defeated by people’s lack of interest, which may have held her back from further creation during her hiatus.

At the same time, however, Mitksi’s caught in the lie that externalities determine her value and the freedom she has to put her stories into the world. Since we are free, each individual is responsible for their own actions, through which they develop their values. In this sense, external values can deny someone else their freedom. Here, that’s other people dictating which stories are worth hearing or not. Perhaps the “no good guys” line also represents no inherent meaning in life. We have to create our own, which Mitski is trying to do.

I always knew the world moves on        

I just didn’t know it would go without me

I start the day high and it ends so low

‘Cause I’m working for the knife

So Mitski started the day (maybe the beginning of her artistic career) so high, with all of these aspirations, but it ended so low because of the knife. Beauvoir emphasizes that freedom must retain genuine spontaneity, and if spontaneity is shattered or stolen, freedom dissipates, too. After being rejected, Mitski seems to have given up on her vision and feels left behind in the past. While the world carried on, her perceived lack of freedom kept her stuck. But failure doesn’t deny freedom. Beauvoir says, “it is not a question of giving [someone] time and happiness, it is not a question of stopping the movement of life: it is a question of fulfilling it” (86). According to Beauvoir, Mitski doesn’t need the world to wait for her. She just needs to continue exercising her freedom in a way that’s meaningful to her.

I used to think I’d be done by 20

Now at 29 the road ahead appears the same

Though maybe at 30 I’ll see a way to change

That I’m living for the knife

This verse is super important. It gets at Beauvoir’s idea of ambiguity. EXPLAIN Even though you can’t change the earthly circumstances of facticity (or the oppression of the knife), the existential idea is you can still live freely within it. The word “change” is critical. It signifies the conversion that Beauvoir talks about, that people’s free existence is what creates values. Instead of forced to be nose to the grindstone working for the knife, now Mitski says she is living for it. She recognizes that yes, she is stuck within worldly conditions and factors that challenge her freedom, but she can make the most within her situation. Also, this is where Mitski compares her past with her potential future. And although she seems to see her current life a monotony appearing the same, that could simply be the “nothing” that exists between one’s past and future. That nothingness, Beauvoir describes, is one’s freedom. If Mitski acts right now, not even wait til 30, she will be engaging in her freedom. 

I always thought the choice was mine

And I was right but I just chose wrong

I start the day lying and end with the truth

That I’m dying for the knife

Finally, we have the last verse. Humans have the freedom to make whatever choice they want. Pulling a tiny bit from Sartre, the power of choice is what helps us realize our freedom: the fact we can do one thing OR another thing means we know our actions are not limited. Mitski implies that she made the wrong choice toward pursuing her goals in the past. But the first line, “the choice was mine” still holds true. In this moment, only she has the freedom to shape her future. Beauvoir says not to dwell on “failures” and to see them simply as the opening of opportunities for new freedom, which Mitksi has the opportunity to do. Beauvoir declares that existence is ambiguous, “its meaning is never fixed, that it must constantly be won” (139). Freedom is verified through constant concrete action, which allows for a renewal of the momentFailed past attempts aren’t a waste or a reason to quit, but rather a new avenue and opportunity towards freedom. You’re not beholden to your past—which Mitski demonstrates in the beginning of the music video throwing off the cowboy hat.

Finally, we’ve made the progression to dying for the knife. At first it may sound like a contradiction to Mitski’s progress of exploring her freedom. But if we look at it under an existentialist lens, it could be freeing. Realizing under the thumb of this metaphorical knife that there is no given meaning, (the idea that as soon as we are born, we are dying under the conditions of the world) could be freeing. Without the need to fulfill pre-conceived notions of how to live, the inevitability of death allows one to make life what they will.

The ending of the music video is telling. When the song ends, we hear claps and cheers, but Mitski is on stage in an empty auditorium. She continues dancing and jumping around, signifying her exhausting herself for others, for the knife. She’s dancing wildly, perhaps feeling like she needs to exploit her own pain and personal struggles to be successful within the music industry. But then, we hear a ding and the scene shifts. There is no more applause as Mitski begins moving in even more funky, erratic ways. She still puts immense energy into her movement, but it seems like she’s dancing for herself, pounding out her frustration at the system, while at the same time feverishly reveling in her own realized freedom stemming from within. The scene ends with her lying on the floor, breathing heavily as she looks over at the camera with a smile. She’s just finished performing an intense artistic endeavor, not only in the video, but in her life and career—she’s come back into the music industry after a voluntary hiatus, and although it’s no doubt a struggle, the little smile we see is perhaps a glimmer of hope towards Mitski’s contentment with herself and the actions she can take to affirm her freedom, taking her next step in continuing to make music.

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