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All Digital Audio Foundations

Song analysis

Bunny Is a Rider by Caroline Polachek

Produced by Danny L Harle and Caroline Polachek, “Bunny Is a Rider” arrived July 2021 on digital streaming platforms as a single. Two years after the release of her debut album under her own name, this enigmatic song came with a quick tease on social media but no context until interviews later emerged. Marking a sonic departure from her debut album’s moody, futuristic electropop, “Bunny Is a Rider” is warm, sexy, and mysterious. Earlier this year, it became the third track on Polachek’s second solo studio album, “Desire, I Want to Turn Into You.”

Structurally, the song is highly repetitive, following a structure of A A A’ B A A’’ C B A’’’ B A’’’’. While not pushing the pop song format dramatically, the verses don’t directly drop into the traditional formula. After two identical intro stanzas, the third mixes the same lyrics in different order, changing the texture to function as a pre-chorus. After a soaring chorus, the first stanza repeats twice again, the second time with one new line, then the only unique verse arrives. Cut back to the chorus, another variation of the introductory stanza functioning as a bridge (accompanied by an instrumental breakdown), chorus, then outro made of the intro lines. Only a handful of lyrics don’t repeat: of 40 total lines of lyrics, 18 are unique. This is no accident, and if Polachek thought the song needed more lyrics, she’d have written them. The hook, which is the title of the song, or at least all but its last word, repeats 21 times. The looping nature resembles a character’s theme song, as if the duh-duh!-duh whistle motif plays every time bunny appears in an onscreen cartoon.

The production has intense, precise vocal processing throughout. It’s multi-tracked, so the pair has recorded many takes and combined them to make the sound “wider” and richer, incorporating the natural variations of her (highly-controlled) voice into what sounds like one vocal. This is more apparent during the chorus, on lines like “heart is unbreaking” (1:06), and “dirty like it’s Earth Day” (1:30). Soon after, on “cut that check…run out empty on ‘em”, there’s more sonic separation of the multiple takes, creating an audible space. She uses easily-differentiable harmonies at higher frequencies, such as over “AWOL on a Thursday” (1:39) until the chorus. On the chorus, there’s subtle reverb on her “feel like the lady” (1:50). It’s far thinner than reverb would be on the full vocal comp, pointing to it perhaps being applied to one take of the vocal. At 1:59, back on the “ain’t nothing / bunny is a rider”, vocoder arrives, adding audible static texture to the peaks of her voice, joining the static in the background (more on that later).

Her vocals trade in her usual hits for a percussive quality. Trained as an opera singer, she’s capable of unbelievable dynamic range, which she uses on tracks like “I Believe”, which comes later on “Desire, I Want to Turn Into You.” Here, she stays steadier. She pulls out one of her strengths, though: Caroline Polachek is best-in-class at utilizing the sound words make, sometimes trading that over their inherent meaning. The vocals stay panned to the center, and we focus on their sound, with the instrumentals more on the edges. With their percussive quality, the vocals mesh with the drum, drum machine, and bass to provide all-encompassing rhythm. Listening to the song repeatedly, the precise timing becomes ingrained. One quality that’s hard to ground in auditory observations is how our narrator sounds so cool: she’s smirking behind the microphone, giving a taste of this character but never the specifics across the lyrics, vocals, and production.

“Bunny” is bass-and-beat-driven, and sounds deceptively simple, but has uncountable tracks and takes in its source file, likely totaling past a hundred. It opens with static, a (synthesized) recording fuzz perhaps of white noise EQ’d to certain frequencies, creating a warm, familiar space. The music begins with producer Harle’s bass line (he went to conservatory for jazz bass), which stays with us until the end. Adding to the prominent vocals (starting 0:18), there’s a whistling motif (could be either Harle or Polachek, or a digital whistle?), drums, and an 808 drum machine throughout (providing the vintage tom sound). There’s a repeated plunk starting in the first verse like a (synthetic?) marimba, later a triangle (beats 2 & 4). The chorus soars with the help of strings. A long series of samples join the mix: the early innings feature bird sounds, then (the first-ever sample of) Harle’s newborn daughter, Nico, plays throughout without getting old, heavily digitally manipulated. A sound effect (resembling a cymbal?) is introduced at 1:29, with a delay effect, echoing more than five times and fading out. This sound plays throughout the back half of the track.

The song is full of digital edits, and its full suite of vocal effects and chops are not possible live. At 1:10, an edit stands out, transitioning from the end of the chorus (“I do, I do, but don’t drop my name”) back to the first verse. A record scratch happens (extending the energy the static and compression/vocoder produce). She intones “bunny is a—“, then interrupts herself with a sample of her voice saying those same words (pitched down/“desaturated”/descending in pitch & volume) before the main vocal line finishes “—rider”, and we’re back into the verse. Two lines later, at 1:16, while she sings the prominent “no sympathy, mm”, at the comma, a sample of a different “mm” chimes in quietly, panned to the left automated further left throughout. Both these interruptions add texture, preventing the song’s repetition from getting old in a song full of it. Later, at 2:34, ending the last chorus and entering the outro, she starts the outro lyrics while continuing to hold the note ending “don’t drop my name”, not leaving space for the necessary breath. The outro vocals continue more quietly, with a static quality, as to not be overpowering.

And what is this nonsensical song about? I listened to it at least fifty times before having any idea; the lyrics are so addictive to say aloud and the production so endlessly, subtly detailed the story almost doesn’t matter. From an artist statement: “‘Bunny Is a Rider” is a summer jam about being unavailable. Bunny is slippery, impossible to get ahold of. Maybe it’s a fantasy, maybe it’s a bad attitude. But anyone can be bunny, at least for three minutes and seventeen seconds.” She called it an “independence fantasy” on collaborator Charli XCX’s podcast, the lyrics “psychedelic sexy nonsense”.

You don’t need to understand who bunny is, but the song and its repetition is tantalizing, and for me, unforgettable. She keeps giving you something, but you can never quite grab on. I’ve listened hundreds of times, and I don’t get tired of it; I constantly notice new production details, and in listening throughout this analysis I noticed even more. Her explanations of the meaning paint a picture of the meaning but lyrics like “dirty like it’s Earth Day” she’s never explained, and we’re left on our own to decipher whether they had meaning in the first place or purely sound. In the end, “Bunny” is a vibe—a late-night summer vibe, driving friends to a dingy, fluorescent Chinese restaurant and dancing. Though the song was started 2.5 years prior, its July release was intentional.

The audio was accompanied by a music video, co-directed by Polachek and her partner Matt Copson. It follows Polachek beckoning us through a labyrinthine maze of cardboard boxes with bizarre labels (“geese,” “dark crystals,” “rocket science,” “security blankets,” “acquired tastes,” etc) under dim lighting, her signature ultra-precise choreography throughout. The video uses lighting and color effects resembling that of the song, with harsh exaggeration on certain hues while minimizing others. At one point, she vanishes into a cloud of dust, literalizing and mimicking the difficulty of grasping Bunny. On tour this spring, Polachek used much of the same choreography and lighting as the video to play “Bunny” live.

The song is sampled on Shygirl’s “Woe,” produced by Sega Bodega, who produced Polachek’s “Sunset,” the track appearing after “Bunny” on the album. A tiny chunk of vocals is embedded in a dense collage introducing Shygirl’s track, around the 0:18 mark. “Bunny” is additionally interpolated later on “Desire,” in Polachek’s “I Believe.”

“Bunny Is a Rider” is pop. It’s repetitive as to be catchy, it’s unassuming of the audience, an easy listen. It uses tried & true formulas with its looping structure, but remains fresh, with the “scorching” bass, Polachek’s sharp rhythm, the mystique of the writing. Pitchfork named it the best song of 2021, and I agree.