Wednesday, June 16, 2010

What I Like About Fu

OK, I know... SpinTunes is the meme now, not Song Fu. But 'Fu' lends itself to a lot of puns, forgive me the archaic turn of phrase.

While I'm taking a brief respite from all but work-related deadlines, and as a matter of follow-up to the previous topic, I wanted to just say a word or two about what I really like about these on-line competitions. I suppose having done 4 rounds of Song Fu qualifies me as a veteran. Though others have been at it far longer than I have, I feel I'm qualified to speak as a competitor and a spectator... I'll leave the judges to speak for themselves.

Specifically, I'm interested in the kinds of competitions like Song Fu or SpinTunes, where the participants are given some kind of specific challenge... a style, or some element to include in the song, etc. I'm not at all interested in the Song Fight sort of "write a song entitled [songtitle]" competition, because it's frankly boring.

As a spectator, it's interesting to see how different minds come approach the same problem. If you have 25 competitors, you'll get 25 different solutions, many of them entertaining, some valiant efforts, with one or two that might be cringeworthy. Edric Haleen shouted out an old-fashioned tent revival, Joe 'Covenant' Lamb tapped out a Celtic rhythm, and 'CrabbyDad' Andy Poland provided a Nashville twang to meet the challenge of "It All Makes Sense At The End"... and The Masked Stranger apparently swallowed his microphone. As a spectator, I find the broad challenges a bit more entertaining than something like "write a country song" because I like the variety of approaches.

It's also interesting to me how similar some of these different efforts can be. For instance, in the Song Fu 5, Round 2, the challenge was to "write a song about a number". This could have been any number at all... a literally infinite menu from which to choose. Nevertheless, there were several repetitions... there were three of '5', two of '2', two of '8'... I discarded i (the imaginary number) and pi because I was certain that as "geek's choices" they'd be chosen by other people who were trying to be original, and therefore wouldn't be very original at all. I wasn't disappointed... both numbers were used; i was used twice.

Obviously, human minds do tend to work similarly, and wander the same broad pathways of thought. The creative stand-outs are very different. Godz Poodlz's entry, 345 5316008 (pronounced, "She Boogies") was one huge number! ...all of the lyrics were written on a calculator, held upside down. Though Edric's "0.99999999..." is a fan favorite, my personal favorite idea for this challenge was Lex Vader's "Six (I am not a number)"... the smooth dance piece's homage to The Prisoner geeked me out, and it was entirely unlike any other entry.

As a competitor, I really like the challenge of producing a song to specification. When William and I first started, I knew we could produce the songs, but I wasn't sure whether we could do it within the timeline provided. This, plus the need to get the song done early for revisions and production, keeps the adrenaline flowing. I was as surprised as the next person to learn that William and I could produce fairly decent songs on a schedule. We'd simply never had deadlines before, so didn't know.

I also like a bit of the puzzle aspect of it. You're given a challenge, yes. You have to meet it, that's a given. But you also have to produce something that stands out, showcases your strengths and versatility, and is popular enough to win votes (whether they're popular votes or from judges doesn't really matter... they're still votes). So the entire time your crafting your song, you're not primarily focused on the challenge. That may sound odd, but look at it this way: you're tasked with building a sculpture. The challenge constitutes the boundaries of your creativity. It's like the room in which you have to build your sculpture. But once you accept the fact of the room, it's time to ignore the walls and look at the space you have to work with.

The competitors are concentrating on that space. If they're not told to write to a specific genre, they immediately move into that space and choose their own. Even when constrained, as when they were told to "write a march", they spread into the remaining space to define a march. Is that a military cadence? A children's parade? A cross-country trek? All were used. It is in the spaces alone that the competitors' creativity flourishes. Anything not explicitly prohibited or required is part of that creative space. You don't have to tell anybody this. They're looking for that space. They expect it. That's why they're here.

For example, I mentioned Lex Vader's "Six (I am not a number)" earlier. The 'space' he found was that in The Prisoner the authorities that ran The Village insisted on referring to people as numbers. Now, you might argue that it's therefore not a song about a number, but that's picking nits. When the government refers to you as a number, treats you as a number, we cease to be discussing whether the challenge was met, but are instead arguing about the definition of "number". I feel Lex met the challenge.

I used a similar trick -- in reverse -- in my shadow song, "Twenty Two", where I was ambiguous in my definition. I imagined that the number 23 was infatuated with his neighbor, but shy. Some people think I was referring to apartment numbers, but I was actually anthropomorphizing the number line in my attempt to meet the challenge and still have something interesting to say. I chose these particular numbers simply because "2" rhymes with "you" and "3" rhymes with "me", and "twenty" sounds nice when sung. I don't contradict the people who think these are apartment numbers, though... the ambiguity makes the song more accessible. It's easier to relate to a shy suitor than it is to explain what "anthropomorphizing" means.

In the most blatant example of creative rule-lawyering I know, Edric simply defined rhyme to mean "perfect rhyme" for his 'non-rhyming' song in Song Fu 6, round 2, then proceeded to not only near-rhyme the hell out of words, but then hold them up to the light and shout victory. It was brilliant. The point here is, people want that space; they'll find it, they'll use it. That's what creativity is.

Another way to think of it is that the rules provide a trellis. But rules aren't roses, and it's in the rose that the beauty lies. Nevertheless, the rose has to climb the trellis to be considered.

Part of the problem I perceived with Song Fu was that it was a popular vote. It was 'judged' by people who frankly couldn't care less about whether the rules even existed. They ignored the trellis entirely and judged the rose. Or more often that that, avoided judging entirely and voted as their friends directed. SpinTunes improves on that by using judges to decide on technical grounds first whether a tune met the challenge, and then who executed their song the best. It's not all mechanical... judges have emotional preferences, too. But it's better than a straight popular vote. And where the judges are simply deadlocked and there is no clear choice, SpinTunes falls back on the voice of the people via popular vote. I think it's the best solution we could hope for. I know these judges, and I'm confident that they'll neither ignore the rules (as the popular vote tends to do), nor weigh the rules too strongly (I think that once you've met the challenge as it is presented, the formalities are over... the beauty is in the rose).

The other nice thing about these competitions is that the judges aren't simply judging. To the extent that they create the challenges, they have a real impact on the competition.

Every competitor (me included) has comfort zones. Genres, techniques, subjects, sounds, etc. that are favored and repeated. One of the things that rules do is get the competitors out of those comfort zones. It won't happen every time for every person, but given enough rounds and enough challenges, every challenger should face something that's just flatly uncomfortable for them to do. It's mental and creative exercise, forcing you to think in new ways. I love those moments. The best of them start out as WTF moments, followed by hours of head-scratching, followed by a flash of inspiration.

Some of those flashes are truly inspired. I'm thinking of Edric's "song from the perspective of an inanimate object" where he wasn't just a rock, but a diamond engagement ring. What stood out was his liberal use of action verbs.... "we would shine!" This was one of his patented "big reveals" where the reveal was in the song itself... you didn't know exactly what it was about until the final verse. That final verse was one perfect rose, with entirety of the song existing to support and nurture it.

(BTW, I really didn't mean to use so many Edric examples... but he's been in a passel of Fu's and he can be counted on for creative concepts, even when many of them sound like Sondheim.)

I see one role of the judge as offering the competitors -- and the listeners -- opportunities to experience these flashes by offering challenges that require serious out-of-the-box thinking. I seriously hope they do that in this competition... the super-hero challenge is a good start (though it personally put me in the briar patch). I've looked at all of the competitors and their work on YouTube, and there are one or two very good entrants who could stand to get out of their ruts and stretch themselves creatively. I'll be really disappointed if they don't. I'll be doubly disappointed if they look for 'creative' ways to do the same stuff they've always done.

All in all, this is going to be a great competition: I feel it in my bones. Now you know what I'm looking for. I wonder how other people think... comments are welcome.


Spin said...

Dave that's the longest blog I've read this year. Unlike Spintown actual thought goes into your blogs.

I really do hope that the judges & I manage to live up to your expectations. If not, there's always next time...and 5 NEW judges. :p

Riker said...

A great essay, Dave. You just fired me up somethin' fierce.

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