Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Review of SpinTunes 1, Round 1 JUDGING

Some contests are decided by popular vote. Some are scored according to measurable criteria. Some are judged. Now, judging might be tempered by set criteria, but in the end it is a purely subjective matter. I'm a firm believer that for those contests that are judged, a judge should never have to explain a decision. In this unnecessarily long and rambly post, I'm about to demonstrate why.

Now, before I begin let me make it perfectly clear that I very much approve of the judging method used in SpinTunes. The theory here is that by having each judge rank the contestants and then taking the aggregate, what you wind up with is as close to a perfect compromise as you can get. Differences of opinion should average out, and general consensus should be magnified. By this I mean that entries that are generally acknowledged to be good should move to the top, while entries that are of the "you either love it or hate it" (LIoHI) variety should wind up somewhere in the middle of the pack with more consistently average entries. Below-par entries should wind up at the bottom.

SpinTunes is a little unusual in that the judges have chosen (correction: they were told) to critique each and every entry. This gives us some insight into what they're thinking (or what they think they're thinking). What we've seen in the first round of SpinTunes is that, just as the competitors move into the "undefined space" for expression of their creativity; so do judges move into that same space for the expression of their criteria. They carry with them criteria that aren't published in the challenge, and these vary from judge to judge.

I'm not implying that's a bad thing... it's just a fact of judging that it's a matter of personal taste. Contestants simply need to understand that and not take any decision personally. The reason I don't think a judge should have to explain a decision is because it then pressures them to think of justifications for those decisions, and those justifications aren't necessarily consistent, nor do they necessarily make sense; and in some cases they expose where flaws exist in the judges' thinking rather than the entry. Better to simply say, "this one didn't impress me," and leave it at that.

Let's take an example of how the SpinTunes judging system works in practice. I've said often that Edric Haleen has been under-rated in prior contests. In this round, he placed first, and not by a small margin. Yet, he was ranked at the top by only a single judge, Heather Zink. How can that happen? Well, each of the other judges' top picks were ranked significantly lower by the other judges, either because of the "LIoHI factor" or because of some apparent differences of opinion regarding whether the song met the criteria. For instance, Niveous' top pick was Jenny Katz's song, "Blofeld's Beginnings". While this a very good song, was not written in the first person, and wound up near the bottom on 3 out of five judges' lists.

For what it's worth, had I been judging, it wouldn't have mattered how good the song is if it simply didn't meet the challenge; it would have wound up at or near the bottom. In Song Fu, however, Ken Plume would put out the challenge and it didn't really matter if you even attempted to meet it... even when people submitted instrumentals in response to lyrical challenges, he would put it out for votes anyway and let the audience deal with it. I saw that as a weakness of Song Fu. These are completely different approaches to judging the results. Niveous is evidently very forgiving when it comes to meeting the challenges... he deducts for not meeting the challenge (though not much, to be sure) and then ranks the songs according to remaining merit. I won't even begin to say that either approach is "wrong" because a judge shouldn't ever have to explain himself. In fact, I could possibly re-evaluate my own stand on "disqualify vs deduct" as the rounds progress. My opinion's not frozen in stone.

Now, if you chart the judges' scores and sort by aggregate rank (as I've done, so you don't have to), you notice immediately that consistently high-scorers float to the top, consistently low-scorers sink to the bottom, and the middle is dominated by the controversial and middle-of-the-road entries. Not to pick on anybody, but I'll offer JoAnn Abbott's "Why" as an example of the middle-of-the-road, and Kevin Savino-Riker's "Tough Jobs vs. Iron Gates" as an example of LIoHI. So what we see in practice is what we predict, which I'd say is a pretty good system, which works whether you explain yourself or not.

I'm a bit intrigued by some of the comments, though... and keep in mind that the judges approaches are what they are, and are really should be immune to criticism, and that I don't necessarily disagree with everything that ANY of the judges said. There are five judges, each reviewing 20 competitors. There's no way I'm going to take each in detail. I'm simply cherry-picking some notable statements.

First, I was surprised that the judges critiqued the shadows, as they didn't have to. But it was cool that they did so and the comments were generally on point. I mostly mention this because of something I first noticed when I read Heather's comment on "Firestorm": Heather wasn't familiar with the characters. BUT... she obviously used a search engine and found out a thing or two about Firestorm and Multiplex, including the fact that Multiplex is unique in that his "first person" is PLURAL... which made this shadow spot on the challenge, even if it sounds odd at first. I found this to be generally true of all of Heather's comments; she takes a very studious approach to her reviews, doing her best to understand the characters as intended by the composer. As a result, you find that Heather's rankings are very different from everyone else's. It seems to me that Heather scored based on production values she could imagine applied to each song rather than what was actually delivered.

Jules, OTOH, didn't understand understand "Firestorm" because she didn't know the characters and didn't look it up. No biggie... this is a shadow and she didn't need to. But it DOES highlight a disagreement we have regarding how a song of this sort needs to be structured. I'm commenting about this here because Jules stated so forcefully and directly (and repeatedly) that a song needs to stand alone, without a guide.

I disagree... largely (but not solely) because this is inconsistently applied. For instance, a song mentions Superman. That's OK, because we all know about Superman. But is that "standing alone"? HELL no, because we know about Superman from 72 years of pop-culture... comic books, movies, television shows, lunchboxes, cartoons, and even novels. That's the complete antithesis of "standing alone". I think that to be consistent, you simply have to allow some leeway for the lesser-known or brand-new characters that are allowed under the published rules, especially since the published rules allow you to identify that character in an accompanying email. I don't agree with marking down someone for doing exactly what they were told they could do in the challenge announcement.

If you read Jules' review, I think it's evident that "Superman Sneezed" scored the full 20 points from Jules' as much because of what she brought into it from that wealth of external lore as is was because of what the song itself contained. None of the other judges gave it more than 13 points.

The "no-guide" rule presumes that we're listening to pop songs that would theoretically be heard for the first time in isolation on the radio, devoid of context, but I see no stipulation in the contest rules to support that presumption, and feel absolutely no need to impose it on the songwriter. For instance, I love the music in "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog", even though every last song would fail the "no-guide" criterion, if it were applied. Still, it won an Emmy.

Personally, I think it's OK for a song to make some assumptions about what the audience should know about the character, and then bring something new and interesting to that character within the song. For instance, take a song about 'Beamcaster', whom you don't know from Adam's housecat (because I just made him up). In isolation, you don't know anything about him except that he's some kind of hero (or villain), and that he's got some kind of emotional issues that he's working through. So superficially, if you bring in some imagined rule that the song should stand alone, this would score horribly. But drop it into a musical play where that backstory has just played out, and the exact same song delivered in exactly the same way may blow your socks off. I would personally allow the songwriter the small bit of leeway it takes to compete creatively in even a tiny way with an established character like Superman; and... as a matter of fact, that's exactly what Edric Haleen did. He provided no more background than I just did for 'Beamcaster'. Edric's character doesn't even have a name, which was a stipulation (an unnecessary one, IMHO, as it's artistically important for him not to have one here). Yet "A Letter To Humanity" wound up at the top of the list because he ranked high on every judge's list.

If it appears that I'm picking on Jules, I do it only because I know that she knows how to disagree without being disagreeable, and because she knows that no matter how forcefully I express MY opinion, I don't think less of hers. Many of her remarks are spot-on and have my full agreement. Besides, judges don't need to explain.

The comments about Bram Tant's "Kebab Shop" were fascinating, on everybody's part. To put it in perspective, the points awarded to this song were 13 (Heather), 1 (Niveous), 15 (Jules), 2 (Joe), and 4 (Sammy). Clearly it's close to the LIoHI category, just as Bram predicted when he submitted it, with Heather and Jules in the "love it" (or at least, the "appreciated it") camp, and Niveous and Joe in the "hate it" camp. Niveous, Joe, and Sammy all commented that it's not a song. Sammy's comments were probably the most intriguing, as he's in the "LOVE IT!" camp, but scored it at the bottom for failing to meet the challenge by not having a super-enough villain, and not being a song. The song-vs-rant bit perked my ears up in memory of Song Fu 6, Round 2, in which Inverse Clown entered a completely spoken rant (without even the benefit of a sung "Allah akhbar") which received similar criticism. As I supported Inverse then, I'll maintain the trend and support Bram now. It's a song. Did it meet the challenge? Well, that's completely dependent on how villainous you have to be to be a "supervillain". the Joker has no powers, nor does most of Batman's rogue's gallery. Lex Luthor has no powers, but he's pretty damned evil. That said, I don't ever recall him deliberately poisoning people and following them to their homes to finish them off personally. That's a whole different class of evil. Is a super-villain defined by the quality of hero that hunts him down? Or is he simply defined someone who is above the level of evil normally encountered in the world we know? I'm not sure I'm ready to close the door on the Kebab Shop.

I quite like Joe's method of commenting. Very short, with a minimum of explanation and just a few stand out features (good or bad) about each song. Joe knows that he doesn't have to explain, because a) he's a judge; and b) he's Joe 'Covenant' Lamb. Double whammy. Like Niveous, Joe seems to deduct, but not disqualify, if a song fails to completely meet the challenge. Joe seems to put more emphasis on the production quality than the other judges. I know this is a songwriting competition, so the quality of the song should theoretically trump the production, but you still do have to at least get the idea across to the judges. To that extent, production does and should matter.

Despite anything I've said here, I disagree with none of the judges' opinions. They're opinions, and final, and not arguable. I also have no problem with the final rankings. I'm jazzed to be hearing a lot of great new music from friends old and new, and hope it goes on like this for the remaining rounds, and for future competitions.

So what does all this mean to competitors? Well, if everybody's telling you the same thing, then you'd probably better listen. But judging is subjective, and you're unlikely to please everyone at once. So don't put too much emphasis on any one judge's opinion or review.

You already know that just as you all interpret these challenges differently, the judges also interpret them in their own ways. Please, please, please, people, assess these challenges as you see them. Do what makes you feel happy. Keep taking chances, trying new things, and sticking your necks out. If you're happy with it, that's what matters.

Now, here's a question I have for Travis Langworthy... JoAnn Abbot and Kevin Savino-Riker have the same number of points from the judges. They also have the same number of popular votes. So it falls to YOU, sir... what's the proper order for these two entries?

UPDATE: The answer to the question for Travis is that it's JoAnn, then Kevin, as announced here. Also, I jokingly mentioned that I toyed with the idea of ranking the judges. I was told I should... and I started to... but after thinking about it I decided against it. Judges' decisions are final, and none should even apparently carry more weight than another. There are no "good" judges and no "bad" judges. That's my final ranking.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Review of SpinTunes 1, Round 1

SpinTunes, successor-in-spirit of Song Fu, differs from other online songwriting competitions in a few ways:
  1. It's about the song, not the band. The is a SONGWRITING competition. A great performance certainly helps to communicate the songwriter's intent, but it's the song that counts in the end.
  2. To ensure the above, it's judged; it's not a popularity contest. The popular vote is counted only in the event of a tie, where the judges just truly can't decide on a winner. In this respect, I regard SpinTunes as a step up from Song Fu.
  3. The competitors have to meet specific, difficult songwriting challenges posed by the judges. This may be a topic, a style, a title, an included phrase, a rhyme scheme, or any combination of criteria that strike the judges' fancy. To make it through this competition, a songwriter must not only be capable of writing good songs, but must be able to write them to a specification, and deliver them on time. This is NOT something where you just can make up anything you want to a title. We're looking for Masters here, not craftsmen.
I was really jazzed to see 31 competitors sign up for the first round. Having looked them up on YouTube and on their websites, or having seen them compete in Song Fu or Song Fight, I felt we had a great pool of talent here, and was really looking forward to hearing from many of them. I was also jazzed to see that the first topic was to write a song from the perspective of a superhero or supervillain. This is one that's guaranteed to get people thinking in abstract terms.

I myself had three ideas based on established characters... "I'm In Your Head" and "Accepted" (both based on Professor Charles Xavier of the X-Men), and "Emerald Dawn" (based on Green Lantern, whose oath inarguably provides the finest ready-made lyrics in comics history); as well as a fantastic idea for an EP from my son; AND the topic I actually submitted, "Save the World".

Most assuredly, the challenge was not too hard. Many of the competitors had an over-abundance of ideas, as did I. So here's the bad news: Of the original 31 competitors, 11 did not complete the challenge. That's a real disappointment. It's understandable when scheduling issues and "real life" get in the way, but I think it highly unlikely that this was the case for all eleven; especially not when the competitors had a full week and a half to tackle the challenge. As a result of this self-selection, all of the remaining competitors advance to the next round. I don't hesitate to point out to the competitors who advance that this is not "by default"... those of you who submitted actually put forth the effort and delivered a product... the eleven did not. Something is better than nothing, so, as you're weighed against the competition, you have moved on purely through merit. That said, I hope that at least some of those who were eliminated this round continue to follow the competition and submit shadow entries. This should be about meeting personal challenges, not about winning or losing.

Fortunately, the bad news is balanced with the good. The entries that were actually made were stellar. I can't express how pleasantly surprised I was at the variety of the entries and the quality of the submissions. Everyone from JoAnn Abbot (who isn't even a musician, and for whom this is her first ever competitive entry) to Edric Haleen (who has 13 prior rounds of Song Fu under his black belt) gave their very best, and made this a tough, tough round.

I did mention there is a popular vote, which is consulted in the case of a tie. That makes the popular vote very important. We are, in essence, the Last Judge, and we have up to three votes per round. I'm cautious as to how I place those votes of mine. I want to make it clear that because the competition was so tight, technicalities matter. So if you didn't exactly meet the challenge, you didn't get my vote, no matter how good the song was. And because the voting is used in the case of a tie, I might not apply a vote to someone who I think is a "shoo-in"... instead, I might use it to tip the balance of a borderline entry. So if I didn't vote for you, please don't begin to think that I didn't like your entry. Finally, with only three votes, I'm not able to vote for some entries that I really and truly believe deserve the vote, and to those people I apologize profusely. Before I tell you where my votes were placed, here are some honorable mentions for stand-out material...

Kevin Savino-Riker, "Tough Jobs vs. Iron Gates". This is supremely listenable, a great tune, and a great concept. It's awesome that both characters are cast in the role of villain and hero simultaneously. In the end I didn't vote for it because it stretches the definition of super-hero and super-villain too far. Other people met the challenge more squarely.

Denise Hudson, "Invisible Girl". I think this is a gorgeous tune, and Denise absolutely hit the concept of "Invisible Girl" squarely on the head. What's more, I love it because it's the answer to a Question I had posed earlier in the week... "Flight or Invisibility?". Denise takes us on a tour of the Invisible Girl's psyche, and fully deserves a vote. But I have only three.

Bram Tant, "Kebab Shop". This is hands-down the best song Bram has ever submitted in competition. I really, really love it. REALLY. I was [this close] to voting for it, but did not simply because his villain, while creative and astoundingly original, is a little too close to reality, and a little too subtle in his operation. A super-villain is best when larger-than-life; I get the feeling that Bram's villain may actually be operating in any major city at this very moment.

Sara Parsons, "Starlite (Ballad for a Noble Steed)". This is arguably the most surprising, right-out-of-left-field submission. I would have never considered Rainbow Brite's horse as a topic! But you know what? It works! And it squarely meets the challenge! And as always, Sara's execution of the concept is superb, with her melt-your-heart voice used to full effect. But I only have three votes.

The same goes for Godz Poodlz' "The Human Bomb". I'm a huge Poodlz fan, and I wish I could vote for them every time, but I just can't.

So having mentioned five stand-outs that I couldn't vote for, here are my votes:

Caleb Hines, "Clockwork Man". Caleb spins a Victorian gaslight fantasy that draws you in from the very first peel of Big Ben in the superbly orchestrated introduction. Though he was built by a mad inventor to protect humanity, Clockwork Man was built without a heart. As a result he will dispassionately dispense with the life of an individual to save a city. You can't argue with numbers. This is original, shocking, well-executed steampunk fun. I'm still geeking out over it.

Ryan Welton, "Underdog Blues". Ryan gave us one of the very few entries based on an established superhero, and he did it with panache. This is a really fun, catchy tune which has already found a home on my MP3 player. Ryan met the challenge squarely and competently with not a hint of grey area. He just did a really, really good job, and that deserves to be rewarded.

Edric Haleen, "A Letter to Humanity". "Method actors" are a dime a dozen. Edric is only "method musician" I know of. In the week leading up to the listening party, Edric manipulated the expectations of the audience in Artifiction chat, the better to showcase the signature "big reveal" in this song. He actually posted a scan of the "actual" Letter to Humanity as his lyric sheet as a "feelie" reminiscent of the old Infocom adventure games. He is an entertainer par excellence, and I don't think he's ever gotten the kind of response he deserved in Song Fu. But, judging this song purely on its own merits, and pointedly ignoring the drama, I couldn't avoid the conclusion that it still deserves my vote. Edric has orchestrated a string accompaniment, a soaring tune, and meticulously crafted lyrics to take you exactly where he wants you to be emotionally. This is simply a great song. A lot of thought went into it, as you can read here.

Voting is open until June 29, 2010, 11:59 pm EDT. If you haven't already, please go to http://spintunes.blogspot.com, listen to the entries, and cast your votes now.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Review of Songs For a New Day


I've reviewed Mike Lombardo's "Songs for a New Day" over at the Spintown blog. Check it out.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Songwriting Part 4: Anatomy of a hero.

I've referenced Mike Lombardo's vlog about characterization, but I'm going to flesh out that discussion with a specific practical example. To that end, I'm going to beat "Save the World" to death. Here it is again:
<a href="http://drlindyke.bandcamp.com/track/save-the-world">Save the World by Dr. Lindyke</a>
Backstory:
For the final round of Song Fu 6, our challenge was to write a "Frankensong" consisting of two parts: part 1 would set up a problem or challenge, and part 2 would resolve it. It would be similar to "We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions", by Queen. Each song should stand alone.

For the first part of the challenge, I thought we might write something about American soldiers, but William Hoover did me one better by providing the lyrics to "Yesterday Hero" in which all heroes... soldiers, policemen, rescue workers... were distilled into one archetypal hero (named 'Hero'). Our 'problem' would be the death of that hero. In the second part, "Someday", we then described the world coming to terms with Hero's death and learning to deal with their problems without the intervention of a savior.

When the first challenge for SpinTunes turned out to be to write a song from the perspective of a superhero or supervillian, I decided to re-visit Hero on the day of his death. The song would be his last thoughts prior to going out to meet his doom, although he wouldn't know that.

Enough backstory. This is how I constructed the resulting song, "Save the World".

First I looked at what we already knew of Hero from the previous song:
  1. He's the only superhero in his world, hence the problem leading to "Someday".
  2. He's under-appreciated ("killed by a people he saved," though we don't know exactly how.)
  3. He saved his people "just yesterday", and then died, presumably in an another attempt.
  4. His suit is red, white, and blue.
There's not a lot. Remember that this was originally intended as a throw-away character whose major importance stemmed from his death. From this I have to retcon his character so that I can write in first-person from his perspective. What can we surmise from what we know? Well, as my eldest son reminded me, saving the world frequently (as often as daily) for a thankless population can't be terribly rewarding. For me it would be downright depressing. So a day off would be nice... he probably would dream of such days. Nevertheless, he continues to do it. Only a strong sense of duty would cause him to do that. After having done this for years, he'd probably have to psych himself up to meeting the villians. So here's a plot for the song...
Verse: he is tired and dreaming of having some time to himself.
1st Chorus: he can't.
Verse: we meet some of his nemeses.
Verse: he wants give up.
Pre-chorus: again he can't. So he psychs himself up.
2nd Chorus: He's all psyched up and ready to meet the foe.
Somewhere in there I'd throw in an instrumental bridge... I put it betweeen the pre-chorus and 2nd chorus in the first draft, then moved it because it put too much delay between the psyching up and call to action. Now on to the individual parts...
I wish I had a day off
I wish I had some time to myself
Maybe I could kick my feet up
Maybe I could take a book off the shelf
The guy's not wanting caviar and champagne... I simply had him wishing for things that I myself like. Musically, I'm trying for a more modern rhythm than my usual '70s-'80s piano ballad... You might not be able to tell that from the instrumentation, and I might not be totally up to speed, but it's an attempt. The first verse is fairly flat... it's not monotone, but nearly so. Hero is TIRED. He needs a vacation at the very least. (by the way, in this discussion, when I state how "it is sung" I mean how it should be sung if performed decently.)
Maybe I could watch some TV
Maybe I could watch a movie all the way through
I'd like to stop and write some poetry
I know a million things that I'd rather do ---
This became two verses because that's what it took to say what I wanted to say, and to build it musically. At least I think of them as two verses. You could argue that it's one verse, and I'd say, "meh". The music of the second verse is of a higher pitch, and though the tempo is the same as the first, the lyrics contain more syllables per line, which gives it the appearance of being more insistent. Hero is becoming FRUSTRATED.
But I've got to save the world
But didn't I save the world yesterday?
I've got to save the world
I thought I saved the world yesterday!
Here's the source of his frustration. Like Mr. Incredible, he'd like, just once, to save the world and have it stay saved.

By the way, You may or may not notice the repetition of the first word (or syllable) of each pair of lines. I carry that through the pre-chorus (where I cheat it slightly) and I break with it entirely in the second chorus. There's a reason for that, which I'll tell you later.
But no!
This little interjected line says a lot. Originally it was part of the next verse, but I think it's sounds much better delivered with some slight nasal sarcasm. Not so broadly as when John Belushi used the line in SNL, but more along the lines of a resigned "of course", as if delivered by a snooty butler.
Some loony made a death ray
Some other fool is trying to freeze D.C.
Some villain wants everything his own way
Some other only wants a piece of me
Hero's a comic-book hero. He needs comic-book villians. Someone asked me if the "death ray" and "freeze D.C." lines were an homage to "Dr. Horrible". Err... No. Every superhero has had to deal with some kind of nemesis with a death ray since Nikola Tesla came up with the concept. And originally I'd written about the freezing of Port Charles, which long-time fans of General Hospital might recognize. But when I thought of "...wants a piece of me", it was important enough to me to go back and revise the previous line to rhyme. Musically, it's the same as the first verse, as he's doing nothing but ruminating over a bland list of the daily pains in his ass.
Maybe I should've listened to my poppa
Maybe helped the family business grow
'stead of playing universal copper
'stead of trying to vanquish some super foe...
Previously he was pining for a day off... now having thought through it all, Hero's toying with the possibility of just hanging up his cape and going back to the family farm. (I don't know that it's a farm, though that would be true of Superman. Personally, I think Hero's dad is a dry-cleaner in Brooklyn, but I dunno for sure. Yet.) I was quite happy with the "universal copper" line. That's what these superheroes ARE, when you think about it. Except that in most cases, they work without sanction or authority beyond that which they obtain for themselves through force. Self-appointed policemen are scary, if you think about it.

Musically, it's the same as the second verse. As there, the energy is upped a little because instead of running through a list, he's seriously considering this as a solution to his personal problems. Retire, go home, give up.
[Instrumental]
This is the instrumental I moved. I thought it would be a drag between the pre-chorus and the chorus. Besides, after the above verse, we now need a little time to think it over. Hero's still thinking maybe he CAN retire.
Then I realize I'd be dead with everybody else
If I didn't stick my neck out
If I didn't take a chance
If I didn't own the problem
If I didn't dance the dance
We'd be cinders on a cinder
We'd be blood upon a lance ---
Oh, who's he fooling? Of course he can't retire. Death rays, freeze rays, giant robots, mad scientists, rogue dictators, nuclear bombs, weather-controlling satellites.... the bombed-out Earth would be the Moon's ugly sister within a year if nobody were to step up. People are depending on Hero. The Earth needs him. We are destined to come to this conclusion because this is a prequel to "Yesterday Hero", after all.

Musically, this really is a build-up. As Hero is more psyched up the energy increases along with the pitch, and the final line should be practically shouted out.

Lyrically, I was very pleased with the last two lines. I just love the visual of dead people as little cinders clinging to a planetary cinder (I wonder if the villains ever consider the fact that if they actually followed through with their threats they'd ruin things for themselves as well?). I also like the metaphor of "blood upon a lance" to describe death... I just think that's poetic.
So I'm going to save the world
Though I saved the world yesterday
I've got to save the world
Got to save the world
'Cause nobody else is gonna do it, I might as well get to it
All worked up, psyched up, buffed up, ready to go. This is similar musically to the first chorus, but with more energy. We don't actually change key -- we have to paint our comic book with primary colors, after all -- this is sung a fifth higher, so it feels as though we've changed the key. It's sung with energy and conviction... and with resolution.

That bit of initial rhyme, which was carried through the whole song, including the first chorus, is dropped. It represents Hero's break with an old way of thinking... he's changed his mind and is now free of that constraint. If it had worked lyrically I would have alliterated all the previous verses in the style of Beowulf, using an archaic poetic form represent the old thought process, and having a rhyming scheme only at the end. I might yet use that in a future project, but it's damned hard to do, and it really doesn't work here. Modern ears aren't used to it, so the initial repetition was as close as I dared go. You'd have to be a pretty anal-retentive poetry geek to guess the reason for it, but now you know.

The remainder of the song is a repeat of this verse, then more repeats of "I've to Save the World". We still don't know anything about this battle or how Hero dies. Only that he wasn't fighting because he loved to, or for selfish reasons, or revenge, or for justice... he was fighting to defend others.

So that's the song, and the conscious thought processes that went into making it. But a few days ago I looked at it again, and realized there was more than my conscious thought going into this. This is the freaky moment when you look at something and realize that it's not fiction, it's auto-biography.

I didn't quite know it at the time, but I wasn't so much writing from that character's perspective, as creating a character who shares my own perspective. I'd already mentioned that the first verse consisted of things I like to do. It's a little more... it's stuff I don't get to do as nearly as I'd like. Watching a movie all the way through, for example. There's always an interruption... someone who needs something. And it's always some sort of crisis to them, and I'm always expected to act as though it's a crisis for me, too. Maybe I'm not interrupted to save the world, but I'm the sole support of a family of five, so replace "save the world" with "go to work", or "solve somebody's problems", and you've pretty much got it. Instead of villains perhaps there are teenagers coming in with "I need cash" or "I wrecked the car", and creditors, and utilities. I haven't had to deal with "my girlfriend's pregnant", but with three boys that's always a possibility waiting in the wings. My parents are dead: if I don't save the day, nobody else will, so I'd better get to it. Not having backup is a bit scary, and no matter how old you are, when your parents are gone you feel like an orphan. That's me... an orphan from the planet Krypton. This is probably the most egotistical, chutzpah-laden, unworthy thought I've ever had.

Of course, all of those dire thoughts apply to anyone in a similar situation. Every soccer-mom and super-dad there is. If the song is accessible at all, I think it's on that level. Performance-wise, I think it helps to have that emotional connection to the subject matter. I didn't have it when recording the demo that's on Bandcamp. It was afterwards that the flash arrived.

I find that we now have a sequence in a continuous narrative... "Save the World", "Yesterday Hero", and "Someday": perhaps we may go back and do another prequel. Maybe an origin? Maybe put them together in an EP? What do you think?

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.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Save The World

I've edited this post to include a link to the song and I've modified some of the comments. No need for Bob Dole to thank me. The song's also on our Bandcamp page, and any improvements to the music will simply replace what's there. The lyrics have also changed slightly, but that's the way of lyrics.

Second Edit: I've added the YouTube Video:

Song Fu is dead. But Travis Langworthy of SpinTown has kept the spirit of Song Fu alive by sponsoring a new competition, SpinTunes. I've been doing a play and felt I needed some time off, so I didn't enroll in the first iteration of this... that's probably for the best, as I think the competition is very stiff. However, when the first challenge was posted (yesterday) I couldn't help myself... I had to write a shadow.

As it turns out, this first challenge was tailor-made for Dr. Lindyke. "Write a song from the point of view of a super hero or super villain. (2 minute minimum)". I read over the requirements carefully, and they seemed to me to be simple and clear. You're explicitly allowed to make up a hero... you don't have to use a pre-established one, and there is no stated requirement in the rules to name the hero within the song (instead you're specifically told that you can name the character in an email). That only makes sense. The song is not about the hero or villain, per se... it's from that person's point of view, and people don't normally walk around singing, "Hi, I'm Amazing Man" about themselves. Unless they're Bob Dole. If we ever write a song about Bob Dole, he'll name himself.

We'd already written Yesterday Hero, which was about a super-hero. With a little prodding from Number One Son, and some inspiration from The Incredibles, here's a second song which is sung from the hero's perspective (while he was still alive, natch). These are his last thoughts as he goes off to his doom. The hero's name is, of course, Hero, as is established on his tombstone. As he's the only hero his world has, there's no confusion. (By the way, if you think that's a weird name, you might want to brush up on your classical Greek).

Since this is a shadow, and I was SUPPOSED to be resting when it was written, the track is pretty rough. It's live piano+voice + a pretty wimpy live electric piano track that really should have been horns or something. Maybe I'll fix it before the competition, but in the meantime here's the work in progress. I'd write music in a glass store window if they'd let me. It's on BandCamp.com

<a href="http://drlindyke.bandcamp.com/track/save-the-world">Save the World by Dr. Lindyke</a>
Save the World
by Dr. Lindyke

I wish I had a day off
I wish I had some time to myself
Maybe I could kick my feet up
Maybe I could take a book off the shelf

Maybe I could watch some TV
Maybe I could watch a movie all the way through
I'd like to stop and write some poetry
I know a million things that I'd rather do ---

But I've got to save the world
But didn't I save the world yesterday?
I've got to save the world
I thought I saved the world yesterday!

But no!
Some loony made a death ray
Some other fool is trying to freeze D.C.
Some villain wants everything his own way
Some other only wants a piece of me

Maybe I should've listened to my poppa
Maybe helped the family business grow
'stead of playing universal copper
'stead of trying to vanquish some super foe...

[Instrumental]

Then I realize I'd be dead with everybody else
If I didn't stick my neck out
If I didn't take a chance
If I didn't own the problem
If I didn't dance the dance
We'd be cinders on a cinder
We'd be blood upon a lance ---

So I'm going to save the world
Though I saved the world yesterday
I've got to save the world
Got to save the world
'Cause nobody else is gonna do it, I might as well get to it

Gonna save the world
Though I saved the world yesterday
I've got to save the world
Got to save the world ...
'Cause nobody else is gonna do it, I might as well get to it

I've got to save the world
Got to save the world ...
I've got to save the world
Got to save the world ...
I've got to save the world
Got to save the world ...