Monday, December 10, 2018

SpinTunes 15 Round 3 - Concerning Choices

I haven't been commenting so much on SpinTunes 15 here, as I've had my hands full on the SpinTunes blog itself. That's where you'll find my reviews, including this one for Round 3.

Now, I was pretty late getting those comments together, as only my rankings are used (and then only to break ties) unless we don't get reviews from one of the regular judges. Saturday I got pretty antsy about whether we would get all of those judges' reviews, so I spurred myself into writing mine. You may be able to tell from the increasing terseness of the reviews the amount of time I had left to write them. As they are what they are, I'm going to leave them without edit and comment a little more here.

First a reminder of the challenge, and a link to the songs:
Rubber Band: To reach the final round, we're asking our competitors to stretch themselves. Write a pastiche (a song in the style) of a band or artist whose style is appreciably different from your own(When ranking the songs, the judges will be paying particular attention to how great a departure competitors made from the kinds of songs we've already heard from them, as well as how faithfully they emulate the chosen artist's style.) 
And to be perfectly clear, we are requiring a pastiche that is an original song in the style of the artist, not a parody or derivative work. Think Weird Al writing "Dare To Be Stupid" in the style of Devo . . . not Weird Al writing "Party in the C.I.A." based on the song "Party in the U.S.A." by Miley Cyrus.
The album is now ranked in finishing order:

For reference, here's how the judges reacted:

Artist/songDave*TravisJoeEdricRyanChumpyMicahTOTAL
Mandibles312712114
Faster Jackalope123521619
Zoe Gray656246730
Third Cat797633230
Vom Vorton561855833
Governing Dynamics474399537
Temnere10451077437
Good Guy Sôjàbé289984341
Brian Gray9108168942
PigFarmer Jr.8310410101047

One of my comments at the top of my reviews is "And some of you just made some weird choices." It's the subject choices that I want to expand on a little bit here. Partly because it may superficially seem that some of my specific critiques are contradictory. For instance, it looks like I'm critical of Zoe Gray for not sounding like Hank Williams, and I'm praising Governing Dynamics for not sounding like Bob Dylan. But that's not it. And by "weird", I don't mean "bad". I mean unexpected and risky. They could pay off. I don't think most of them did here, but they could have. That's the nature of risk.

As pretty much all of the judges noted, we've got three criteria:
  1. the style of the song shouldn't be similar to your own. In fact, it should be as unlike you as possible.
  2. the style of the song should sound like your chosen artist. In fact, it should faithfully emulate the chosen artist's
  3. the song should not be a parody, but a pastiche. In fact, in the challenge, I underlined and linked to the definition of "parody".
Also, the song should be enjoyable in its own right. This is just common sense. If you've followed this contest for any length of time at all, you'll have noted that judge after judge has mentioned replay value. This is despite any other difference in taste that the judges may have.

So with that in mind, I'm going to talk about this in the context of gameplay. After all, SpinTunes is a game. And the choice of artist to emulate is the first bit of gameplay. And it would seem common sense to make that choice on a few criteria:
  1. they have a distinctly recognizable style
  2. that style is different from yours
  3. you are actually capable of emulating that style
That is, pick somebody who doesn't sound like you, but who you can sound like.  Now, that "sound like" is worth a mention, and for me, the key is to home in on what makes the artist distinctive.

Some artists have a distinctive musical style; others are style chameleons. Personally, I'd avoid a chameleon, because you'd be hard-pressed to find something "typical" to pastiche. That would leave you having to choose a particular composition to pastiche, which isn't quite the same as what we asked for. Reliance on a particular song by Third Cat, for instance, was a pretty weird choice. I know some other judges thought it was totally Yaz (Yazoo), but I saw it as totally "Only You". Good Guy Sôjàbé's choice of Moby was kind of a weird choice as well, because they chose a style chameleon. In this case I thought they pulled it off, but other judges disagreed. In both cases the judges' reactions were all over the map. I think in both cases, picking another artist would have gotten the contestant more consistent results.

With regard to style... well... if you're living in the weeds, you learn to tell one weed from another. If you don't, they pretty much all look like grass. That's what made Temnere's choice a weird one. It wasn't terribly different from their own sound. What differences in style there may be are far too subtle to rank highly as a departure from their own. Edric and I were hardest on them about that, but three other judges would have kept them out of the top 4 finalists for pretty much the same reason.

For some artists, their distinctiveness is purely expressed in their vocals. Hank Williams, for instance, is instantly recognizable by his voice; but his musical style is shared by any of a number of Country artists. When you're staying at the core of Country, that's just generally the case. The session musicians, the sounds, the songwriting conventions, are often shared and standardized. Notability in the genre doesn't really depend on those. Instead, it depends on the storytelling abilities, the emotiveness, and the personalities of the vocal artists. That's what makes Zoe Gray's choice of Hank Williams a weird one, because with the same musical track she could have chosen a different artist's vocal style and pulled it off. She got into the Top 4, sure... but only Edric and Ryan actually ranked her there. The rest of the judges ranked her in the middle, and the weird choices made by other artists floated her up once the rankings were totalled. Which isn't terrible gameplay mind you... I've mentioned before that when other contestants are taking risks, you can benefit from the "Love It or Hate It" (LIorHI) effect through consistent scores. I think Faster Jackalope made a weird choice by writing a pastiche of the Ronettes and not leading with female vocals, although they had a singer right there. And I think that's weird even though I ranked them highly due to their spot-on replication of Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound".

I called Brian Gray's entry "the poster child of weird choices", and went on about it at length regarding the disconnectedness of the piece. I didn't mention Philip Glass' Koyaanisqatsi, but Joe and Jerkatorium filled in that bit nicely. The weird choices here included the choice of minimalist artist in a contest where lyrics figure heavily; the choice to put all of the context in the contrived song bio instead of the composition to be judged; the fact that this is basically a parody of Koyaanisqatsi when parodies were expressly warned about; the fact that the joke is basically completely contained in the title, yet drags on for six pretty much unnecessary minutes; and limited replay value, except as background music. Menage A Tune similarly made a weird choice by going leaning toward a novelty parody, but that was limited to lyrics.

Some choices weren't weird at all, though the execution needed work. Jocko Homomorphism would have pulled off a pretty good Jimmy Buffett pastiche had he put in a bit more work in replicating Buffett's sound. Some marimbas and percussion would have done the trick, and would have been well within his capabilities. PigFarmer Jr. made a pretty good choice in picking rap, even though he fell through on execution. Had he successfully replicated the style of Vanilla Ice, I think maybe even Edric would have given him a pass on pronunciation. OK... maybe not Edric.

Vom Vorton made excellent choices, stylistically. Though I'm a little puzzled at celebrating such a mediocre car, I just shrugged and noted a couple of near-misses in execution, and ranked it #5, which is exactly where it fell in the final rankings. Travis, Ryan, and Chumpy agreed; and it fell squarely into LIorHI territory for Joe and Micah.

Likewise, I think Governing Dynamics made excellent choices overall. The raw acoustic sound of Bob Dylan is so stylistically and musically distinctive that you don't have to replicate his vocals to get the point across... and his vocals are so iconic that to attempt it would border on parody. I think GD struck exactly the right balance there, and he wound up ranked in the top 4 by me, Joe, and Edric; in the middle by Travis and Micah; and I can't explain Ryan's and Chumpy's rankings.

And then there's Mandibles, who made every good choice in the book:  in previous rounds we heard nothing but acoustics from them. They gave us a ukulele in Round 1 and a piano/guitar duet in Round 2; against which ABBA's heavily produced and processed dance club sound was a clear stylistic departure. They chose an artist whose sound they could replicate, and proceeded to do so; they pastiched not only the music, but the lyrical style; they did it without falling into parody. As a result, they got consistently high rankings from every judge except Edric, who ranked it in 7th place with no specific comment whatsoever. I have no idea why. Given his general comments, I'm not sure he knows either.

And that's all I have to say about that.