Talking About Depression

August 15, 2014

Reasons why not to talk about having depression:



People will make too big a deal of it.

People will make too little a deal of it.

People will be on eggshells, which would only decrease connection with others, which is something depressed people can’t afford to do.

People will talk.

People will judge.

People will not want themselves or their loved ones to be around you, and that may include the people on whom one depends for one’s livelihood.

It may come across as weakness.

It will reveal vulnerability.

Even the suggestion of the experience of the depths of depression could scare people off.

People will consider you overly sensitive.

People don’t take mental illness seriously.

People will resent whatever support you need, considering you selfish.

People will think what you mean is that you’re going through a period of sadness like the kind most people occasionally go through and refer to as being depressed, failing to understand that depression is something else altogether.

People will try to convince you to be more positive without realizing that depression affects one’s capacity, and even one’s will, and even one’s desire, to be positive, to appreciate things, to seek support, to accept help, to pursue wellness.

People who haven’t experienced depression cannot know what it’s like, whether simply because they may not have experienced it, or because they may misunderstand it, or because they may have biases against it.

People may feel threatened because they spend a lot of energy avoiding feelings of their own, and the very mention of depression may make their own feelings harder to ignore, and they won’t like that experience or the person they see as the cause of it.

People will feel burdened.

People will not want to help, or even if they do want to help, they won’t know how.

Surely there are many more reasons one could come up with.

Reasons to talk about having depression:

Because despite the reasons not to, it would have to be somehow a relief to be more open about it, to have less of a need to suppress oneself and pretend quite so often, and to open up more possibilities for dealing with it more effectively.

Because people may just demonstrate more understanding and acceptance rather than less.

Because if Robin Williams — someone so superlatively talented, and intelligent, and accomplished, and successful, and wealthy, and admired, and honored, and beloved by millions — and so aware of his own mental health issues, and open about them, and wiling to seek treatment for them multiple times in his life, as opposed to just ignoring them and letting them fester with no attention at all — if someone like that can suffer so badly from depression that it leads to suicide, then it really could happen to anyone at all, so if anyone suffering from depression is to have a chance of getting any better, they’d better make at least some of the effort that Robin Williams did to try to deal with it, including at least beginning to be open about it.

Because it may contribute even just a bit to making things better in general for those who suffer from mental illness.

Because what’s true is true whether we like it or not, and acknowledging it is probably, in the long run, one way or other, a good thing.

Surely there are many more reasons one could come up with.

But these should be enough.

Time for me to talk about depression.

I managed to say all this without referring to myself. Even now, I resist admitting it, and I’m definitely not yet ready to be fully open about it anywhere and everywhere. But the fact is that I’m someone who lives with depression. I was diagnosed nearly a decade ago. It seems it had been with me since childhood, it’s still with me now, and I’ve no idea if it will ever go away.

There have been many times I’ve wanted to talk about it or write about it with the hope that doing so might make a difference for myself and others. Through the days following Robin Williams’ suicide, and the many stories about it inspiring people to “come out” about their depression, I’ve just come to feel ridiculous for continuing to hold out. For what? For someone “better” to kill themselves and get the world even more riled up, so there’ll be some better bandwagon to jump on? No. I wish I’d had it in me to do this on Tuesday, or even right away on Monday evening when I first heard the news. Somehow I didn’t. So be it. A little bit late is better than waiting any longer.

I’m doing this not to make a big deal about myself. I’m not ready to make a big deal about this personally. But I am ready to turn the knob and prop the door open with my foot, at least enough to broach the subject. I do so in the hope that each new admission can be an extra drop to add to an ocean of understanding, to make a bigger deal about depression in general, and mental illness in general.

There are too many people who know they have these conditions and keep silent about it — as I’ve done until now.

There are too many people who know they have these conditions and even tell the world about it, but it still ends up being not enough — as was the case for Robin Williams.

There are too many people who have these conditions and don’t even realize it — or who maybe even refuse to consider the possibility.

We’ve simply got to get better at this. That’s got to involve the people who suffer from mental illness being more open about it and seeking more support for it. It’s got to involve everyone, whether you suffer from mental illness or not, whether you know someone who suffers from mental illness or not, it’s got to involve everyone being more open to talking about it and hearing about it. It’s got to involve eliminating the stigmas that are so unfairly and unhelpfully attached to mental illness.

Everybody’s got to die of something, but nobody should be driven to suicide. And even if one is never driven that far, nobody should have to live with the kinds of depression and other mental illnesses that this world we’ve created keeps inflicting on so many of us, sapping life so that we survive without really living.

Want to not have to talk about depression and mental illness? Help make a world where they aren’t rampant, so that there won’t be anything needing to be talked about.

Health, sanity and sustainability go hand in hand. Without them, not much else will matter in the end. Openness, awareness and understanding may not be enough, but they’re a start.

Some Thoughts On Humility

October 21, 2013

A Facebook Friend posted: “I hate modesty, loathe mediocrity, despise humility. They are crutches, an invented virtue for those who have nothing to offer besides how little they have to offer.”

I started to write a comment in response, but it quickly became too long for a comment. So I’m posting it here instead. For what it’s worth, all of this is far more what I aspire to than what I actually exemplify. I’ve got a lot of knowing left to gain and I try to keep reminding myself about that. Take this not as if from some guru but, instead, as from someone who’s hoping they’ve got their compass pointed in a worthwhile direction.


You know how first you don’t know that you don’t know something and you may be ignorant and think you know more than you do, and then you find out you don’t know, so that now you know don’t know, and then you start little by little to learn more, and now you know that you know something about it, and eventually you learn it so well that it’s second nature and automatic and you no longer are aware of the knowing? So there are two kinds of not knowing, the first and the last, and they are fundamentally and meaningfully different, one exemplifying lack, the other exemplifying fullness, both to such an extreme that they aren’t even aware of either the lack or the fullness. And even the earlier one was worthwhile as long as you came to know that you didn’t know so that you could then move forward. It was only the not knowing that you didn’t know that was harmful in keeping you stuck in ignorance.

Humility has a lot to do with this. When there’s a lack of skill or knowledge, first there may be ignorance and even pride in what you think you know but really don’t. Then you realize you don’t know, and in order to learn more, you must humble yourself before that realization, must adopt humility, because admitting you don’t know is the only path toward actually being open to taking in whatever it is that’s on the path of learning more, developing your skills, etc. Then you start to learn more, and you know you’re getting better, and you may take some rightful pride in that. But eventually, when you’ve reached a certain level of excellence in your learning, you regain a new kind of humility, not out of embarrassment for what you lack, more like gratitude for what you have, and recognition that good things do not come from rubbing what you have in the faces of others who don’t have as much.

The virtue of the latter, true kind of humility may be falsely leaned on by those who are at the beginning of the path, who may be stuck in ignorant self-righteousness, not knowing that they don’t really know about whatever it is. They may all too easily resent and put down those who know something, trying to get them to act more modestly. But that doesn’t make humility in itself less than a virtue, either in the sense of being open to new learning (like those who realize they don’t know and embark on consciously learning more), or in the sense of being grateful for all the learning you have (as the one who has learned much and even starts to lose awareness of all they’ve come to know). Our critical eye should not be on humility but on the reasons why one might uphold it as a virtue. Some of those reasons are helpful and some aren’t.

The same goes for the pride of both the ignorant and of the person in the process of learning. Two very different reasons for being proud of oneself. And yet even the “good” kind of pride, the pride from real knowing along the path of learning, can only at best be a temporary virtue. It’s a virtue that all too easily can lead to a vice. It’s got to be transcended as you get farther along the path of excellence. Because that pride, even in someone along the path of knowing, is still all too easy to tip toward self-righteousness, and probably even easier to tip toward that when faced with someone you know to be prideful in their ignorance. Someone who knows “should” win over someone who doesn’t, right? Knowing should win over not knowing. But when pride gets in the way, the conflict becomes about that, pride against pride. All that does is keep pushing the “not-knowing” person ever deeper into their own self-righteousness, ever farther from admitting what they don’t know and actually starting along that path of knowing. And then all the learning that the “knowing” person has actually achieved can’t accomplish much, because it didn’t come along another really crucial piece of knowledge that would have made all the difference in how to interact with others.

So even if there may be reasons to be proud of oneself for having learned something, it remains important to not get swept up in one’s pride. Self-esteem that needs to demonstrate itself powerfully to others isn’t self-esteem at all, it’s other-esteem. Excellence that pushes people away from itself isn’t worth much. It indicates that its possessor is less than excellent in some other area, that its possessor has a need to submit humbly to a different kind of not knowing, about one’s own pride and self-esteem and humility, so that one can end up excellent in whatever area without having that excellence push others away. So it’s all the more important to transcend pride in one’s own knowing and get to a point of real humility. Only there can we find what we need in order to have even chance of interacting with the ignorant and get them to realize that they need to start down the path of knowing. We may not succeed with them even if we have humility. But almost certainly we’ll fail as long as we don’t.

Humility may be well worth criticizing when it keeps you from promoting excellence in yourself or in the world. But pride is worth criticizing for the very same reasons. Humility and pride can both promote excellence, each in its way, and in the end I suspect that humility is itself the more important of the two in terms of actually expressing things in the world. Because excellence speaks for itself. It not only doesn’t need pride to speak for it, it actually suffers when pride does open its mouth about it. So in the end humility may be the most important thing in all of this. It’s what lets you admit what you don’t know so that you can keep finding openings to know more. And, crucially, it’s what stands the chance of making you able to help others do the same.

Songwriting for a 24-Hour Theatre Project

May 19, 2013

The Invitation

In mid-March, my friend and colleague Kat Koppett asked me if I’d be involved in a pretty unique way in the 3rd Annual Capital Region / Berkshires 24-Hour Theatre Project, which premiered last night, Saturday, May 18, 2013.

In this project presented by WAM Theatre and The Mop & Bucket Company, a crowd of theatre artists gather in a big room on a Friday night. Five playwrights are each teamed with a director, a stage manager and a cast of from three to five actors, with everyone’s names (and the cast size for each play) selected out of hat/bowls. A “prompt” is given — a brief phrase — and the playwrights have until early the next morning to delver a new one-act play inspired somehow by the prompt. The five plays’ brand new companies, along with a full complement of designers and technicians, rehearse and produce the plays throughout the next day and present them in a show that Saturday night.

Two years ago, I was involved in the region’s first 24-Hour theatre project as a composer/musician, making myself available to whatever the production might need. I didn’t end up being asked to compose anything, though I did play a number of well-known songs as pre-show music and for two of the five plays.

This year, I was asked to participate as a songwriter responding to the same prompt as the playwrights, writing original songs for performance as musical interludes between the one-act plays. It was a pretty irresistible invitation. I felt that my experience in writing challenge-based songs as a past participant in the SpinTunes songwriting contest and some related endeavors, as well as my work improvising songs with The Mop & Bucket Company, would serve me well. Since it was an experimental addition to the project, I got to be involved in figuring out just how it would all go. It turns out that the situation we put into place worked out really well.

Preparing For What You Can’t Prepare For

For simplicity, we decided to leave the songwriting aspect of the project out of the random name selections, instead teaming me with two members of the Mopco improv theatre group in which Kat and I work together. Peter Delocis and All Over Albany‘s Mary Darcy are both veterans of not only musical theatre performance but also improvising songs and musical theatre pieces with Mopco, and they were both already involved with the 24-Hour project as assistant producers. Initially brought on as singers, it became natural to get them involved as co-lyricists, though we would be doing “real” songwriting, getting everything set ahead of time and rehearsing, instead of improvising anything for the very first time only once in front of the audience.

Discussing how things would go with Kat and with WAM Theatre Artistic Director and Co-Founder Kristen van Ginhoven, we decided that the goal would be, ideally, to create three songs, since three plays comprised the first act and two plays were in the second act, making for three set changes in front of the audience that could be made more entertaining with a song, like in many classic stage musicals. We also decided that the songwriters would work only on the songs for the musical interludes, as opposed to also being made available for music and/or songs for any of the rest of the production.

Mary, Peter and I met for dinner a few weeks before the event to discuss how we might want to go about things, knowing that nothing we said would be set in stone, and especially knowing that we could end up inspired in new directions once we heard the prompt. We came away from that dinner with some basic notions. The first and most basic was that it would probably be nice if Mary and Peter each had a solo, with a third song being a duet.

Another idea was that it would be neat to take three different songwriting approaches — lyrics followed by music, music followed by lyrics, and music and lyrics written together. This didn’t really suggest anything about who would do each role in each of these three approaches, since it’s possible to write music and lyrics either solo or collaboratively. So that brought us to the question of who would be doing what for each song.

While I enjoy collaborating a lot, and Mary and Peter both liked the idea of it as well, my inclination was that, given the time pressure, it probably wouldn’t be wise to try to do any full-on collaboration on any aspect of a song. The kinds of back-and-forth discussions and deliberations collaborators often have could suck up a lot of time that we just wouldn’t have to spare.

Coincidentally, Mary really liked the idea of writing lyrics that I would then set to music, Peter had long wanted to try to write lyrics to a piece of music, and I often have them both evolve together when I write. So it seemed to make sense to just break down the three songs that way, with it being natural for Mary and Peter to write the lyrics to each of their own solo songs and for me to write the lyrics to the duet.

Beyond that, the only other possible preparation any of us could really do was just making sure we were up on our craft. With only a few weeks to go — and Mary about to be knee-deep in preparing for the moment of lifetime in a one-on-one interview with Stephen Sondheim — we were just going to have to trust that whatever got us involved in this project in the first place would carry us through.

Prompt and Ideas

During that dinner, Peter noted that the prompt for the first 24-Hour event was “Crossing the Line,” while the one for the second event was “Double Whammy.” Reading that first prompt as if someone placing first in a race, it seemed like the prompts had something to do with the year of the event, and Peter predicted that this year’s prompt would be related to the number three. Lo and behold, Friday, May 17, the prompt is announced, and the connection noted to this being the third annual event: “Three’s Are Funny.”

Though the number of songs was determined by the number of breaks we needed to fill between the plays, it seemed a nice coincidence that there were to be three songs.

Many ideas were bandied about, much brainstorming taking place that evening.

Peter decided he wanted to write himself a comic song, and he doesn’t want any more specific lyric idea in either of our minds as I prepare music for him to set to lyrics. I decide that, in honor of the prompt, I’ll give him a light waltz, and I start casually pondering some musical bits that evening.

Having made that choice, I remember that the Sondheim musical A Little Night Music is filled with variations on waltz time, and so in a further nod to the prompt, I decide that I’d like to do the same with all three of our songs for the project.

One of the more general ideas I talked about with Mary was, believe it or not, the Hegalian dialectic, in which some thesis idea is responded to with an opposing antithesis idea, and the tension between the two somehow finds resolution in a synthesis. A third option transcends a duality or dichotomy. I felt like this could play out in any number of ways in our songs.

Mary and I discussed how it would be nice for there to a be a more poignant song as a contrast to Peter’s comic number, and she feels that that’s the kind of tone she’d have wanted to take anyway, so that falls into place as natural for her solo. She’ll go to bed Friday with one idea, but on Saturday morning a new idea comes to her and she decides to go with it.

A woman falls in love once but doesn’t get what she wants. She looks for someone very different but still doesn’t get what she wants. Finally, she falls for the man who was there all along as a good friend and has everything she wants. The third’s the charm. Mary adds another nice layer to the motif by having three friends who comfort the narrator each time her heart is broken, and one of those friends is the guy she’ll fall for in the end.

It turns out I’m the only one of the three of us to settle on an idea Friday night that I’ll actually stick with the next day. Mary and I had talked about how the three might not actually exist yet, that there might be some relationship with two people pondering getting a third involved. The two situations that came to mind were a couple seeking a threesome or new parents having their first baby.

Before listing any number of other such situations, though at least an hour after the ideas first came up, somehow, I made a connection. What if the song sounded like a couple debating whether or not to have a threesome, but it turns out there’s a twist ending, with the threesome they were talking about all along actually being a baby and not another romantic partner? As soon as I made that leap, I thought, this is a great idea for a song, and it may be too ambitious for this short time-frame. But I went for it.

One thing that especially pleased me about this idea was that it would end up being like a mini-musical. I’d hoped from the start that there might be an opportunity for this, since the event was, after all, a night of original theatre pieces. I was sensitive to the fact that we needed to keep the songs as songs, though, and not turn them into something bigger that would really start to seem like a theatre piece. I imagined that a duet could either be a more traditional song simply sung by two people, or that it could lend itself well to a musicalized dialogue if the right idea presented itself. This was definitely the right idea for that.

I brainstormed different kinds of things that a couple might consider about a threesome that could have a double-meaning in referring to a baby, leaving out anything that might more obviously refer to only one or the other of the two situations. It seemed natural that one person would bring up the idea with the first verse involving the idea being shot down. The second verse would change the dynamic with the dissenter bringing up more cons but each being met with a pro to break down defenses. A bridge could reference how “three’s are funny” but we can make it work, helping the persuasion along. A third and final verse would get to the heart of the matter, some more emotional reasons for hesitation, then revealing the twist ending, and in the end a decision to have the baby. I figured that, to keep up the ruse, I’d go with the man being the one pushing the threesome, since that would be the stereotype for that, even though it might not be the stereotype for wanting a baby. I went to bed Friday night with a pretty good list of raw notes, with essentially no particular ideas for how they’d end up as lyrics.

Saturday morning, hearing our ideas, Peter decides to do something very different as contrast, going meta by singing about the event itself and the role the songs play in distracting the audience from the set changes.

The Songs

My first priority when we all get together is to give Peter the music he needs as the basis for his song. I flesh out the ideas I’d been imagining, writing a melody that itself is based on phrases of three notes at a time, which goes pretty naturally with the waltz feel. Peter gets right into it and comes up with amusing results. He realizes that he could keep riffing on ideas as long as needed for a set change, but he settles on, not coincidentally, three verses. It’s soon decided that it’s the clear opening number.

As Mary gets into writing her piece, the story is fleshing out really well. We realize that the song provides a good opportunity for a verse-chorus structure, with the verses being the romances, and the choruses being the opportunities for comfort from friends. This further suggests that the song should have a title which can mean one thing at first — the three friends — and another thing after she finds her true love — the “three,” the third man. Eventually, Mary seizes on “My Three,” with the narrator always being glad to have her three at each step of the way.

Mary also had a melody in mind as she was writing. I’m really pleased that, when I hear it a cappella and then start to flesh it out with an accompaniment the way I imagine might sound nice, Mary likes the results. It’s got an upbeat 6/8 or 12/8 feel with a contemporary musical theatre sound, contrasting well with Peter’s more traditional Strauss-like waltz. Mary hadn’t had any different music in mind for the choruses, so I come with a contrast, and she develops a new melody to go with it. We all agree that Mary deserves co-composer credit for the song.

As I get into writing the duet, the first thing I settle on is the refrain — not a true chorus, but a refrain for the end of each verse that fills a similar role, giving us a hook to latch onto. We’re turning two to three, and that rhymes with “you and me.” They don’t know if the third will be a boy or a girl, and that itself could be a point of contention in either a threesome or parenting. So one person will always end up saying “Turning two to three / With you and me / And her,” and the other one immediately counters with “Or him,” and that would be followed with some other two-syllable phrase to cap the sequence, changing depending on the context and rhyming with whatever line immediately preceded this whole refrain phrase that began with “turning.” The title of the song becomes “You and Me and Her or Him.”

I also know that I want this song to have an amusing and racy feel to it, and what immediately comes to mind is a swing waltz like John Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things.” In playing up the discomfort of the situation, I ponder some quirky melodic rhythms, and it leads me to push things toward the similar rhythm in Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” though that, of course, is in 5/4 time. So the song is suddenly constantly shifting between 5/4 and 3/4. Of course, though, this particular 5/4 really feels like a 3 attached to a 2, which goes nicely with the idea of “turning two to three.”

Then it becomes a matter of seeing which ideas fit best in each verse — arguments in favor to be rejected, arguments against to be countered, then more potentially emotional ideas (such as jealousy and concern for not enough love to go around) that will serve well to dovetail with the big reveal. Sorting goes well, and then it’s all a matter of turning it into rhyming lyrics that go with my quirky rhythmic phrases. Eventually it takes shape, with a handful of nice punch lines throughout, and hopefully enough of a setup at the beginning to keep people’s minds squarely in the gutter until I let the cat out of the bag near the end. Though there are no recordings as of yet for any of the songs, I have posted the lyrics to the duet.

Discussing the order of the songs, it seems like it will work really well for Mary’s song to follow Peter’s so that Act I has the nicely contrasting solo numbers, with the duet waiting for the one song slot in Act II.

All three songs ended up with three verses each, and there’s a bunch of dialectical flavor going on beyond that. Mary’s song and mine both have it somewhat in how their stories evolve through the three verses. The creative processes — music then lyrics, lyrics then music, both together — show it. Then there’s a comic song, a poignant song, and a song that starts comic and becomes poignant. And, of course, two solos are followed by a duet between the two singers. And all are in variations of waltz time. So lots of dialectic and lots of threes.

Getting It Done

In terms of getting everything done for the show, it turns out it that we’d made some very wise decisions in how we’d go about this.

Having collaborators made things easier in a number of ways. The sheer project of writing three songs in that short a time would have been, it turns out, probably somewhat overwhelming, or at least it would have meant sacrificing some quality.

Beyond that, though, it’s somewhat inevitable that, when you write a song, you get to know it pretty well. Having the singers involved in the songwriting meant that they each had a pretty big head start on the rehearsal and performance of their own songs. We certainly needed to rehearse their solos, but that was much easier than rehearsing the duet, which Mary and Peter both had to learn from scratch.

It would not only have been harder for singers to have to learn multiple songs from scratch if all the songs had been written by someone else. The rehearsal process would be harder simply due to timing and the inevitable fact that they wouldn’t be able to rehearse any songs until the songs we’re written. By having everyone working on the three songs in parallel, it meant that all three songs could get done sooner, allowing for a larger amount of time to be spent rehearsing each song than would have been possible if the singers weren’t themselves involved in the writing. Not to mention that it meant that singers weren’t waiting around huge amounts of time for a songwriter to give them something to do.

All of that, then, meant that it was extremely wise that we’d decided to limit collaboration and have each of the three of us responsible for writing a lyric on our own. Though some actual songwriting work did continue into mid-afternoon, the bulk of it was done through morning and the early afternoon, giving us a few hours before the 5:00 p.m. dress rehearsal to focus simply on rehearsing our performances together.

Of course, all of this means that it was also wise that we songwriters were declared off-limits to the rest of the production. Had we made ourselves available to try to provide music and/or songs for any of the five plays, any other segues, etc., it would have been a serious imposition on time that turned out to be very precious just for our three songs.

The songs went pretty well during the show. Alas, the duet had some technical challenges, since the microphone that Mary and Peter were sharing kept flopping down. Managing the single microphone without a reliable stand was hard enough for them in a duet, and it complicated their ability to turn pages as they followed the lyrics. But their solo numbers went well, and hopefully the duet came across well enough, too.

In the end, there was a lot of positive feedback for the songs. They seemed like a really nice addition to this kind of event. So it looks like the experiment was a success, and maybe the way we went about it can serve as a model for how other 24-Hour theatre projects can get songwriting involved.

You and Me and Her or Him

May 18, 2013

This song was one of three songs written for the 3rd Annual Capital Region / Berkshires 24-Hour Theatre Project. For more information on that event and the process of writing the songs for it, see Songwriting for a 24-Hour Theatre Project.

Music and lyrics: By Mark S. Meritt



He: There’s something I’ve been hopin’
And I hope your mind is open
In the past the subject’s left you less than gleesome
She: I know that our relation-
ship could use some lubrication
But I don’t think I’m ready for…
He: A threesome?

Verse 1

He: It would be exciting
She: But I would be so scared
He: That’s the way adventure goes
She: But I’m just not prepared
He: It would add such color
She: I like us as we are
He: So much possibility
She: It just might be one step too far

He: It would be so novel
She: But we are both so green
He: It could forge a stronger bond
She: Or drive a wedge between
He: I believe the benefits would outweigh the occasional spat
Turning two to three
With you and me
And her —
She: — or him —
He: Like that

Verse 2

She: We are both so busy
He: But we could make the time
She: Working fewer hours a day?
He: It wouldn’t be a crime
She: It would be exhausting
He: Good exercise, my dear
She: Do we have the stamina?
He: Not getting any younger here

She: Keep us up at nighttime
He: There’s so much we would learn
She: Two more lips upon my breast?
He: I’ll gladly wait my turn
She: This whole thing has got me antsy — I’m afraid I’d live to regret
Turning two to three
With you and me
And her —
He: — or him —
She: Not yet


He: I know that three’s are funny
She: Sometimes rainy
He: Sometimes sunny
She: They’re a blustery thunderstorming of emotion
He: If we’ve got fears, we’ll face ‘em
She: Both together?
He: We’ll embrace ‘em
She (spoken): Promise?
He (spoken): Yes
She: Then I just might be warming to the notion

Verse 3

She: What if we get jealous?
He: No-one can take our place
She: Someone in the bed with us
He: It’s king size — lots of space
She: Would he —
He: — or she —
She: — love us both?
He: You’re jealous
She: Just a touch
He: We would each love everyone
She: But maybe someone not as much

She: I can’t be a mother
He: I know you’d be just great
She: I would be no good at it
He: You’d be the best — just wait
We’d be in it, both together, finding love in every day
Turning two to three
With you and me
And her —
She: — or him —
Both: Okay

Mad Libs with 30 Rock and Gandhi

October 8, 2012

The other Mad Libs posts I just did this week — on Looper and The Terminator and on Frasier and Joey — reminded me about another set I did, practically on a dare. Netflix told my wife that she’d like the television series 30 Rock after the movie Gandhi had been recently watched. She wondered how they could possibly be connected. I came up with this.

From a traditionally oppressed group (Indians; women), a protagonist (Mohandas K. Gandhi; Liz Lemon), whose first name references a relationship with a god (Mohandas means servant of the Hindu god Mohana; Elizabeth means oath of God) and whose last name refers to something round and bright yellow (Gandhi means sun; Lemon means lemon), uses talents for communication, writing and leadership (orator, writer of books and journals on Indian freedom, spiritual leader of the movement for a free India; former actress, author of feminist tome Dealbreakers, head writer of The Girlie Show).

The protagonist joins forces with similarly oppressed allies (Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, other Hindus, etc.; African Americans such as Tracey and Toofer, Jews, other women such as Jenna, etc.), including even people who’d be looked down upon by most others from the protagonist’s own social group (Untouchables; people of impoverished Appalachian heritage such as Kenneth Parcell), struggling together week after week for freedom and integrity (Indian home rule; artistic expression).

Their main battles are against the difficulties presented by the dominant positions of people and institutions that represent traditional male, white, European hegemony (the South African government and its officials, the British Empire and its officials; GE, NBC, Jack Donaghy and all corporate henchmen reporting to them), and their way is often barred by male Indian underlings who see it as their duty to protect the dominators rather than act in solidarity with the other oppressed people (Indian policemen; Jack’s assistant Jonathan).

Despite the sacrifices they make, the strains on personal life and relationships, and all the work they do to try to make things work for everyone around them, some people hate them and even hope harm will come to them.

Mad Libs with Frasier and Joey

October 8, 2012

Playing Mad Libs with Looper and The Terminator reminded me about another astonishingly similar pair of projects. Years later, here are the Mad Libs for the television series Frasier and Joey.

A hugely popular NBC Thursday night Must See TV sitcom whose title is a single word that is a plural noun (Cheers; Friends) is about a group of people in major East Coast city (Boston; New York) who enjoy each other’s social company and especially like to spend time together at a popular neighborhood spot known for its beverages (Cheers; Central Perk).

One particular character (Frasier; Joey) is known especially for how his level of intelligence can be humorous for other characters and the show’s audience (hyper-intellectual; not so bright). He’s also known for a particular level of taste in food (gourmet; casual gluttony for common unhealthy foods), and what he does for a living requires him to have an understanding of people’s inner motivations (psychologist and professor of psychology; actor who must understand people’s objectives and personal psychology).

At times he had different levels of romantic involvement with at least one other main character (Diane, Lilith; Rachel, Monica in a flash forward, Phoebe in a brief kiss), but by the end of the series he doesn’t end up happily ever after with any of them or anyone else.

When the series comes to an end, this character gets a spinoff, named for his character’s first name and given its own prime Thursday Must See TV time slot. In the spinoff, he relocates to a major West Coast city (Seattle; Los Angeles) to pursue a career in which he hopes to increase his celebrity as a media performer in a way that has a strong connection to his work on the East Coast (host of a radio talk show in which he counsels callers; continuing to pursue acting with access to bigger projects).

One significant other character is the title character’s sibling who would be considered a roughly similar character type to the title character himself in many ways (Niles; Gina). The two are not only siblings but also good friends. That sibling will end up having an important relationship with someone who works for the main character (Niles falls for Daphne who Frasier pays to take care of his father; Gina gets a job working for Joey’s agent Bobbie).

Another main character is another family member (Martin; Michael), this one being one generation removed from the title character and his sibling (Martin is their father; Michael is Gina’s son), and whose personality and tastes stand in many ways, especially intellectually, in strong contrast to that of the title character and his sibling (Martin is an average guy in contrast to Frasier and Niles being upscale dandies; Michael is a genius nerd in contrast to Joey and Gina being fun-loving, promiscuous and having more average tastes).

The show became widely known as an extreme example of the level of popularity and critical acclaim a spinoff can achieve (Frasier one of the most popular and acclaimed spinoffs of all time; Joey one of the most notorious spinoff flops).

And now: Mad Libs with 30 Rock and Gandhi.

Mad Libs with Looper and The Terminator

October 8, 2012

Looper is one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time. Don’t let what follows lead you to think that I felt it unoriginal. Because it was highly original. Go see it and you’ll be richly rewarded. And yet it’s amazing how well we can play Mad Libs with this newer movie and The Terminator. Spoiler alert — stop now if you don’t want Looper spoiled for you.

In the future, a group of cold-hearted violent characters (self-aware machines; criminals led by the Rainmaker) are responsible for a death campaign against another group of characters who are significantly responsible for the first set of characters being able to do what they do (people who created the machines before the machines became self-aware and saw people as a threat; Loopers who are hit men for the criminals but against whom the Rainmaker wants vengeance). The second group becomes engaged in fighting back.

In that future, one side of the battle (the machines; the Loopers) discovers that the other side would not be engaged so effectively in the battle were it not for the existence of one particularly effective male leader on that other side (John Connor; the Rainmaker). Using time travel, someone with information about that leader (the Terminator; Old Joe) goes back in time with the hope of using murder to prevent that leader from growing up to ever become such a powerful opponent. Once back in time, the time traveller uses the limited information he has (the name of John Connor’s mother; the code identifying the Rainmaker’s date and hospital of birth) to search a contemporary database (the Los Angeles phone book; Kansas City hospital records) and learns that there are three possible candidates who match the information he has about his target’s identity. He decides to kill them all, just to be safe.

Another character (Kyle Reese; Young Joe), a member of the group upon whom the death campaign is being carried out (humans; Loopers) and who also has a strong plot connection to time travel (travels back in time himself; kills people the future criminals send back in time to him), must stop the murderous time traveller, otherwise all will be lost in his own life and in more far-reaching ways as well (his beloved Sarah Connor dies and humans will lose the war; his life is ruined, he’ll be killed by his employers should they find him, and as it will turn out at the end of the movie he’d otherwise be complicit in the very creation of the Rainmaker who ruins the life the older version of himself first has and doesn’t want to lose).

The true target out of the three, the one whose destiny the murderer wishes to prevent (John Connor; Cid), has a mother whose name is pronounced Sara (Sarah Connor; Sara). Using the same information possessed by the murderer, the hero who wishes to stop the murderer tracks down the correct target. At first Sara is wary of this potentially violent stranger, but he soon proves to her that he wants to help, for their mutual benefit. Soon enough, as they experience threats together, the hero and Sara develop a strong connection. They end up having sex. The hero assumes a significant fatherly connection to the boy destined to grow up to become the great leader (Kyle is John Connor’s biological father; Young Joe looks out for Cid and wants to avert his murder and support his ongoing well being).

The murderer, though, is an extremely skilled killer and will stop at nothing, so strong is his objective. Even when faced with a building full of armed opponents in black uniforms (police; criminals in the same organization as the Loopers), including a leader who had earlier had an ambiguously friendly/adversarial connection to the hero (Lt. Traxler who like Kyle wants to protect Sarah but is concerned that Kyle may himself be dangerous; Abe who wants to continue to help Young Joe but ended up at odds with him over Seth’s problems), the murderer is amazingly able to do away with them all so that nothing will stand in the way between him and his goal.

Nearing the final confrontation, Sara is trying to get away with a male fellow passenger (Kyle; Cid) in a truck. When the killer arrives, circumstances cause the truck to flip over and land on its top. Soon, the killer is attempting to kill Sara as a key step in achieving his mission (Sarah’s death will prevent John Connor from being born; Sara’s death gets her out of the way so Old Joe can pursue Cid in the field). However, the hero sacrifices his own life so as bring about the killer’s death (Kyle sets off an explosive while right next to the Terminator, weakening the Terminator enough for Sarah to finish it; Young Joe shoots himself so as to prevent Old Joe’s existence and make him disappear) while also saving Sara and ensuring that she will be able to raise her son to be a good and worthy person (John Connor will become the strong leader of the human resistance; Cid will learn to control his powers and will not become the Rainmaker out of vengeance).

Now check out Mad Libs with Frasier and Joey — and with 30 Rock and Gandhi. Yeah, you read that correctly.

SpinTunes 5 Judging Wrap-Up

August 18, 2012

Except for a few loose ends (like announcing the winner) that are in others’ hands, SpinTunes 5 is pretty much done, at least for me as a judge. It’s been interesting, challenging and worthwhile. Thanks to Spin for inviting me.

My experience judging hasn’t changed my mind about any of my previous recommendations for SpinTunes. I feel them all more strongly than ever. Now that I’ve been a judge, I’ve got some added perspectives. Here are some reasons to be a judge and advice if you do, new recommendations, and finally some regrets.

To Judge Or Not To Judge

Not that I think it should be mandatory, but I think any SpinTunes regulars ought to judge at some point, like putting your time in on jury duty to serve your community.

There are downsides. You can’t enter songs unless you’re willing to wait until the contest is over to do only shadows. It takes time — a whole lot if you want to do a really good job. You open yourself up to criticism and can’t expect to please everyone every time, just the same as you do when you put your artistic work out into the world. Some of the behind-the-scenes discussions among judges and admins can be challenging and even unpleasantly counterproductive.

Still, the community benefits from judges with songwriting experience in general and SpinTunes experience in particular. Reviews and opinions can still vary among judges, but experience makes them more informed, and I think that makes for more worthwhile reviews. This can not only improve the integrity of contest results. It also gives you the opportunity to contribute to other artists, and in the end that may be the most important result of participating in SpinTunes as either an entrant or a judge.

I think you can end up a better artist yourself, too. To articulate your opinions — and make them public — forces you to think more about your perspective, your aesthetic, your knowledge — and to stand by all of it. That awareness seem only likely to strengthen your own future work.

If you do judge, here’s some advice:

  • Be open-minded and collaborative in behind-the-scenes discussions and have no expectations of them. It’s Spin’s show, and what he says goes. It’s not a democracy, it’s a benevolent dictatorship. And of course you’ll also probably disagree at times with the other judges. Just put your two cents in but then let them fall where they may.
  • Even so, put those two cents in as if you weren’t going to just let them fall. If there’s something you want to try to influence — challenge choices or descriptions, qualification decisions, etc. — speak up, sooner rather than later, and don’t wait for someone else to bring up the topic. Everyone is busy, time is always limited, things fall to the wayside, and if you don’t speak up you might find there’s suddenly not enough opportunity to try to make a difference about something important before decisions are made and put out to the world.
  • Be as objective about your subjectivity as you can. Judging is inherently subjective, but try not to let arbitrary whims play into your reviews. Have an approach and stick with it, and take each entry as much as possible only on the terms of the specific challenge and, beyond that, its own terms. There’s no good reason for any other personal biases, musical or otherwise, to come into play.
  • Be confident about who you are and what you like and know before you review, and try hard to only write things you’ll be willing to stand by…
  • … but also be willing to admit when you were off base, uninformed, etc. (See below for me doing a bit of that.)
  • Avoid too much discussion about your reviews and the contest in general. It’s too easy to either stand by your reviews too stubbornly or not enough. Write them well then try to let them speak for themselves. Then let it go.

Qualification, Challenges and Shadows

Qualification is a yes/no, black/white issue. A song ends up qualified or not, and it can be disqualified because of things related to a particular challenge or because of more general rules. In fact, the only two SpinTunes 5 DQs happened because of the general rule about entries needing to have lyrics. No DQ came from any failure to meet something unique to a challenge this time.

Judging how well a song meets a challenge is as qualitative and subjective as judging any other aspect of a song, and it’s often subject to many different factors. Music style and lyrical content both came into play for Round 2’s “pump up” songs. Number of characters, scope of story, dramatization and various other characteristics came into play for Round 3’s mini-operas. Something could seem black on one of these factors while the others remain white, or they can all just seem shades of gray.

Shadows are songs that aren’t vying in formal competition. Until now, you’re labeled a shadow if you simply choose to be one, or if you try to make a qualifying entry but miss the deadline. Either way, judges don’t have to review shadows, but if they do, it’s always up to them whether to rank them amongst the qualifying entries or not rank them at all.

As an entrant or as a judge, whether dealing with a true shadow, a deadline victim shadow, or an entry that DQs for another reason, I’d still be interested in feedback for those submissions, including comparison to the other songs in the round.

It definitely makes sense for shadows and DQs to be lumped at the bottom in round totals, since that’s what determines who moves on. But just because that’s needed for that purpose, there’s no reason judges need to lump those songs at the bottom of their own reviews. Some judges strew shadows among their rankings, and this is understood to be no problem. Yet when I posed treating DQs the same, I was told that anything other than pushing them all the way to the bottom made no sense and didn’t even seem possible to do.

Now, I did rank this contest’s two DQs lowest in my rankings, but that was total coincidence, not a foregone conclusion. When there’s so much else to every song, I can easily imagine giving a medium or even a fairly high score and rank to a song that gets DQ’d — even a song that I myself would vote to DQ. Whatever black-and-white factor justified the DQ, I’d score it low in that category, and all the other categories would remain up for grabs, to be looked at in themselves. It’s an advantage of the kind of scoring system I use that works to contestants’ advantage in lots of ways, keeping any one factor from weighing too heavily in an arbitrary or biased way, whether the judge is conscious of doing so or not. Those same benefits would extend to DQ reviews just as they would to shadow reviews.

As long as judges are allowed to rank however they want, no SpinTunes rules changes would be needed. I’d simply recommend that judges not automatically move shadows and DQs to the bottoms of their lists. The question of moving on is simply separate from the question of what a judge thinks of a round’s entries. Shadow and DQ’d entrants are likely to appreciate and learn from seeing where they fall compared to everyone else. Those songs can be factored out for the official combined rankings, as they were with my reviews, which turned out to be not only possible but easy to do, just as has happened in the past when various judges have ranked shadows.

One extra minor point. It’s one thing to shadow a challenge weeks or months or years after a challenge occurs. You know you’re just shadowing, so there’s no point considering you a deadline victim. But if you intended to qualify and failed because you missed the deadline and still turned in your entry, it might be more appropriate to think of that entry as a DQ for breaking a rule of the challenge just like anyone who breaks any other general or challenge-specific rule is a DQ. Shadow would be a label reserved for those who intended to shadow from the start. In the end, it’s mostly semantics, especially if judges can treat shadows and DQs equally in their reviews, which they can.

One extra major point: Judging freedom currently allows for some judges to prize the challenge highest above all else while others may only consider it to inform a DQ decision and then entirely ignore it in their reviews. I find this distressing for a challenge-based contest and would hope for some judging guidelines to be put into place — whether through a scoring system or otherwise — to smooth out at least some of the most significant potential inconsistencies across judges, like this one.

The Best Challenges

An extra reason why a scoring system is a good thing: It can tell us which rounds overall produced the best songs. The simple rankings can’t say a single thing about that.

Obviously all judges’ scores would be figured in, but since no two have used the same system so far, let’s just take as an example whatever we can see if we look at some averages from my SpinTunes 5 scores. Probably most meaningful, apples to apples, would be:

Final round qualified entrants’ scores from each round:

  • Round 1: 40.1
  • Round 2: 43.8
  • Round 3: 42.5
  • Round 4: 38.7

Top four qualified entrants from each round (i.e., no shadows):

  • Round 1: 48.6
  • Round 2: 45.4
  • Round 3: 42.6
  • Round 4: 38.7

Top nine entrants from each round, including shadows, since nine was the smallest number of total entries for any round (Round 3):

  • Round 1: 45.6
  • Round 2: 42.9
  • Round 3: 38.5
  • Round 4: 42.5

Except for Round 1 on the first list and Round 4 on the first list (and that was due only to an abundance of solid Round 4 shadows), on every list the overall song quality happened to go down steadily with each passing round. Did entrants get burned out as time went on? Was there something inherent about the types of challenges that made each one produce “worse” songs than the previous one? Are “better” contestants being weeded out too soon because eliminations can knock out otherwise strong contestants when they make a flukey misstep, so maybe a different contest scheme would work better? Any of these things could explain the trend.

Then look at how the final round qualifiers’ scores compared to the top four qualifiers for each round. Of course, they’re the same for Round 4, and they’re almost identical for Round 3 because my choices lined up closely to the overall round results, and Round 3 would also have matched perfectly if we were looking at average scores across all judges. So these two rounds don’t communicate anything. But look at the other two rounds, where the Round 4 contestants consistently underperformed the top entries. This also could suggest that “better” contestants got weeded out earlier on. Or it could suggest that some people are sporadic stars who do well but not consistently enough to see things through to the end. The truth may lie somewhere in between.

Independent of the overall clear downward trend over the course of the contest, would average scores help point the way toward picking better challenges, or perhaps at least picking a better order for the challenges so that the contest feels like it gains momentum with each passing round? Is anyone even interested in picking challenges based on the types that are likely to actually produce the best and most enjoyable songs, or are there other reasons for picking certain challenges?

It’s all food for thought. With a consistent scoring system used across judges, there’s at least the option of thinking about this stuff. Without it, this all goes completely unnoticed.

(For me, at least, it’s nice to see some quantitative evidence for something that I’ve just abstractly felt in the past, which is that, except for the inherent interest of the competition logistics themselves, things often seem to get generally less exciting as the contest goes on. The challenges may sound interesting, but listening to the songs doesn’t necessarily, and then things often end somewhat anticlimactically. I guess I may not be imagining all of that.)

Judging the Judges

It might be valuable if there was a way for judges to get feedback about their judging. No need to devolve into some endless spiral of then judging the judges of the judges, etc. And I’m not talking about the occasional comments on blogs or Facebook like “You totally misunderstood my song, jerk,” or “Gee, you have such great taste since you liked my song so much!” I mean something a bit more detached and general, like the judging itself is supposed to be.

This could lead to stronger judging as part of future SpinTunes contests. Spin already asks entrants for feedback about the judges. Maybe there’s a way to get some of that information published anonymously, and maybe without even naming the particular judges commented on. A pool of information, about things that generally did and didn’t work from judges, could help inform how future judges approach their reviews.

Didn’t someone, back in SpinTunes 1, do some number-crunching to see how each of the judges’ rankings compared to the overall rankings? You could then see which judge was most “right” (meaning closest to the overall consensus) and which ones were farther off. It would be interesting to see that for every SpinTunes contest/round, and then to notice how those judges approached things. Judges certainly don’t need to be of one mind every time, but it would likely benefit the contest if judges judged in a way that tended to be in the ballpark of what the contest results tend to be. It would probably mean that much stronger feedback to help artists grow as well.


As much as I tried to articulate myself well, I saw a number of places where, in hindsight, I realize I wasn’t as clear as I could have been. Some of it’s just like writing a song. Leonard da Vinci said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” You can keep adding, subtracting, changing, but at some point you just have to stop, let it go, call it “done,” and move on. Beyond that, though, there are a couple of things I feel I was unfair about. One I could have helped, the other I couldn’t (nobody could), but I’d like to mention them both.

Emperor Gum’s “Pygmalion” in Round 1: The free-flowing looseness of the composition and song structure made me feel a bit lost even with the words. I scored Challenge and Lyric Content both as Fair. In hindsight, reconsidering the lyrics more directly on their own, I think it was really quite nice, enough for a Good in both categories and possibly even an Excellent for Lyric Content, jumping it up to 14th or 15th place in my rankings. My own scoring system, separating qualities out into categories, was supposed to help me see just this sort of thing, to help me evaluate each element on its own terms without influence from the rest. The score jump wouldn’t have made a difference in the overall results, which still would have caused elimination. But I feel it wasn’t fair to Emperor Gum that I failed at my own attempt to keep the different aspects of a song from interfering with each other’s value. Maybe this happened for other songs and other rounds, too, and I’m still unaware of it. It does go to show how presentation really does affect perception, even when someone is actively trying to avoid being affected.

Living with a song, and Felix Frost’s work in particular: I was often somewhat critical about Felix Frost’s work. I wasn’t the only one, and I think I had good reason most of the time. At the same time, maybe it’s just the kind of work that’s harder to come across well in just a couple of listens. For better or worse (and sometimes it really can be either), it’s a lot easier to have a positive first impression with something accessible and catchy and easy to make sense of. More complex pieces, or otherwise unusual pieces, or even those that just use styles and motifs that you may generally not be a fan of, may take more familiarity, living with them a while, in order to develop deeper appreciation. I’m not saying I’d definitely fall in love with Frost’s work if I listened many more times, but I’m fairly sure that I’d at least develop some amount of better appreciation of it with more familiarity, and beyond that I might actually like it more as well. The same could go for many other songs from many other entrants, especially (for me, at least) those that have a compositional looseness that can be hard to latch onto with limited exposure. You have to wonder, how would we judge a whole round differently if we had to listen to all the songs a few times a week for several months before writing our reviews? I’m not saying we should do that, but it’s a worthwhile question, about an issue that maybe inherently works against entries with certain qualities. Nothing to be done. And I feel bad about it. But I feel good being aware of the situation.

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Some Thoughts To Help With the SpinTunes #5 Mini-Opera Challenge

July 22, 2012

Spin+judges didn’t get to fully talk through the mini-opera challenge before it was posted. I don’t blame anyone. We’re all busy people. But I’m concerned that the challenge post as it stands may mislead some entrants. I speak for nobody but myself, and maybe it’s not something a judge should do in this situation, but I’d rather do something now to help entrants get moving on a good track than stay silent and risk that we all end up with something less than the best possible crop of mini-operas we can get for this round. So I’d like to share some thoughts on what I believe a mini-opera is and how those thoughts will come into play at least in my own judging. I’ll give some additional examples, too. Again, I speak only for myself, and all entrants can take or leave everything I say as you wish.

An opera is a dramatic work. That doesn’t means it’s “interesting or emotional” as opposed to “boring.” That means it tells a story through characters communicating and taking action. I’m looking for that kind of story. “Written in the Wind” may be from a musical and have two characters interacting with each other, but “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” and half the radio-hit duets you can think of have two characters interacting with each other. “Come Talk To Me” may have been “dramatized” in the “Secret World” concert film with a telephone prop, but it’s a solo song from a solo album and the other “character” is really just singing background vocals. It’s theatrical, it’s “dramatic,” but it’s not a dramatic work. None of these songs tell a story. I think a mini-opera, like a full opera, should tell a story, so that someone who heard your entry could tell the story to someone who didn’t hear it, just as if it were a novel or a movie or a TV episode, etc.

I will probably vote to disqualify any entry that doesn’t tell a clear story, and I’d hope that all judges would feel the same for this challenge.

An opera tells a whole story. Like I said in a comment on Dr. Lindyke’s blog, Mini-Me wasn’t just a lung or liver following Dr. Evil around, just a part of a person. A mini-opera, to me at least, is not an excerpt from an opera. It’s a small opera. It should tell a whole story. A whole story can be told in a few seconds. A mini-opera can certainly be pulled off at a length appropriate to the amount of time given for a SpinTunes round. Give us an excerpt that doesn’t stand on its own and the challenge maybe may just as well have been to write a number from a musical. That’s not the challenge. The challenge is a mini-opera.

I will probably vote to disqualify any entry that doesn’t tell a complete story, and I’d hope that all judges would feel the same for this challenge.

An opera is made up of multiple songs or song-like pieces. Get mini enough, down to a few seconds, and this would be impossible to do effectively. At a few minutes, though, it’s totally doable, and I think it would be really nice to have a mini-opera keep this characteristic of a full opera. At some level, it’s possible that a single song’s separate sections (verse, chorus, bridge, etc.) might accomplish this, but possibly not.

I don’t know that I’d vote to disqualify any entry that had only one “movement,” but I might, depending on what it does (and doesn’t) accomplish with that one movement. All other things being equal, I’d definitely score a multiple-movement entry higher than a one-movement entry.

In light of all this, here are some examples that I think would best serve entrants to consider:

“Paradise By the Dashboard Light” by Meat Loaf — It has multiple characters (in multiple time periods, even), they’re singing, getting a complete story across, in multiple movements. And it was written to be listened to as a recording. Except for the spoken-word baseball broadcast, there’s probably not a better example for you to consider.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” — Also a good example, for nearly all the same reasons as the Meat Loaf song, especially if you consider the song’s Wikipedia outline. (It’s almost a one-person opera, which is a possibility I’d personally like to have left open, since there are lots of one-person dramatic works, and I don’t see why it couldn’t have been possible here, but I can live with a two-character minimum.)

“Marvin at the Psychiatrist (A 3-Part Mini-Opera)” from the musical “March of the Falsettos,” and “Wire & Glass – Six Songs from a Mini-Opera” by The Who, from the album “Endless Wire” and the musical “The Boy Who Heard Music” — In both cases, it’s true they’re from larger works, but they were also both intended to stand somewhat on their own, and both self-describe as mini-operas.

SpinTunes 3 Wrap-Up Recommendations

August 22, 2011

After my first SpinTunes competition last year, I posted a lot about both my experiences going through SpinTunes and my thoughts on songwriting contests in general. This year, I knew better what to expect and so didn’t have as many thoughts along the way. I probably wouldn’t even be writing this post if it weren’t for the fact that Travis Langworthy, who runs SpinTunes, asks everyone for feedback, with particular questions as well as an open door to whatever other comments we might have. The additional comments I had to share with him don’t seem particularly private or sensitive, so I figured I may as well post it here as well. Maybe it’ll even help drum up support for some of these ideas.

For the most part, I’ll just end up reiterating my recommendations from last year, though with some added insight that comes from added experience. Before moving onto to the meatiest stuff, I want to just mention briefly my thoughts on eliminations and voting systems, as well as the issue of qualification vs. judging.

Increasingly difficult challenges: In a competition with eliminations instead of cumulative scoring, the contest would likely be that much more rewarding to contestants and listeners alike if the challenges become, as much as possible, successively more difficult in each next round. Obviously there’s subjectivity in assessing this. But in SpinTunes 3, there was a pretty big consensus (shared by me) that Round 3’s rap challenge was the most daunting. For me, that was followed by Round 2’s song based on a newspaper article, for which even just finding an article was itself a challenge, much less finding a decent songwriting angle for it. Independent of how I might have done, the evocative and highly open-ended nature of Round 4’s song inspired by a particular photograph made it seem like perhaps the easiest challenge of the entire contest. Even if not the easiest, it seemed something of an anticlimax. If challenges become generally more difficult as the contest goes on, though, the unfolding story of the competition becomes more interesting.

Preferential voting: When it comes to ranking the contestants, a preferential voting system would be a much better way to see the combined picture across judges. Rankings are not scores, but SpinTunes tallies the rankings as if they were scores. The math just doesn’t make as much sense as treating them as what they are, which is rankings, and a preferential voting system is designed to do just that. Not to mention that it would eliminate any confusion over whether to give “1” to your top choice or, because the ranks are treated as scores, to your bottom choice — a potential confusion that could lead mistaken results. Preferential voting doesn’t require anything different from judges than what SpinTunes already asks. It only requires that their votes be combined in a different way than they are now. And at places like DemoChoice, there are even some free tools to do all the work. Set up the poll, and judges can literally cast their votes, with results automatically determined — no further work on the part of SpinTunes. Later, though, I’m going to make a recommendation that could make both rankings and preferential voting moot…

Qualifying contenders: Since SpinTunes 1, with some controversy over certain entries being allowed through for judging, there has been some good effort made to qualify entries first. Disqualifying entries prior to judging and passing others into contention, though, is just the first step. Qualification can only really mean something if, after that point, judges accept those decisions and judge on that basis. A big controversy arose in the recent competition’s Round 2, when a judge refused to review a song, ranking it last by default. This was motivated by the fact that the song’s creator, Edric Haleen, didn’t allow it to be posted online. However, online publication was never a genuine, explicit requirement of the contest, and the official decision was against disqualifying the song simply because of the non-publication request. Rule changes have already been put into place in response to this Edric situation, and apparently more may be planned. And that’s a very good thing, because this kind of unilateral act on the part of a judge, and the inclusion of that judge’s scores in the combined rankings, dramatically reduces the integrity of the round’s scores. Only what deserves to go into contention should go into contention, but once deemed deserving, all contending entries should be judged accordingly.

So those were the more minor points I had to share. Leading up to a final key recommendation, I want to talk about a handful of things that can be seen as problematic, with one solution to address them all.

  • Judges have a huge amount of work to do in evaluating and ranking songs, giving them all the attention they deserve. It would be nice if their job could be made easier.
    • Case in point: Even when I’m just voting in the public poll in the early rounds, and even when I don’t bring a lot of rigor to my rankings because I know that my public poll vote doesn’t count for that much, it’s amazing how much time it takes to listen to all the songs, with even a minimally critical ear, and make decisions about them. The actual judges are asked to provide meaningful feedback about all the entries. I’ve heard mention of just how much time some of the judges spend doing their job, and how difficult it can be for them to compare so many very different songs. Their job is a big one.
  • It’s hoped that both averaging judges’ scores and having a fairly big pool of judges will ameliorate extremes and glitches in judging. That’s no reason to try to eliminate extremes, glitches and other inconsistencies that make for messy results and fail to serve contestants and the contest. Subjectivity is a given, but nobody is served by misperception, extreme weighing of one factor over others, altering the weight given to different factors from song to song and round to round based on whims, or the existence of any of these kinds of extremes in one judge without counteracting extremes being present in another judge at the same time.
    • Cases in point: Edric Haleen’s round 2 entry mentioned above. And judges who admit that lyrics, or music, or emotion, or some other factor is by far the most important to them. And the occasional idiotic things said by judges — no offense to anyone, but I’ve had enough conversations with enough other SpinTunes participants to know that I’m nowhere near the only person who has felt that some things said by some judges, about not only my own entries but also those of many others, have been fairly nuts.
  • In a contest where bragging rights and T-shirts are the only explicit prizes, where shadow entries are wholeheartedly encouraged, and where songwriters with limited or even no experience are welcome, competition is clearly not a driving force above and beyond all other considerations. Though it may not be fully built into the formal rules, songwriters, fans, followers and even judges overtly place a tremendous focus on creative growth as a big part of what SpinTunes is about. If people want the game to remain a game instead of simply a songwriting collective, that’s fine. But when so many involved are so keen to foster the cultivation of artistic voices and not merely to see who wins, it would be nice if the contest were better designed to give songwriters as much clear, constructive feedback as possible toward that end. As it stands, though, not only the extreme/quirky judging already noted but even more forthright judging often fails to serve participants toward this end.
    • Cases in point:
    • When my first ever SpinTunes entry Step Back Swooperman placed 19th out of 20 songs, and when I heard what not only judges but even some fellow contestants thought of it, I figured that at best my tastes were more different from most people’s than I’d imagined, and at worst I had a lot more to learn about songwriting than I’d imagined. But while participating in the recent SpinTunes Interview on the Geeky Pleasures Radio Show, I learned something interesting from host Jules Sherred, who herself had been one of the judges of SpinTunes 1. She’d ranked that song 17th, making her pretty representative of the song’s overall reception. During the interview, though, she told me that, outside of the competition, she still listens to the song, and that it’s one of her favorites, but that, within the competition, she was really torn in judging it, because she felt I was extremely ambiguous in meeting the criteria of the challenge, and in the end that’s what won out in her judging.
    • Something similar happened to me in SpinTunes 3. In fact, this situation was also somewhat similar to Edric’s round 2 unilateral disqualification. For various reasons I won’t go into detail about the what or the who. Both published evaluation and offline discussion revealed a judge to have a profound misperception of both my song and the nature of the challenge, leading to an incredibly poor ranking for me despite the judge also being downright profuse in extreme praise for the song. Once again, the rank had to do with the perception of how well the challenge was met — and as with Edric, the situation was tantamount to a judge disqualifying a song after it had been deemed a qualifying contender.
    • It would have been really helpful for me to have understood these things as clearly as possible when the evaluations came out. Understanding how well one meets a challenge can lead to learning that can help you do better as a contestant, but it’s otherwise fairly useless in informing one’s artistic growth, whereas believing a song to be thought bad when maybe it’s not thought so bad after all can impact artistic growth. It can only help contestants to understand the difference between judgments that have to do with their songs-as-contest-entries vs. judgments that have to do with their songs-as-songs, because the two are obviously sometimes two very different things. Any number of other things could also be made clearer in ways that would similarly help artists.

Every one of these things can be addressed really well by one other thing I talked about last year: a scoring system. Take a few key factors, assign a particular number of possible points to each, and have the judges choose how many points to give each song for each category. A judge then simply has to total up their own scores across the categories for each song, and then they know where they stand on all the entries.

The many benefits include but may not even be limited to these:

  • Judges would have a tremendously easier job. Instead of weighing things in an amorphous way, comparing songs in their totality in ways that can often seem like apples and oranges, a simple structure would give them something to go on, in effect having them answer a few fairly simple questions in fairly simple ways for each song. Boom, job done.
  • Subjectivity would still be ever-present. It would not be stifled. It would merely be channeled in ways that were constructive. Perhaps the most crucial aspect of that constructive channeling: consistency.
    • Songwriters are creating whole songs, plus it’s not just a songwriting contest. That’s an issue I take some exception with, but even if one embraces it, it’s important to account for the different things that judges really do consider beyond the writing. A scoring system ensures that all judges look at the whole package, writing and beyond — and it ensures that contestants have a really clear picture of just how their entries will be evaluated, so there’ll be no misunderstandings about the extent to which the contest is about songwriting vs. a battle of the bands, etc..
    • A scoring system prevents all kinds of extremes, glitches and quirks from making too much of an impact. They’re all allowed to be there, they’re just tempered, at the source and not merely downstream when judges’ scores are combined. This even takes some pressure off the judge-finding process — it’s not as crucial to “weed out” beforehand when even the weeds would end up having their subjectivity channeled constructively. (Incidentally, this would also make a situation like Edric’s Round 2 mishap essentially impossible, since judges would have to score by category and could not simply make a unilateral and simplistic decision to rank a particular contending song last.)
  • Contestants would get clear feedback on the various distinct aspects of their work. This would be helpful in general, and it would be particularly helpful in letting songwriters see clearly the extent to which the challenge itself affected each judge’s opinion. All of this would give the songwriters as much as possible to use as the basis for informing future artistic progress, in the contest and otherwise.
  • If the desire is to continue to use rankings for the contest, with or without a preferential voting system like I talked about above, judges just need to sort their total scores, and the rankings pop out automatically. Judges could break their own tied scores simply based on preference. However, this kind of scoring system opens up another compelling option for combining judgments, which is to simply add all the raw scores (including judges’ own ties) together across judges. This means even less work for judges, since they wouldn’t even need to sort their own scores. More importantly, it also means that the relative weight of each song’s judgment would actually be honored in the final results. Judges seldom feel that the songs in a round are evenly spaced from first to last in terms of quality. They feel more strongly about some songs being much better, some songs being mediocre, and some songs being much worse. And they spend quite a lot of effort arriving at these nuances of opinion. But all those notions — some quirky and bizarre, some quite justified — are washed away when their evaluations are normalized as rankings. Keep the raw scores, though, and all those nuances from across all judges would be honored, combining to give a much better picture of the overall opinion of all the songs.
  • SpinTunes has always done two things with judges evaluations: it has treated their rankings as not rankings but scores, and it has refrained from using a preferential voting system as an optimal way to combine those very rankings. All of this suggests that what SpinTunes is really interested in is scores as opposed to rankings. Moving to a scoring system and then combining judges’ raw scores would probably be the truest possible way for the contest to do what it seems to want to do with its results anyway.

A scoring system could take almost any shape. Here are just some suggestions, to jog thinking.

First, the number of points in each category could be varied if there was a desire to weigh certain factors more than others, but I’m inclined to suggest that each category weigh equally. I’d pose at least three points per category, since that would allow very basic poor / okay / good options for each category. More than that could be fine, e.g., adding a “very good / great,” and possibly also a “very poor / terrible.” Going no more than these five might be good to keep things relatively simple.

As for the category breakdown itself, the simplest possible scheme that could have meaning might have just three categories:

  • Challenge — in which judges assess the concept and execution for meeting the given challenge
  • Writing — in which judges assess the songwriting itself, i.e., lyrics and musical composition, distinct from performance and production — akin to the Grammy for Song of the Year
  • Recording — in which judges assess the performances (instrumental and vocal) and the production (including all aspects of arrangement, engineering, etc.) — akin to the Grammy for Record of the Year

Since there are some very different skills rolled into the last two categories above, I think some additional worthwhile specificity would come from separating things out just a little bit more:

  • Challenge
  • Lyrics
  • Composition — i.e., purely the writing of the music, the thing that combined with lyrics makes the Writing category above — the essential quality of the melody/melodies/countermelodies, harmonic progressions and musical form/structure, independent of arrangements or performances
  • Instrumental Performance
  • Vocal Performance
  • Production

In all the cases above, there’s full opportunity for subjectivity and personal preference. These things aren’t eliminated. They’re just shaped to smooth out the edges of arbitrariness, inconsistency and extremity.

Not enough subjectivity for you? Not enough room for personality? Want more opportunity for judges to be subjective, even quirkily so? Fine, just design that right into the system. Add a category for Judge’s Whim. Same number of points as the other categories, but for whatever tickles a judge’s fancy. By making this an explicit category, it allows judges with admitted preferences for particular aspects to “be themselves” and strut their stuff without feeling too constrained by the structure of the other categories,. However, it allows this without making that strutting tip any scales at all too far, and it does this in two ways. First, the very existence of the other categories ameliorates the quirkiness and whimsicality, giving it some room but no opportunity to overtake anything. Second, even judges who don’t have such particular preferences would have these very same additional points to score at their discretion. I personally would not want to see this category added, because I think the scoring should be about the contestants and not about the judges, but if there was a strong feeling in favor of amplifying the judges’ voices, this is the way to do it in a sensible way.


Better handling of qualification? Apparently in the works.

More obvious increasing difficulty of challenges as the rounds go on? Hopefully, as much as subjectivity allows.

Preferential voting? If there will be no scoring system, then hopefully so.

And about that scoring system? I think that’s the main thing — and use of raw scores instead of rankings would even make preferential voting moot.

So there you go. Comment/discuss below.

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