Lost, Found: Finally

May 23, 2011

If You Don’t Have Something Nice To Say…

On May 23, 2010, Lost signed off with The End. Finally, the finale, after years of mystery. A few days later, one of my local libraries hosted a discussion. Someone there told of how she thought the last season’s Sideways world was real, the result of the series’ characters having successfully changed history by thwarting the Oceanic plane crash that began the series and changed their lives. Then it was my turn. After I shared my take on the final episode, this other person said she could not stay. She got up and left.

I hadn’t started watching the series until after the fourth season ended, catching up on the entire series-to-date in about a month. After that, I decided to blog episode by episode. With so much ground to cover once again and a fairly busy life, time wasn’t on my side, and I gave up on it indefinitely. Toward the end of the series, I wrote a few more posts and intended to write about the finale, in the service of at least getting to some of my bigger ideas.

Between the finale itself and various things show-runners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse said over the years, in particular in a New York Times article run 10 days before the finale aired, I felt that most of the real substance of my take on the show was, well, substantiated. With so much else written about the show and the finale, in particular the great coverage by Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff Jensen, I felt that there wasn’t much to be said, or understood, that hadn’t already been taken care of. So why should I say anything at all? Plus, pressed for time from other things, I let some time slip by and grew to feel that it might be pointless for me to write anything.

Several weeks after the episode aired, a friend asked for my take. When I gave it, he felt my thoughts would be worth sharing, that there was no “too late” for a show that would probably be discussed for years. I didn’t get to it right away. Now it appears it was just as well that I waited for this anniversary, because since that first airing I’ve gained some additional support and perspective on my thoughts about the series and its finale, and from a very relevant source, which I’ll get to later. So now, finally, the finale post.

Heaven on Earth

Flashback, whooosh, to the library.

Someone is giving her reasons for thinking the Sideways world real, the plane crash timeline averted. She acknowledges that all are dead by the end of the Sideways story and poses that each characters’ moment of illumination is their moment of death. I don’t remember other details, only that there were holes in her reasoning. After pointing some of them out, I got to have a turn saying what I thought.

When I first posed my MacGuffin Theory nearly two years before the finale, I said that the truth about the island was not likely to ever be fully revealed and was in any case beside the point. Rather, as I said, “In the end, I think the point is to revel in the mystery, to participate in it, and thereby to learn to do the same for the mystery of our own lives… It’s a mystery that is answered somewhere along the way, by every individual who is inspired by the show to engage in the questions of their own lives and seek harmony.”

Now, having the seen the finale, I naturally think about it in this light. What I said at the library was along the following lines.

What good, I wondered, would the show possibly be doing anyone if it were to present a story about people who went back in time and found a way to stop undesired events from happening? What would that offer us? We can’t go back to right what we later perceive to be wrong turns in our lives. The series had all along been, in effect, about this very conundrum, grappling with how flawed characters could break from their past and find redemption. Surely, I felt, the answer the show would provide to this question would have to be consistent, rather than in conflict, with the truth that real people simply cannot go back. Anything else would render the show fundamentally useless beyond escapist entertainment. This seemed impossible for a show as rich as Lost.

Even before the finale aired, the writers said that the ending would be open to interpretation. Any number of things could be somewhat open. But Sideways world as a real and alternative history, when it ends the way it ends? Its various moments of illuminating remembrance as the characters’ respective moments of death? Locke and Jack touch after the surgery, Locke is illuminated but Jack is not. Can this mean that Locke is dead while Jack lives on? What in that situation would cause Locke to die, and how could a dead Locke still be there interacting with a still living Jack? Same goes for any character’s illumination and the others around them at the time.

Before the finale, I’d predicted that, rather than actually being sideways from the island timeline, the Sideways world was instead a followup to it. In some sense, I was right. Sideways world showed what happened to everyone after their deaths in the real world, including but not limited to all the events of the series’ main timeline. Is it Heaven? This seems entirely unlikely. The Sideways story is one of characters literally not having yet gone into the light, a light they can only even approach after coming to an important realization, so that they are “in the dark,” so to speak, even after their realization, and all the moreso beforehand. Sideways seems to be some kind of purgatory, a place where souls must stay until they are ready to move on. We will only even see some of the characters, not all, reach that point of readiness. But what is it that actually gets them ready to move on?

The Sideways world took the form of a sort of wishful thinking on the part of everyone, but a wishful thinking in which nobody was inclined to make terribly big wishes. The suggestion is clear. They hope beyond hope to erase the past because they think their lives will be so much better. The past, though, includes events prior to those that led to the Oceanic crash. That crash was never the sole cause of pain for any of these characters. In the absence of the crash, some things are a bit better for some characters, some things merely different. Life is not a grand paradise but the usual grab-bag of good and bad. Troubles remain, and characters must grope their way past those troubles to small victories.

Take Jack, for example. He still had a fairly poor relationship with his father, Christian. It led him to have a strained relationship with his own son David. The sins of the father (Christian) became the sins of the son (Jack), who himself was now the father. The old pattern was in danger of perpetuation. In the end, though, he found a way to get on a positive track. David pursues his own authenticity, even if he must do it in secret. When Jack learns the truth, he wants to encourage rather than stop David, and David realizes he need not keep things secret. Better than things went with Christian? Certainly. Still, some fairly modest wishful thinking when it comes down to it. But such modest good things are perhaps all any of us really need when it comes down to it.

The enlightenments led each character to realize the truth of their Sideways wishful thinking, to realize that it was only wishful thinking after all, that none of it had ever happened, that everything from the main timeline, every last bit of it, is what really happened, including their own death. In those moments of realization, they could finally acknowledge, I’m dead, and so be it. Death isn’t horror, it’s nothing to fear. Fearing it all along is what had me so messed up, what had me messing up others. I had some bad experiences long ago when I wasn’t ready to cope with them, and from then on I’d lived my life informed by those experiences, doing all I could to avoid ever having to remember the fear I felt when they were occurring, no matter how much pain I’d bring to myself and others as a result. Now I can face that it all happened, embracing the totality of my past, the good, the bad, the things I couldn’t help, and my own role in the things I could have helped but didn’t. I can finally be content and stop wishing that the past was different. The past is all there, it’s all real, and I can be at peace with it, even my own death. I don’t need the past to have turned out differently.

Those enlightenments could only come through connection with another, with someone who proved a fateful force for them in the “real world,” in their actual lives. These characters needed each other to get beyond who they thought they were, because they obviously were unable to do so on their own. Had they been, they would have done it already.

In the real timeline, then, all there was to do was take the present moment as a new opportunity to change gears and let go of whatever was preserving an undesirable status quo. That would seldom mean completely abandoning who one believed oneself to be. More likely, it would mean a new perspective, carrying certain things forward but in new ways to achieve new results.

This is just what Jack seems to have done. Fixing everything had always been based on some dysfunctional agenda he had, one that would never satisfy him. With the island, he had to completely let go of that agenda and give himself over to the island. The island that was far more supernatural than his Man of Science ever would have liked. The island that for a long time he wanted nothing more than to leave, only then to want nothing more than to get back, only then to question why he bothered. The island that clearly had its own agenda.

In the end, Jack did let go of his agenda, but he didn’t let go of his capacities. He applied his strengths toward a new agenda. What better is there to do than take the best of the past and carry it forward into the future, but a new future that isn’t burdened by the worst of the past? Jack may have “repeated the same pattern” by remaining a fixer, but he did it in a completely new way. He broke the Hypocratic oath by finishing off the Man in Black in order to contribute to a larger healing. He completed that larger healing through his culminating fixes, his climactic doctoring — rescuing the near-dead Desmond, and replacing the island’s stone plug just as if suturing an open wound. Soon after, having fulfilled his purpose and become the hero, the one who genuinely saved everyone in the way that counted most, he dies, and he does so with peace of mind.

But if Jack dies in the main timeline with such fulfillment, why in the Sideways world is his still conflicted, resistant to learning the truth and moving on? Well, it’s one thing to come to accept what is and what you don’t feel you could ever have changed. It’s another thing entirely to come to a similar realization even after having had the opportunity to change things. The Sideways world story is there for the audience, to reinforce the point about acceptance and embracing life in this absolutely crucial way. It tells us not only that it’s possible to accept things as they have already turned out but that there is no point in doing otherwise, that there is no point in wishing for things to have turned out differently. Yes, wish all you like, but if you want change, the only place it will come from is where you are. That is the only place you can move forward from. This is what Jack had to do in the wishful thinking Sideways world just the same as he had to in the main timeline.

Lindelof and Cuse no more propose redemption after death than they propose going back in time to alter the course of events. They don’t want us to think redemption is possible only by going back in time, as the characters hoped to do through their Jughead plan, or only in death, as the Sideways world was revealed to be in the end. What they propose is, in effect, Heaven on Earth, the possibility of a life lived without the burden of terrors past, even if those terrors actually happened. They propose that one cannot deny one’s past but that it is possible to keep it in the past, where it actually is, instead of dragging it continually into every new present moment. You can come to a point, as you live your life, where you can stop fearing death. Indeed you must, because only then can you actually live your life.

Truth in Fiction

I didn’t say all of this in exactly this way to that person at the library talk, but this is more or less what I said. And as soon as I did, she excused herself and left.

Was I judgmental, offensive? Was I self-righteous in poking holes in her reasoning and supporting my own stance? She seemed to think so. More likely, I imagine something else. It will at first sound judgmental, but I mean it in just the opposite way. I say this from a place of compassion. More likely, she herself had things in her own life that she wished she could have changed and was not yet ready to accept their unchangeability in order to move on from them.

I say this as someone who knows all too well how this can be true. I’ve worked hard for some time to face such things for myself, and who knows how much I may still have left to face for myself. It’s likely true of most of us and most everyone we know. Some people simply have a harder time than others facing such things, and some people simply have a harder time than others even acknowledging that there may be anything to face in the first place. Again, this itself was depicted in the show, with not all the characters capable of readying themselves for a Sideways world illumination.

These are not just issues for individuals, either, as I’ve come to understand far more deeply as a result of something that Lost itself led me to.

Months after the finale, I was watching the extras on the final season’s DVD set. One was called “A Hero’s Journey,” exploring how several of the characters played out the archetypal hero’s story, particularly as it has been described by comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell. I’d been a Campbell fan but had only scratched the surface with his work years ago. This Lost featurette combined with a number of other things on my mind over these last years to inspire me to study Campbell more. I’ve read quite a lot of his work over the last several months.

One of Campbell’s key points is that mythology is of central value to people, providing symbols and metaphors that are supposed to guide people and societies spiritually and psychologically by putting us in touch with the insoluble mystery of existence itself. Since we are part of that existence, we ourselves are part of that mystery along with everything else. In this sense there is little distinction between ourselves and others, even non-human or non-living others, and in this sense there is little distinction between life and death. The great mystery of existence transcends all of it.

Campbell also continually discusses how much ill comes from failing to understand mythology’s purpose. Some people write myth off by equating it with lie and falsehood. Others concretize their myths, believing them to be historically or cosmologically true. In either case, people fail to recognize myth’s identity as metaphor and its purpose as pointing toward spiritual and psychological truths. In either case, people end up failing to connect with any experience of spiritual awe or psychological health. As a result, instead of abiding in our common humanity, those who misinterpret myth as either history or lie end up just fostering enmity, willing to dehumanize and even to kill and die for their “truths.”

And here I was arguing about the primacy of the meaning of Lost over the theories about the island, suggesting that people who spent so much time engaged in debating the “truth” of the series were actually missing the point. My MacGuffin theory was, all along, a mythological theory, the theory that Lost was intended to function as mythology, to point its viewers toward profound mysteries and truths that could make a difference in their lives, just as mythology has always intended to do. Instead, ironically, so many fans reveled in the “mysteries” of the series, but only as mysteries to be solved, puzzles to be completed, various solutions competing until one might prove itself to be “the one.” Just like so many religions, philosophies and ideologies have done throughout the history of civilization.

Why would they do so, missing out on the real mystery that the show tried to put them in touch with, the core that lies deep inside each and every one of them? Because that core is not all that is inside. Something happens to us, and we become afraid. The fear stands in the way between us, between our conscious minds, and that core. When those things happen to us, we cannot cope with that fear, so something yet else stands in the way, protecting our conscious minds from the fear. It was useful to protect us for a time, but the protection ends up outliving its usefulness. What was true is no longer true, but we hold onto it as if it were — a concretized myth. Then there is flaw, neurosis, dysfunction. The layers within recognize what is offered by something like Lost, the possibility of reconnecting, to something beyond the fear, to what the myth is actually pointing to. Those inner layers cannot give up their interest in such a thing. They keep us watching. But the protector continues to mediate, reinterpreting our interest for the conscious mind, deflecting it away from ourselves, from the core, making it about the entertainment, the puzzle.

When I picked up again talking about Lost toward the end of its run, I wondered if the show was going to disappoint me as other works of art had, promising something profound but then betraying itself. I don’t think it did. It boded well that Lindelof and Cuse decided to bring the show to an end on their terms, at a specific time, rather than let it go on indefinitely on the basis of ratings. When they ended it their way, it brought things to a mythologically satisfying close.

Unfortunately, even when artists get it right, it’s still up to audiences to get it at all. Obviously, all too often, audiences are fairly likely to miss the point. Just as all too many people in all corners of the world have, throughout history, failed to get the point of their own mythologies.

Maybe that person’s walking out on me at the library demoralized me. Maybe that’s why I didn’t bother to write about the finale in its immediate aftermath. Maybe what I had to say was worth saying after all, but maybe I didn’t like that such things all too often fall on deaf ears. So why bother saying anything? Here’s why. Because not saying anything definitely can’t accomplish a thing. Saying something at least has a chance, however small.


I could talk more about any number of details from the finale in terms of analyzing the text of the story, but I just don’t think there’s much point. This would all just be the trees, and it’s the forest that’s important here. I think I’ve said enough about that myself, so I’d like to start to wrap this up by including some things that Lindelof and Cuse themselves said in the New York Times article I mentioned earlier, all pretty a propos to everything I’ve been saying here:

LINDELOF: If there’s one word that we keep coming back to, it’s redemption. It is that idea of everybody has something to be redeemed for and the idea that that redemption doesn’t necessarily come from anywhere else other than internally. But in order to redeem yourself, you can only do it through a community. So the redemption theme started to kind of connect into “live together, die alone,” which is that these people were all lone wolves who were complete strangers on an aircraft, even the ones who were flying together like Sun and Jin. Then let’s bring them together and through their experiences together allow themselves to be redeemed. When the show is firing on all pistons, that’s the kind of storytelling that we’re doing.

I think we’ve always said that the characters of “Lost” are deeply flawed, but when you look at their flashback stories, they’re all victims. Kate was a victim before she killed her stepfather. Sawyer’s parents killed themselves as he was hiding under the bed. Jack’s dad was a drunk who berated him as a child. Sayid was manipulated by the American government into torturing somebody else. John Locke had his kidney stolen. This idea of saying this bad thing happened to me and I’m a victim and it created some bad behavior and now I’m going to take responsibility for that and allow myself to be redeemed by community with other people, that seems to be the theme that we keep coming back to.

CUSE: It’s far more about the character relationships that resonate. The thing is that people talk a lot about the mythology of “Lost,” but we probably spent 85 percent of our time in the writers’ room talking about the characters, and I think that’s why the show was a broad audience show as opposed to a genre show. While the mythology was important, first and foremost the show was about the characters. I think that a lot of people care much more about what’s going to happen to Kate. Is she going to end up with Jack, is she going to end up with Sawyer? That’s why we feel like a lot of shows that have tried to imitate “Lost” make the fundamental mistake of having the characters just focus on the mythology. If you watch certain shows like that, you’ll see all the characters are talking about is, “What’s that dinosaur in my bathtub?”

LINDELOF: The thing about that episode is it’s very simple storytelling, but very, very complicated storytelling at the same time. The simple part is that this episode is called “The Constant,” and the whole point of it is, is that there is somebody else out there that is your other half. And again, it plugged into, in this very sort of obvious way, this theme that we were discussing earlier, which is: Nobody can do it alone. Desmond was unhooked or lost, he was a castaway bopping around through time, and his only possible salvation was finding the woman that he loved and telling her so and saying, “I need you to rescue me because I’m lost.” This fundamentally tapped into every single theme of the show. You’re basically saying emotion trumps mythology.

Of course, what Lindelof means in that last sentence is that the transcendent connotation that myth as metaphor points to, myth as something fostering of spiritual and psychological growth, trumps concretized mythology, trumps the literal denotation that the myth seems to be about on the surface, which is of course not mythology at all.

Finally, to really put a bow on this, another quote, this time from the lyrics to a rather famous song. I can only hope that more and more of us wretches make an effort to save ourselves and others by finding a bit of Amazing Grace:

I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Global Population Speak Out 2011

February 1, 2011

2011 is the second consecutive year of my participation in the annual Global Population Speak Out, which strives to increase awareness of how the size and growth of Earth’s human population are fundamental drivers of the ecological crisis our planet faces.

Sustainability has been a central interest of mine for my entire adult life. I wrote an award-winning masters thesis on the subject and have undertaken significant additional research on it and related subjects, from ecology and system dynamics to organizational development, psychology and more. All of this informs, both directly and indirectly, the work I’ve done over time as a writer, artist and businessperson.

With proper attention to sustainability, countless other pressing issues in the world would automatically be taken care of and rendered obsolete. Without the needed attention, those other issues are merely worsened — and may become obsolete only through the extinction of the human species. A solid understanding of population dynamics is crucial to the pursuit of sustainability — and therefore to the future of people on this planet.

As part of GPSO 2011, I am pledging to publicize, through updates to all my social networking accounts, the GPSO itself — Global Population Speak Out — as well as these past writings of mine on the subjects of population and sustainability:

Viewpoint on Food and Population — A brief piece written for the layperson

Population Ecology and People — A brief piece written for those with some familiarity with population ecology

The Unsustainability of Economic Growth — A longer academic piece, though it requires no previous knowledge

The Unsustainability and Origins of Socioeconomic Increase — My master thesis, an even longer academic piece, but it also requires no previous knowledge

Sustainability issues are not remotely as one-sided as many people make them out to be — it simply isn’t a matter of being progressive as opposed to conservative, left-wing as opposed to right-wing, tree-hugging instead of pro-business. As with most nuanced issues, though, it is all too easy for the status quo to be maintained even when people think they’re making headway.

In this world, far too many people are satisfied with the status quo. Regardless of what we may think of them or the status quo, the status quo is unsustainable, and that alone demands positive change instead of complacency.

Of those who understand the need for positive change, far too few understand the importance of ecological knowledge. Much of what they do in the name of positive change ends up going nowhere.

Of those who do understand the importance of ecological knowledge, far too few understand the importance of population issues in particular. Much of what they do in the name of ecological knowledge ends up going nowhere.

Of those who do understand the importance of population issues, far too few understand the actual mechanisms of population dynamics. Much of what they do in the name of population issues ends up going nowhere.

Of those who do understand the actual mechanisms of population dynamics, far too few are in a position to achieve any meaningful effect that could lead to positive change.

Please help get the word out.

Winky Yin Yang

December 10, 2010

Not long ago, I thought of this:

Balance, harmony and positive change often seem like such serious things, but humor and lightheartedness are pretty important in a world where so much of what goes wrong is itself so serious and humorless. Thus, the Winky Yin Yang.

I made a Winky Yin Yang CafePress store, where you can get shirts, sweatshirts, hats, bags and omore with the Winky Yin Yang symbol.


CafePress is the ultimate source for holiday gift ideas like Christmas sweatshirts, personalized teddy bears or Valentine’s Day cards!

A Songwriting Cycle and the Benefits of Cooperation

September 30, 2010

Edric Haleen, one of the participants in the first SpinTunes songwriting contest, decided to create a project to tide people over during the wait between SpinTunes 1 and SpinTunes 2. A number of participants from SpinTunes 1 and other past songwriting contests he’d done were invited to collaborate on A Songwriting Cycle, in which each participant created a challenge, and challenges were distributed randomly among all the participants. In this way, an album’s worth of songs would be created, with a complete cycle of challenges given and received among the songwriters. Non-competitive, just for fun.

After SpinTunes 1, I wrote here about both songwriter-generated challenges as well as the possibility of non-competitive songwriting collectives. So I was glad when Edric came up with this songwriting cycle idea!

I’m really pleased with how my song, Do It (Duet), came out. You can check out the song, lyrics and story behind it. And I really enjoyed participating, cooperatively, with all the other songwriters in this cycle.

Contests like SpinTunes are great. The tight timeframes, competition and eliminations can be energizing. We get the excitement of challenges, the camaraderie of being involved with a number of other artists up for playing the same game together, and the motivation of working on a deadline. In SpinTunes, apparently unlike some other such contests, writers were also encouraged to share songs with each other before deadline, to get feedback to improve the songs, as long as it was done discreetly enough to preserve the drama of the songs’ public debut.

In this songwriting cycle, all of the above were present as well, except for the competition and eliminations. The timeframe was still tight enough to be exciting, but was much looser than for typical challenge-based contests, giving us more time to get the work done as we wished. With competition gone, everyone could root each other on even more unreservedly than in a contest. With only one “round,” eliminations weren’t relevant, though in spirit, we actually had the opposite of eliminations. In a competition with eliminations, participants benefit from better chances of winning when others are eliminated by judges or by their own failure to meet a deadline. In the cycle, there was mutual interest in ensuring that everyone would come through, lest the circle end up incomplete. This added a completely novel, cooperative kind of energy to the deadline.

The cycle also offered some things that contests typically don’t or even can’t. We had the opportunity to create challenges ourselves. When it came to writing, there was no concern whatsoever over being scored or ranked much less eliminated. Everyone could write more purely for the sake of pleasure and creativity. There were no losers — not in an “it’s an honor just to be nominated” kind of way, but genuinely, no losers, only winners, win-win all around.

I’m really glad I participated in SpinTunes 1 and am only staying out of SpinTunes 2 because of time constraints. I’d hope to have the time for SpinTunes 3 when it rolls around. At the same time, I’m generally more and more drawn to cooperation and intrinsic rewards as opposed to competition and external rewards, not only for myself but also in terms of what seems to need to be promoted in the world. When a cooperative endeavor like this songwriting cycle can offer so much of what a contest offers plus so much more, I could see, at least for myself, generally preferring the cooperative approach — and seeking ways to engage in it on an ongoing basis.

If there were a monthly non-competitive songwriting endeavor, whether a cycle or otherwise, participants could end up with a dozen songs annually, the same as if participating in three four-round challenge-based contests a year, but with all the added benefits I just mentioned as well — plus the regularity of output as opposed to just a few intense peak periods during the year. An album’s worth of material (or more) would be produced across songwriters every month, and an album’s worth of material for each songwriter each year. I can easily envision a really great community (and website!) growing out of doing this sort of thing regularly. And those who had the time could do both contests and cooperative activities, absolutely no need to choose to do only one and not the other.

With my upcoming time constraints, I wouldn’t be able to do any challenge-based songwriting for probably the next few months anyway, though who knows, a single song monthly could be doable even when I have a lot of other things going on. Either way, I hope that this songwriting cycle may come back around. After all, the whole point of cycles is that they repeat, right? And maybe the door will be opened up for other cooperative collective songwriting efforts as well. How cool would that be? Very cool, I think. Food for thought, anyway.

Thoughts on Songwriting Contests

August 16, 2010

In addition to some valuable learning about my songwriting and how to participate more effectively in songwriting contests, my SpinTunes experience led me to some general thoughts on how songwriting contests are — and could be — run.

SpinTown and the others most directly involved in running SpinTunes explicitly made an effort to design the contest in a way they felt would run well and work best for everyone involved. They deserve a lot of credit for the thought put into this. A number of people, myself included, felt there were various hiccups along the way. So be it — live and learn.

I have a number of thoughts that I believe would make for even more solid songwriting contest experiences. Many are relevant for SpinTunes. Some of the suggestions probably go outside of the bounds of the kind of contest SpinTunes may want to be, but most or all would probably be of interest to a lot of people associated with SpinTunes. If you’ve read some other things of mine, you know I can write a bit long. And this post is no exception! Here, though, is a quick summary, in case you want just some bullet points. I’ve broken them down into recommendations, which are things I think “should” be implemented, and suggestions, which are simply things I’d merely like to see at least on occasion in contests even though I’m also fine with alternatives.


  • Qualification of all entries for each round through objective, requirements, regardless of whether they are challenge-specific or global to the contest in general — along with a total absence of objective/requirement-like criteria from judging.
  • A preferential voting system to replace backward-rank point assignments if ranking remains a part of a contest.
  • Unambiguously successively more difficult challenges in any contest based on eliminations as opposed to cumulative scores.
  • A scoring system similar to those used in large and prestigious songwriting contests, assigning a certain number of possible points to each of a certain number of categories for assessing entries, bringing a valuable and needed consistency to the way songs would be judged.
  • Setting the number of finalists so that there will be a reasonable chance at avoiding a default winner while also avoiding putting anyone in the position of “having” to create a shadow just in case it might turn out to be more than a shadow.


  • Cumulative scoring as opposed to eliminations, which, when coupled with a scoring system like the kind noted above, would address many of the usual criticisms of cumulative scoring.
  • A voting structure which would be a boon to perhaps all songwriting contests except those particularly large and prestigious ones — main voting/judgment done by neither a separate panel of judges nor the general public but exclusively by fellow competitors themselves — and which itself could optionally use the scoring system I talk about.
  • Contestant-generated challenges.
  • Decathlon-like challenges, with challenges involving more specific musical styles.
  • A contest dynamic that I believe would allow a songwriting contest to be most true to its name — each round involving just hours to deadline after a challenge is revealed, forcing as much focus as possible on the writing itself as opposed to all the things that go on around the writing.

Since my own “agenda” here is larger than just providing feedback for SpinTunes, I’m organizing these thoughts in a way that makes the most sense of how and why my thoughts have flowed and connected to each other. If you find yourself wanting only to know more details behind certain of the recommendations, then just feel free to skip to those sections, and odds are a least a fair amount of what I say will make sense even if you haven’t read this whole post. I begin with a more minor point, but one that leads right into the more significant stuff.

Decathlons and Otherwise

In describing my reactions to the Round 2 totals, I talked about how I’d been participating as if the contest were a decathlon, made up of several very different events. Instead, I came to see that this wasn’t the case at all. Instead, challenges were not really separate events at all, requiring fundamentally different skills to excel. Rather, there was one event, songwriting itself, and the challenges were meant to see how well we would perform at that one event under different kinds of pressure. Instead of doing the high jump, then hurdles, then long jump, then track, etc., it was far more like doing just one of these things, but first with a straitjacket on, then with a blindfold, then with sneakers filled with rocks, and so on.

I was glad to have realized the nature of the situation so that I could participate more effectively — and based on how others received my entries for the last two rounds, it looks like I did, in fact, participate more effectively. I’d also noted that I could appreciate both approaches — decathlon and constraints on a single event. This, though, means that I would still love to have the opportunity to participate in a decathlon-like contest. One of the things I really enjoy as a songwriter is the challenge of exploring different styles of music and songwriting, evident from my past output, especially the variety on Everyone’s Invited — and which I was glad to be able to play with directly in Round 4. For the most part, though, a contest like SpinTunes leaves that off the table, something to be done by a songwriter only if he or she feels like it — and something that, if a songwriter does pursue it, may be just as likely to turn judges off as on.

Whether some future SpinTunes incarnation or otherwise, I’d be interested in the challenge of a songwriting decathlon (and no, it wouldn’t actually have to have 10 rounds). Make us write pop ballads, guitar rock, electronica, country, show tunes, sambas, swing, blues. Perhaps randomly pair up musical styles with song topics. Perhaps give us a list of musical styles and demand that we pick from them one at a time as we go through different topics that are given in each round. There are any number of ways to do it, and it would really ratchet up both the challenge and the diversity.

Crucial, though, would be to explicitly state this as the nature of the contest. That’s necessary both for songwriters — so that everyone knows what they’re getting into and can choose not to get into it if they’re not going to be up for it — and for judges — so that they can all have a solid and informed basis for judging. All of this points to the importance of leveling the playing field. Not to a least common denominator, but just to the extent necessary to make as many things as equal as possible so that competition can be meaningful, so that entries can be compared as apples to apples. Without that, they have no business being compared at all.

And that brings me to my more significant points.

What Songwriting Is

There can be no songwriting contest without songwriting. So it seems pretty fundamentally important to have a grasp of what songwriting actually is — and what it’s not. Whatever one may think of the U.S. government and the Grammys — and I certainly have very mixed feelings about both — there’s something I think they each get right.

When copyrighting a song with the Library of Congress, it’s sufficient to submit a lead sheet containing merely the lyrics, melody and chord symbols. Anything else provided is unnecessary, because anything else is considered not integral to the song itself. The song itself, the underlying work of authorship, is known and identified only by its lyrics and the essence of its music, i.e., the melody and the most basic harmony ideas intended to go with the melody. Anything beyond these just doesn’t count as part of the formal authorship of the song. For those things, you’d need to make a separate copyright registration, such as for a sound recording and/or an arrangement. Anything else is, indeed, something else other than the song. Anything else is not songwriting.

Likewise, there are separate Grammy awards for Song of the Year and Record of the Year. Song of the Year is for the composer of the song alone, to honor the songwriting alone. Music and lyrics in their essence, basically the same as what one copyrights with a song. The song as written, not its recording, not its performance. Record of the Year goes to the performing artist and the producer, recording engineer and/or mixer for that specific recording of the song. It doesn’t go to the songwriter at all unless the songwriter happens to also fulfill one of these other roles, in which case the identity as songwriter is irrelevant for this award. The Record of the Year award honors the ephemeral combination of performance and production that brought the underlying song to life in a particular way that’s unique compared to how every other possible recording of that song might do so.

Songwriting is one thing. Other things are other things.

In the music business, though, they are often conflated.

When a songwriter is trying to get somewhere professionally, when livelihoods are at stake — your own and those of the people who might pay you for your work — the writing itself is seldom enough. How you come across matters. The powers that be need to get a sense, very quickly, about how a song will be received by an audience. That usually requires that demo recordings sound, in terms of performance and production, as good as recordings ready for commercial distribution. Even subpar songwriters who are good enough at production, performance and marketing will likely be more successful than a brilliant songwriter who lacks those other elements.

Many very well known songwriting competitions — ones with thousands and thousands of entries, world famous judges, highly valuable prizes, etc. — say that they are just about the songwriting. Production-related elements, though, inevitably come into play. The judges, and the competitions, aren’t likely to take a poorly made recording and endorse it with their name. They’re not in the business of having to explain how the songwriting quality underneath it all is really good. And in any case, they likely also believe, and likely not inaccurately, that the songwriters who submit poor recordings may be lacking in discipline and seriousness in ways that would make them poor candidates for receiving the boost that a contest win would give them. They just may not have what it takes to succeed in the end. The same basic attitude is industry-wide, not just for contests — it’s true for publishers, record labels, you name it.

The upshot: if you want to really make it as a songwriter, make sure your songwriting quality is at least passable, and make very sure that you can excel well enough at everything else. This isn’t my opinion. I’ve heard it over and over from professionals. A great discussion on this is given by Seinfeld composer Jonathan Wolff.

With SpinTunes, though, I heard it said more than once, by more than one person involved in running the contest, that, unlike some other contests, SpinTunes wasn’t a battle of the bands, it was not a contest for singer/songwriters, it was not a contest about how good a recording someone could make. It was a contest for songwriters.

When other places say it’s about songwriting and not production and performance, it’s almost invariably lip service. When a venture like SpinTunes says it, there’s good reason to expect that it puts its (lack of) money where its mouth is, making it all about the writing. Both running the contest and competing in it, one finds lots of amateurs — and I mean that in the best sense of the word, people who are involved in something for the love of it. Especially since there are many amateurs involved, whatever variations there may also be in entrants’ songwriting ability, there are certainly big variations in entrants’ abilities and resources in terms of performance and production. In SpinTunes 1, for example, one contestant didn’t even really know how to play an instrument, much less arrange and mix several in a polished commercial-grade recording. Finally, there are no prizes beyond bragging rights. Whatever professional aspirations any entrants may have — and some may have none — they will only be helped by SpinTunes success to a very modest extent, and only if those entrants bother to proactively run with it in their own self-marketing.

When it came time for judgment, though, there were countless ways in which judges ranked entries based not just on songwriting quality but on production value, mixing, instrumentation, vocals, performance, etc. Additionally, and maybe even more importantly, judges did not consistently judge based on these things. Many times, their reviews made clear that they were ignoring certain elements, and there are cases when a notion was held against one song but the same notion was overlooked in another. And apparently this was deemed acceptable for this contest — despite the fact that even the judges themselves sometimes argued with each other over how valid it was for them to be judging in these varied ways.

Indeed, when during the judging of Round 1 I posted a comment expressing hope that everyone would remember that this was a songwriting contest and not a contest about vocals, performance, production, etc., SpinTunes’ creator said, “Mark, you’re right it is a song writing competition, but the way the song is presented (vocals, performance, production, etc…) are fair game for judges. All the judges will have different opinions about the songs, and what’s MOST important.”

If those other things are going to be fair game, if songwriting alone is not going to be judged, that can be fine, too. However, I think it should be acknowledged up front. A contest that judges these things in addition to writing perhaps shouldn’t be called a songwriting contest. Whatever it’s called, there at least should be some clarity about just what will be judged — so that everyone knows what they’re getting into. Most importantly, then, rather than leaving results to the vagaries of what different judges feel is most important, there should be some consistency to guide the judges. This would give them all a solid and informed basis for judging, eliminating preference variations that could be arbitrarily applied from one song to another, and ensuring that any one factor, especially any factor other than the writing itself, can’t end up with a disproportionate impact on the results. Apples to apples.

The issue is not only the integrity of the very basis of what a songwriting contest is supposed to be about — it’s a question of the opportunities that are lost to songwriters who may be able to measure up in their writing but not in production or performance.

Maybe some will remind me of what I just said, pointing out how well the non-instrumentalist did in at least the first round. But I can just as quickly point out that she had a really good singing voice and could therefore provide recordings that, like many contestants, could showcase more than just songwriting ability. Indeed, in this contest at least, it seems likely that poor audio quality could be forgiven more easily than a poor vocal performance.

Before anyone suggests sour grapes, rest assured, I’m not saying that I think my songwriting is across the board the greatest thing since sliced bread. In this contest, there were a lot of great songs written by a lot of great songwriters, and I’m accepting of both the fact that a lot of songwriting judgment is going to be subjective as well as of many of the specific criticisms made about my songs. I’m speaking on behalf of myself to the extent that it’s relevant, and in ways that point the way toward benefits for everyone in general in terms of leveling the playing field in appropriate ways.

For me personally, my skills and resources for all production elements are limited. I acknowledge that I often sing off-pitch, and even beyond that I don’t have a great singing voice. When it comes to orchestration and sound engineering, I do enjoy those aspects of production, and I think I can do a fairly decent job — and to some extent did so in SpinTunes 1. However, I’m entirely self-taught, with limited experience and equipment resources compared to some, and I don’t know how to nearly fully use what I do have.

Those aren’t the only differences in resources. In terms of sheer time, obviously there can be huge differences in how much competitors are willing or able to put into preparing their entries. I’m self-employed, my wife also works, and between us we don’t yet bring in enough to make ends meet, so we simply have a lot less free time than many people. Add on top of that parenting (and, for now, the fact of our daughter being home for Summer vacation), home ownership, etc., and I suspect that my discretionary time for songwriting contests may be more limited than most. If there are other competitors even busier than I am, then I speak for them, too — I speak to the general issue, not only my own individual circumstances. I speak to the fact of variation among competitors that makes for an uneven playing field, wherever I or any other particular competitor may fall on that field.

As I commented after reading Dr. Lindyke’s Round 3 review, I wonder what would have happened in each round if every contestant had the same production team and vocalists perform our works. To those who balk at that suggestion, that’s fine, but it merely proves that you’re interested in a contest that’s not just about songwriting. And, again, that’s fine, too. If that’s what you want. Which I, at least sometimes, don’t.

If I were creating recordings intended for sale, I could consider taking lots of time and also sporting some funds to pay for a decent vocalist and at least a bit of production help, all of which I did with the Everyone’s Invited album. But for a contest, with no prizes, where I don’t know going in just how long-term worthwhile for me will be the particular songs I’m going to write (in themselves, that is, beyond the extra songwriting experience which is always helpful) — and especially when it says it’s for songwriters and not about production and performance? I just don’t have the funds laying around to pay to fill in those holes of mine sufficiently for a situation like this, and I certainly can’t put the time in, over such a short period, that I could justify for other projects. So where does all this leave someone like me in such a contest?

I could have the next Good Vibrations in my head, and if I do as much as I’m actually capable of with production and performance in the time I have available, the judges concerned with more than songwriting could still likely say, “Wow, he really flubbed bringing this thing to its full potential. And by the way, the vocals stink regardless.”

If I take the opposite approach, trying specifically not to play into my weaknesses as much as possible, they could say, “Wow, this song really called out for more. Where was it? And by the way, the vocals stink regardless.”

What about the polar opposite kind of song? I could write the next Love Me Tender, a song that lends itself to quiet simplicity. Even then, they could say, “Wow, this could have been so much better with some lush orchestration behind the melody, something, anything to compete with all these other really well-produced entries and to make up for those stinky vocals.” And even if they were fine with everything else, there’s all the more likelihood that a sensitive song like this, recorded by me, would result in the practically inevitable, “The vocals stink regardless.” Indeed, my thoughts in response to Dr. Lindyke’s Round 3 review are entirely a propos to this point.

Woe be to today’s Irving Berlins, Cole Porters and Diane Warrens, legendary songwriters who generally didn’t — and often really couldn’t — sing for themselves all that well. Not to mention the likes of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, whose success as singer-songwriters is, many or even most people would say, despite rather than helped by their singing. What about people like the Holland-Dozier-Holland team, George Gershwin, Marvin Hamlisch, David Foster, brilliant at both songwriting and orchestration/production? Or even Jacques Morali and Max Martin, also extremely successful as songwriters and producers, regardless of what you think of the quality and depth of their work? Still, all these people stayed behind the scenes, their voices silent on recordings. In a world that demands performance and production, these are people whose success as songwriters today, however it might come about, could only be likely, through songwriting contests or otherwise, by either strokes of luck or investing as much as necessary to make up for their weaknesses.

Again, I’m entirely clear that my showing in SpinTunes was not only about production and performance, and I’m certainly not comparing my songwriting, whether specifically for this contest or in general, with the most brilliant songs ever written. I’m just saying that the deck is stacked against quality songwriting in any songwriting competition that lets other factors into the judging. And it’s stacked even moreso in competitions that allow judges free reign to weigh those non-writing factors according to their own whims for each song and in each round. In such a situation, it simply matters far less how good the songwriting quality is. A mediocre song produced and/or performed really well can end up doing much better than a better song, better even than a song as brilliant as any ever written. Maybe a judge will see past production and performance to that brilliance, but there’s never a guarantee. Given the way things work in music production and human psychology, the odds are, unfortunately, against it. So let’s talk about improving those odds.

Some of the recommendations that follow are inspired fairly directly by the hopes I have for greater recognition of songwriting compared to other factors in contests. Some are pretty independent of this attitude of mine. Either way, the majority of these recommendations seem to me likely to be beneficial even when the songwriting/production issue is not a concern.

Qualifying Versus Judging

There was a great amount of discussion about Round 4 as a result of one of the entries failing to meet some of the criteria specified for the challenge. You can read those discussions in the comments of both the Round 4 Songs post and Dr. Lindyke’s winner prediction. Similar issues were argued about earlier in the contest as well, though, including between the judges themselves. All of it resulted from the fact that some criteria in certain rounds were phrased as if they were requirements.

Fundamentally, the issue is one of qualification. Any contest or game may involve ensuring that entries/entrants are qualified before they actually go into contention against each other. Some contests and games can involve the possibility of disqualification even after entries/entrants have gone into contention. A songwriting contest is not such a contest. All of the “playing” of the game occurs in the creation of the entries themselves. There is no gameplay during which to consider disqualification after contention.

The approach I think sensible, then, is to recognize that what matters isn’t whether the criteria are specific to a challenge or global for a contest in general, but rather whether criteria are objective, clear-cut and unambiguous enough to be considered required or whether they are fuzzy enough to be considered subjective.

Contest runners (who aren’t judges) should qualify each entry based on fully objective requirements — including any challenge-specific criteria that they wish to be considered as requirements. Only if all such criteria, challenge-specific or otherwise, are met does the entry make it to the playing field for judging. At that point, all remaining criteria should be fuzzy and subjective, weighed by each judge as appropriate.

If the contest runners want certain objective-sounding criteria to be weighed during judging rather than counting for up-front qualification, then those criteria should be phrased not as requirements but as recommendations or targets. E.g., recommended minimum 30 seconds per musical style, target total length 2 minutes.

Eliminations, Ranks and Scores

I was really impressed with how collegial the atmosphere was among contestants throughout SpinTunes. The competition was a genuinely friendly one. It led me to wonder, why have a contest at all? Why not just have a songwriting collective, in which writers are just looking to have a good time, mutually inspire each other, and learn from each other, all while going through the same exercises together? Doing the same challenges seems a particularly ideal way to run a songwriting support group, giving a lot more basis for learning than people simply bringing their various very different songs to the table. Especially when a contest doesn’t have any prizes and such, what, really, is the meaning of doing this as a contest anyway?

Even then, I can imagine that such a songwriting collective might enjoy and even value scores, eliminations and winners. This would be not only for fun but because it would give everyone the opportunity to give clear feedback and have that feedback be meaningful, actionable, perhaps even more forcefully leading to learning.

The main question with eliminations is whether it’s actually the best way to get to the best results, the best songwriting, whether collective or contest. Looked at one way, eliminations structured the way SpinTunes 1 did can be potentially unfair. In my reaction to the Round 3 totals, I admitted that it seemed unfair for me to have a better chance at a Round 4 shadow getting anywhere compared to others who did much better than me in Rounds 1 and 2. At the same time, there is something to be said for “outwit, outplay, outlast.” The key with an elimination system is to ensure that each round is successively more difficult than the last.

Of course, elimination means not being anymore able (not immediately, anyway) to incorporate and act on learning, at least not within the context of ongoing formal challenge participation. Beyond that, there are arguments to be made about cumulative scoring providing an overall more accurate assessment of who is “best” overall. What’s the worst that happens without eliminations? More songwriters writing songs. Work will tend to rank where it deserves in each round anyway, and keeping people in the game throughout only increases the chances that a songwriter’s overall output quality will be the main determining factor. Cumulative/aggregate/average scoring would smooth out unimportant variations. A songwriter can have an atypical round and still come out in a way that makes sense based on overall performance — whereas with elimination, even an excellent songwriter’s off-round could mean elimination.

I can see the argument either way. But there is a more important point that transcends this whole discussion. Contest or collective, eliminations or cumulative, there is a fundamental question that hasn’t yet been well answered by SpinTunes: what is a score?

SpinTunes 1 had rankings done backwards — 1 point to last place, 2 points to second to last place, etc. — with points added across judges to determine an overall score. The thing is that this isn’t really a score. Or, rather, any number can be a score, but this isn’t a cohesive way to create a score. This is a ranking, and simply adding the values of rankings is just not a mathematically sound method to weigh rankings across multiple voters.

Let me put a plug in, then, for instant runoff voting and other forms of preferential voting. In a contest where submissions are going to be ranked, a voting system like this is the ideal way to provide an accurate reflection of the consensus, far better than backward ranking point sums. Should eliminations remain in play, this would be a tremendously helpful move.

However, a genuine scoring system, beyond mere rankings, would make an enormous difference regardless of the question of eliminations. If eliminations were themselves eliminated in favor of cumulative scoring, it would be crucial for scores to aggregate meaningfully. This can’t happen when the scores are simply rankings. At least some of the arguments some people give against cumulative scoring would evaporate if the scores that were to be factored in were created in a different way, based on a solid scoring system. Even keeping eliminations, there is still the question of how judges rank the entries, and a scoring system would make that a vastly more solid process. So let’s take a look at scoring.


Before we do, one tangential comment about eliminations, particularly related to the final round.

Two people were placed into the finals, even though the contest runners believed that there may be a good chance that the finalists might not both come through with entries. Therefore, they recommended that the third and even fourth placers from Round 3 do a shadow entry, which could move into the finals if a finalist failed to make an entry. Being the Round 3 third placer, that advice applied to me more than anyone else.

I appreciate SpinTunes’ desire to have a contest in which nobody would win by default, but I really disliked feeling like I “had” to create a shadow, especially given time constraints I happened to have during the Round 4 writing period. It was a really difficult position to be in, and I believe that contests should avoid doing so.

Therefore, I’m compelled to recommend that the number of finalists be set to give the contest runners sufficient confidence that at least two entries will actually be submitted, allowing for a vote rather than a default winner. Two is just not sufficient. Three finalists minimum would be good. Four might be better just to be safe. More than that hardly seems necessary.

A Scoring System

In SpinTunes, and it surely happens in many other places as well, it wasn’t said up front that elements beyond songwriting could have a big impact, and in any case there were no standards at all for how the judges could choose to assess those elements. In terms of honoring songwriting and making for an even competition, this is the worst possible combination. Even a complete lack of standards could be accepted far better if only there were the openness up front about production and performance being fair game, so at the very least that seems an obvious recommendation. More, though, is easily achieved — some consistency in the judging process.

The Iron Chef approach seems really workable here. Just as in SpinTunes, the competitors are given a specific challenge they must meet through their creativity and on a deadline, and a panel of judges determines the outcome. Here, though, the judges score the competitors in three areas, with 10 points set aside for taste and five each for presentation and originality.

A songwriting contest could easily follow a similar scheme, with some number of points, I’d hope the majority, given for songwriting quality. They could possibly be separated into one or more aspects. A number of national/international songwriting contest in which I’ve participated do just this sort of thing. The Great American Song Contest breaks lyrics down into five categories: title/hook, clarity/progression of theme, originality, rhyming and imagery/poetics. Melody is broken into three: structure, prosody and how lyrics fit music. Each of these eight areas is scored equally. The Billboard Song Contest and the NSAI Song Contest presented by CMT/CMT.com have similar categories but ten rather than eight. Taxi’s song evaluations are broken down into melody (with seven components), structure (five components) and lyric (15 components). A contest could use as complex or simple a system as it desired, even giving a certain number points to the writing as a whole, regardless of any further possible distinction between music and lyrics or any aspects of either of these.

In a challenge-based contest, clearly one would add one or more relevant categories to judge how well a contestant met the challenge. The simplest possible breakdown beyond one category might be concept for the meeting the challenge and realization of the challenge concept. To the extent that it was deemed worthwhile, challenge judgment could transcend the scoring system, with failure to meet a challenge causing automatic disqualification. There’s a compelling case to be made for this in a contest like SpinTunes, since otherwise someone could win with a genius song that scores high on all other counts but may even completely ignore the challenge. An appeals process would be helpful, since it is possible that judges’ opinions about how well or poorly an entry meets a challenge may be changed based on notions they hadn’t considered.

If any non-writing elements were thought worthy of judgment — vocals, orchestration, engineering, etc. — they could be broken out in any number of ways and assigned whatever weight compared to each other and the writing factors. I would hope they’d, in total, end up the minority compared to the writing factors.

That hope, though, is based on a contest being primarily about songwriting. A contest can be about whatever it wants to be about. One contest may involve writing factors only, another may weigh writing and non-writing equally, another may weigh writing in the majority, another may weigh non-writing factors in the majority. Every one of these could have challenge criteria if appropriate, weighted however desired. Some contests could pursue the decathlon notion simply by weighing in particular challenge criteria in different ways compared to other factors. It’s all just a matter of defining the purpose of a contest, settling on a scoring system that meets that purpose, and being transparent about the criteria up front before people enter the contest.

In SpinTunes, based on their various comments about all songs in all rounds, it’s clear that the judges were already segmenting different factors in their heads, giving different weight to different criteria. The problem is simply the lack of consistency they showed in doing so, weighing them in arbitrarily different ways from song to song, round to round. With enough judges representing enough variety of opinion, that could end up averaging itself out, but that would require either a much larger pool of judges or incredibly careful selection of particular judges to complement each other in particular ways. Barring that, formalizing a scoring system would bring consistency while still leaving judges very free to express their opinions.

Scores could be used raw, with scores across judges added or averaged and than the aggregate scores compared. If there was a desire for an elimination system with rankings, and possibly the use of a preferential voting scheme, each judge could simply translate scores into rankings, perhaps breaking their own ties on their own based sheerly on preference. No matter the situation, eliminations, cumulative scoring or otherwise, a category-based scoring system would bring a tremendous amount of consistency and integrity to the judgment process.

Contestants as Judges

In a contest like SpinTunes, there may be an even more important factor in judging, and that’s who should be doing it.

SpinTunes took pains to reduce the impact of public opinion compared to other songwriting contests. Public polls were subject to general popularity, ignorance and cheating, but there was a desire to let fans participate in some way, so public polls were preserved for tiebreakers. Given the size of the contest and the number of votes made altogether, it seems that the fan factor is, on the whole, a small one for this contest. That smallness could suggest that it’s fine to keep or that it’s no big deal to get rid of it.

However, smallness in the contest is more important in a different way. This wasn’t a giant songwriting contest. This wasn’t Billboard or the Great American Song Contest or the International Songwriting Contest, etc. Those contests have big prizes, and they get celebrity judges, and usually a fair number of them. Perhaps a contest on the scale of SpinTunes doesn’t even warrant a panel of judges.

Before I’d participated in SpinTunes, I hadn’t heard of any of the judges. Now, that doesn’t mean they aren’t credible. I believe firmly in the astounding amount of talent that lies in all corners of the globe and that hardly anyone has heard of yet. And unlike most of the other contestants, I wasn’t previously involved in any of the songwriting/contest communities that flowed into SpinTunes, so again, my not having heard of judges isn’t itself at all meaningful. But I also never saw a lot of information to tell me just how credible they were. It seemed that either you were already involved in one of the overlapping songwriting contest communities and knew who they were and had some reason to trust their judgment, or you knew nothing and just had to accept that they were chosen for their good judgment, by people who themselves who had good judgment about judges.

What’s clear to me from the judging itself is that some judges were focused more on writing while others were judging as if this were a battle of the bands and not a songwriting contest. At the same time, despite these changing tendencies across judges, any given judge may have showed inconsistencies in how they themselves assessed songs, sometimes playing up the meeting of a challenge or the value of vocals or production, sometimes playing those things down. Finally, and I won’t refer to any specific judges or any specific songs, but at least subjectively, I think that some of the comments they made were off the mark in various ways. I’m talking across the board, not at all just about their comments about my songs. And I do mean that only some comments were off the mark — every judge had plenty of smart things to say as well, but I’m not sure there was any one judge who I felt was insightful straight down the line.

None of this makes them evil. And imposing a scoring system would help. Tremendously. Certainly enough for me to feel good with almost any panel of judges that a songwriting contest honestly felt was reasonable and credible to take on, regardless of how well I might know of any of them.

But when it comes down to it, my take on the judging is that it was a mixed bag. Some good comments, some not so good. Are any of these judges likely to be that much more credible above and beyond what most of the contestants could themselves be considered? It seems to me that if you’re the kind of person who is willing to enter a challenge-based contest, and if you’re the kind of person who then actually puts the work into actually meeting each challenge, that could very well be enough to suggest that your opinions may be credible enough to judge a contest of this kind.

As at least an option, then, why not look to another exemplary reality competition show for inspiration: Survivor. Here, the competitors themselves do the voting. In SpinTunes — or any other songwriting contest on this scale well below the Billboards and ISCs of the world — there could be a poll just for contestants to pick the best from among each other. I’d certainly be happy to see even shadows participate — they’ve put the work in just the same as contestants, and I think that work justifies them earning a vote. Mutual elimination, with everyone in the same boat, with the same motivations. Very hard to adulterate. As it is, the final round of SpinTunes is already modeled on Survivor, with voting open only to eliminated participants, including shadows. Wouldn’t it be only natural to extend this backward through the other rounds?

A scoring system could still be an option if there was a desire for real consistency in the voting. I suspect it would be less important in mutual contestant elimination than it would be with a separate panel of judges, though I’d always think using such a scoring system would provide more meaningful results than not using it.

Contestant-Generated Challenges

With participants judging themselves, why not have each participant come up with a challenge. Talk about fairness and leveling the playing field. Each participant could pose a challenge of their choosing, with a round for as many participants as there happen to be, or contestants chosen at random to provide each challenge if there was a desire for a number of rounds smaller than the number of participants. Choose based on something you feel would be a great challenge for you personally. Choose based on something you believe would be an ace in the hole for you personally — and see how humbled you may be to see how well everyone else does. That would, I think, be a pretty exciting thing to watch.

Though this notion was inspired by the notion of contestants judging themselves, it could certainly be used even if others were judges.

Breaking Ties

Whichever of the two approaches I just mentioned might be taken for the main vote — ether a panel of judges (ideally ones whose credibility is demonstrably high) with a consistent scoring system, or a contestant-only system with or even without such a scoring system — and regardless of the question of eliminations vs. cumulative scoring — there is still the question of the public poll. Of course, any voting system is a popularity vote, it’s just a question of the audience — a panel of judges, and/or the contestants themselves, and/or the general public and/or otherwise.

I believe SpinTunes was on a useful track in keeping the public out of the main vote. With the main vote handled in an effective way, the primary structure would be providing as fair a contest, as level a playing field, as possible.

The issue of ties in the main vote does beg a solution, though, and that solution can come from any group that hasn’t participated in the main vote. With judges determining the main vote, ties could be broken by contestants, the general public, or, as was the case for SpinTunes 1, these two groups combined. Likewise with contestants in the main vote: the general public could break ties, or there could a panel of judges just for tiebreakers.

It’s easy to imagine decent arguments for any of these tiebreaker audience possibilities. If there’s a strong desire to keep fans involved, then the public poll could be preserved, despite its potential faults and skews and unfairness. With enough concern over those issues, other solutions are right at hand.

A Speed Challenge

A level playing field, though, is only achieved to a certain extent by altering voting systems. There are still those differences among contestants in terms of not only ability but resources and time. Whatever factors are judged, writing or non-writing, those differences are going to come into play. Of course, differences should come into play, since that’s sort of the point of contests. The point is for the meaningful differences to come into play as much as possible, and for other differences to be downplayed as much as possible, in order to achieve apples to apples as much as possible. For those interested in a contest about more than just songwriting, great, weigh those factors in carefully as well. For a contest to be about songwriting only, it’s important that as many steps be taken as possible to minimize the influence of other factors, especially the factors beyond ability such as resources and time. A voting system can help, but it’s not the only possible step.

Toward the end of a contest truly based on songwriting itself, what I’d really like to see is also inspired by Iron Chef: urgency. The chefs have one hour to prepare a multiple-course meal using the theme ingredient. I’d love to see a competition about songwriting mastery whose rounds each had a similarly urgent deadline. Not 12 days. Not a week. At most one day, 24 hours. Maybe even less, perhaps a number of hours down into the single digits. I’m not at all confident that I would or could win such a contest. Nobody could be. But I know that that’s a game I’d love to play.

Yes, quality art sometimes takes time. Even so, this would be a genuine test of songwriting ability, pure and simple. There’s almost no place to hide. Maybe behind a great vocal or a genius instrumental part, but otherwise, nowhere. Differences in performance ability, production ability and resources, and, crucially, available time would all be minimized. Someone has a very busy life? Someone else has much more free time, maybe even has Summer vacation entirely off? As long as they both can set aside the bit of time required by the contest, they’re on an even playing field. Bar production and performance from the official judging criteria. Maybe even limit the recording to a single instrument and vocal. Maybe even make the judging based only on a lead sheet — the lyrics, melody and chord symbols alone. Either way, under these circumstances, there just wouldn’t be enough time for anything other than sheer songwriting ability to come into play all that much.

It could still be done over the internet, even asynchronously instead of all contestants having to work during the exact same few-hour block. A discreet period — maybe even a week or more, to guarantee that people who need weekend time for song work will get it — could still be identified for the writing work for each round. Ahead of time, each contestant would choose an exact day and time within the round’s writing period to receive, individually, the round’s challenge. This would allow each contestant, no matter their time zone or life circumstances, to set aside the needed block of time for facing the challenge.

As long as they got their submission in by the set number of hours after that moment of receiving the challenge, all would be well, otherwise theirs would be considered a shadow entry. Email notifications could be automated to communicate the challenge, otherwise the contest runners could notify contestants personally at their chosen times. All involved would be sworn to secrecy about each round’s challenge until the end of the round’s writing period, at which point the challenge would finally be made public and then, very shortly after, the songs themselves. Should a contestant blow the secret, they could be banned from that round, or even the remainder of the competition or all future such competitions. This, though, shouldn’t be a problem, because every contestant would be equally motivated to avoid giving a head start to any other who hadn’t started their own personal writing period yet anyway.

Except for handling the individual notifications, none of this would require really any extra work on the part of the contest runners. And except for the contestants doing their work at different times and having less time to do the work, all contest logistics — challenge creation, songwriting, gathering submissions, listening party, judgment — would go forward more or less as in any other contest. The costs are small, the benefits high: excitement, urgency, the unknown — and, importantly, a focus on songwriting itself.

Would other competitors from Song Fight!, Nur Ein, Masters of Song Fu, SpinTunes, etc., be up for this challenge, divorced almost entirely from the luxury of time, denied almost entirely the opportunity to fully use their production tools and techniques, forced almost entirely to focus on what songwriting, in fact, really is, which is, simply put, lyrics and musical essentials? Would challengers let their creations be put to the test if they had to be judged only on a lead sheet? Would judges — whether a separate panel or the other contestants themselves — feel credible passing judgment on the creations of others if they were only allowed to consider what appeared on a lead sheet? Of course, it’s not really about lead sheets as opposed to recordings. It’s about a lead sheet mentality — judgment on the basis of the essence of songwriting. Would everyone so used to spending time tweaking their tracks, so used to judging the tracks of others, letting their vocals and instrumentations carry them, be up to this challenge?

Again, I’ve no idea how I’d do. And I spend plenty of time tweaking my own tracks when I know that they are what’s going to be judged. I’m just saying that this, a speed challenge which puts the focus on songwriting essentials, is a game I’d want to play — and those songwriters who also wanted to play are surely songwriters I’d love to play the game with.

My Future Participation

The more a songwriting contest offers a set of challenges I find satisfying, whether decathlon-like or otherwise, the more its intrinsic rewards are a draw, and so the more likely I’d be to participate. Same would be true for anyone.

The more a songwriting contest offers tangible benefits in terms of prizes, publicity and other professional opportunities, the more its extrinsic rewards are a draw, and so the more likely I’d be to participate. Same would be true for anyone.

The more a songwriting contest offers the kinds of conditions I’ve described here — a focus on writing as opposed to performance and production, optimal voting systems, ultra-tight deadlines, etc. — the more such a contest is conducive to what I personally have to offer, allowing me to compare fairly to others, and so the more likely I’d be to participate. Whether that’s true for anyone else would depend on the person, their talents and their preferences.

Given the reality of my current life circumstances, mainly in terms of available time and finances, the combination of these factors would have to head fairly close to ideal for me to participate in another songwriting contest any time soon. This will be especially true with contests that demand performance and production, i.e., contests that converge on a battle of the bands or a singer/songwriter showcase rather than really being about the writing. It’s not sour grapes, it’s pure practicality. Until my abilities, finances and/or time increase enough to dramatically improve what I can realistically achieve in terms of performance and production, I just may not have the time needed to participate as effectively as I’d like in many or most songwriting contests.

To those with more balanced skills in songwriting, production and performance, and the time available for participation, more power to you. To those same people as well as others who consider themselves to be, like myself, fundamentally writers, here’s to hoping that we have the time and resources for the contests that require it, and here’s also to hoping that there also may be some contests someday with some of the more songwriting-specific traits I’ve been talking about here.

Highlights from My SpinTunes 1 Experience

August 16, 2010

My participation in the SpinTunes songwriting contest has come to an end. It was a valuable experience. I learned a lot and had many thoughts and insights along the way, and I met a bunch of great people, my fellow competitors in particular, a group with a lot of songwriting talent and an earnestly friendly sense of competition.

To keep any potential for skewing the judging out of the mix, I didn’t want to express much while I was still in the contest. Even now I won’t express everything I could. I have nothing bad to say about the other contestants, even if I didn’t always like all of their songs. The judges also were, on the whole, respectable and helpful. Out of good sportsmanship, I won’t bother to express any subjectively negative opinions about any of the competitors’ specific works, nor about much of the specifics said by the judges.

What I’m sharing below are some valuable things my experience helped me learn about my songwriting and how to improve it, as well as about how to best participate in a songwriting contest like this.

I also developed many more general thoughts on songwriting contests and how they are — and could be — run. You can see a quick summary of my recommendations and suggestions at the top of that separate post and then read as much detail behind those thoughts as you like as well. For now, onto the highlights from my SpinTunes 1 experience.

6/30/10 — Round 1 Results Revealed

When the Round 1 Totals were revealed, Step Back Swooperman placed 19th out of 20 entries. There had been 31 original entrants, 11 of whom didn’t meet the round’s deadline. Entries below 20th place were to be eliminated, but with only 20 contestants still in the contest, everyone was simply moved ahead. Given my ranking, if even just two of those 11 people had bothered to make the deadline, odds are good that I wouldn’t have made it even to Round 2.

The judges’ overall consensus of my entry: poor vocals, musically incoherent, overdone references to John Williams’ Superman score. And the truth is, I can understand and embrace all these criticisms. I’m the first to admit that I don’t sing very well, and I can at least appreciate that I may have been too ambitious in the musical variety and too eager to pepper in Williams references.

Even so, I was stunned to find the song ranking second to last. I could complain about differences of opinion I might have with judges about the quality of my or other people’s songwriting. That’s all pretty subjective, though, and I can be okay with negative opinions and losing out on that basis. However, though again I won’t make any specific comments in the interest of sportsmanship, there were at least a few other songs that I really could not believe ended up ranked higher than mine. And I certainly had some very strong opinions about just how much vocals and production should count in a songwriting contest, especially one where contestants can have rather different amounts of time and other resources available to them.

Of course, one judge ranked the song 6th out of 20, and I received some other very positive comments, not only from friends but from other competitors who’d never known me or my work before this contest began and who’d therefore almost certainly never heard anything of mine but this one song. It makes me wonder just how meaningfully representative and generalizable these particular judges’ opinions really are. But I’ll leave that wondering inconclusive, especially since I do embrace most of the criticisms of my song.


  • Don’t try to be too clever in referencing other works. It can work, but if it doesn’t, it can be seen as copout and/or trying too hard. Stick with original authorship unless there’s a truly compelling reason to do otherwise, and then be sure to do it really, really well.
  • Although I consider myself an author, writing songs to fulfill their own potential independent of what I as a performer or producer can do with them (especially when pressed by time and other resources), I’d better take a different approach in Round 2, playing up strengths and playing down weaknesses. So, a tighter vocal range, and a minimal, more piano-oriented approach to the rest.

7/14/10 — Hours into Round 2 Public Poll

As happened in Round 1, my song took a strong lead in the public poll. I didn’t mention this above while talking about Round 1, nor anywhere else online at any point, because I knew that the main reason for my showing there was that I publicized my participation through status updates and email, asking my friends and contacts to support me. I knew that the numbers didn’t really mean anything in themselves, and I was just doing what I could in case the poll needed to come into play, according to contest rules, as a tie-breaker to decide eliminations. The same was now happening in Round 2, with my song taking a lead in the public poll, and I was just as surely never going to bother to mention it anywhere as anything meaningful.

Another contestant, though, expressed concern about the Round 2 poll numbers, worrying about the ballot box being stuffed and also that the judges might be somehow biased by the poll results. This and only this led me to talk about the poll at all. You can see the entire discussion here.

In a nutshell, I said that it was a public poll and I was only doing what every other contestant had the same opportunity to do, but that I actually might have preferred if there was no public poll at all, because of the very thing we were discussing, the potential for unfairness. I posed that the poll could be open only to contestants, including shadow entrants, but that was a matter to take up with the contest creators. Incidentally, I also mentioned that the concern over judge bias could run the other way, too, noting how my showing in the Round 1 public poll was pretty inversely related to the judges’ opinion of me, whether causally or otherwise.

All were assured that the judges wouldn’t be swayed either way by the poll, and the consensus seemed to be that it would be best for contestants to encourage their contacts to give all songs a listen and be aware that they had the opportunity to cast three votes, not just one.


  • Given the likelihood of the public poll tiebreakers mattering to any contestant in particular and the likelihood that one’s own contacts will vote for you no matter what, may as well phrase publicity in a more open-ended way rather than simply asking people to vote for you. Should I make it to Round 3 and be publicizing, that’s what I’ll do.

7/17/10 — Round 2 Results Revealed

When the Round 2 Totals were revealed, Another Universe placed 12th out of 17 entries. I passed to Round 3 by the skin of my teeth, since all entries below 12th were to be eliminated.

The judges’ overall consensus of my entry: Good meeting of the challenge, the lyrics were somewhat lacking, and the verses were lacking in general. Obviously this was a bit better than last time, but once again I was somewhat stunned that I placed so low, especially given the positive things some other contestants said about the song, most notably what was said by shadow entrant Dave Leigh of Dr. Lindyke.

In particular, sentiment against the blandness of the verses seemed to overlook that quality being a very purposeful part of the song. Additionally, one judge suggested that I wanted to achieve a dreaminess but failed. In fact, I wasn’t going for dreaminess at all, but rather two palpably different real senses the narrator has, one about current life and the other about a vividly perceived imagined life. It hardly seems fair to count against me a failure to achieve a dreaminess that I wasn’t even trying for. I can understand my not coming out on or near the top, but this far down once again? Am I (and the others who made really great and unsolicited compliments about my song) particularly deluded about my abilities, or are these judges, well, to be diplomatic, I’ll put it this way, are they an audience I can jibe with?

One general comment, though, from the judge who so far consistently disliked me the most but directed to all participants, helped me a great deal to understand just how to better play this game. He discussed the much larger challenge that lies beyond the particular challenge that happens to define each round: “The bands were given ultimate freedom to record a song about whatever they please. The big challenge here is do that and still create a song that slays the competition. It’s all fine and dandy to pass the challenge but this is a fight. This is not just getting into the next round. This is making the best song you can and blowing away all the other bands and if you don’t you can be eliminated. Sure, you can shadow and play along at home. But really, the challenge here is to bring your A-Game consistently.”

While it may seem obvious, this was, for me, something of a revelation. Just as this songwriting contest is obviously about vocals, production and far more than just songwriting, each challenge is about far more than just the challenge. Whether or not I personally aced either challenge so far, the point is it’s simply insufficient to technically ace the definition of a challenge and automatically consider yourself to be bringing your A-game. A challenge is, as I’m now realizing, actually only somewhat marginally about the challenge. It is not, or at least not necessarily, supposed to be the defining feature of the songs we submit. It is a constraint, to be sure, one that should be met if one is to do well. But there is, simply, a difference between the best challenge-defined song and the best song that happens to also fit the definition of a challenge. Judges have given high scores to people who met a challenge modestly and low scores to a tight fit to the challenge. There is simply far more going on here.

I’d somehow been under the impression that a round-by-round challenge-based songwriting contest was like a decathlon. An uber-event made of many separate events, taken on by not just any old athletes, because any old really good athlete can specialize in one thing and do well at it. It takes a special athlete to excel at many different things, all the events of a decathlon. Only such athletes would submit themselves to each of these many different things for all the world to see. I thought it was the same case with us songwriters, subjecting ourselves to the rigors of multiple different games in this contest, submitting our creations in response to each different challenge for all the world to see.

But in some sense, I could not have been more wrong. One need not look merely at the higher ranking songs in each round so far. Look across the board. What we see, for the most part, and I promise that I mean this merely as an observation and not a criticism in the slightest, is artists who have some thing that they do, and they go about doing it within the context of each challenge. We don’t see Edric Haleen trying to write Governing Dynamics’ guitar rock any more than we see Governing Dynamics attempting Caleb Hines’ They-Might-Be-Giants-like smart quirk any more than we see Caleb Hines penning Edric Haleen’s show tunes with gushing long-note melodies.

I realize now that I’ve been pretty misguided about what I’m doing here, and it surely comes from my not having as clear a musical identity as most of my competitors do. Without a particular musical identity, it’s maybe natural that I’d be looking for a decathlon, the opportunity to have the trying on of different identities be the very nature of a contest. But this contest isn’t interested in seeing me, or anyone else, play all the events of a decathlon. It just wants to see each of us do what we do, yet proving that we can do it well, through trial after trial, the same event, even when our arms are straitjacketed or our eyes blindfolded or our sneakers filled with rocks. A-game is about making great songs, every time, period. The varying challenges are not meant to see who’s the best at playing lots of different games. They’re just meant to see how good your A-game is when you’re under different kinds of pressure. It’s a subtle but crucial difference between this and a decathlon.

Now, on one hand, I’m pretty interested in the idea of different games, a decathlon. That’s easy to tell from my past output, especially the stylistic variety on Everyone’s Invited. At the same time, I can get behind this other approach, too. Most importantly, I now understand that this is the type of competition SpinTunes is. I only shoot myself in the foot if I try too hard to be clever and mix musical elements simply because I can (as in Step Back Swooperman), and just the same if I dive too deep to plumb the depths of a particular challenge’s semantic ocean (as in Another Universe). Hopefully I now know better how to play this game, this one game, the way it’s meant to be played — or, rather, at least, the way the judges are judging us as we play it.


  • Tread very carefully when dealing with unpleasant feelings and ideas in the lyrics and unpleasant sounds in the music, and especially when doing both at the same time. When in doubt, be positive, crafting something most people could most often be in the mood to listen to, especially musically.
  • Be specific in story and imagery.
  • Heed the challenge, meet it well, but leave it at that, working beyond that in general to simply write a great song rather than getting too swept up in the particular challenge.
  • Continue to focus on my musical strengths (piano and composition) and downplay musical weaknesses (vocals and production), but consider making a bigger, and smarter, effort with production, since like it or not these judges are obviously not judging a songwriting contest but a songwriting and performing and producing contest, and, with my vocals being what they are, production is my only real area of opportunity.

7/30/10 — Dr. Lindyke Reviews Round 3

Dave Leigh of Dr. Lindyke talked about the difficulty of a challenge that imposes both a topic and an intended emotional reaction. About my song in particular, he felt I’d seriously overused production.

In response, I told him I took all his points well. About the production on my song, I’d hoped the driving feel would convey the parents’ growing despair, but I supposed this was no guarantee of evoking sadness in an audience.

I was especially with him on the challenge’s restrictiveness, though. As I said there, restrictiveness makes for a challenging challenge, but I agreed with Dave that it does tend toward formula. And so we saw several formulaic song notions, with formula itself not at all correlated to song quality: some formula songs were better than others. We also saw some people trying to buck the formula pull — Christ and supernovae, clones, kings, aliens, even my song with the idea of a birth crisis being overcome but sadness continuing for other reasons. And again, some non-formula works were better than others. I wondered, were these songs, mine included, failing the learning I’d done last round, getting too swept up in the challenge? Were we looking for originality points in our own heads rather than just taking the challenge as given circumstances and simply trying to write the best song possible otherwise? As opposed to Round 2 where I overdid the challenge and underplayed production, did I do just the opposite here, crafting decent production to “vindicate” myself compared to the previous two rounds, but in a way that failed to serve the tearjerker challenge? Did I go too far with one of my own bits of learning from last round, making a song sound “nice” despite its having unpleasant content?

Maybe all of this is true to some extent. But I also remembered a Tweet of Dave’s, in advance of the Round 3 deadline. Talking about his song, he said, “I don’t know how I’m going to sing this.” Now, I don’t know if he meant, how is he going to get through it emotionally, or is he up to the challenge on a sheerly musical level with his vocal performance, or both. Whatever he meant for himself, I’ll take those words on as relevant for my situation. Because Dave’s got a much better voice than I do, and I freely admit the weakness(es) of my singing voice. But in a contest that demands, even if not full-on orchestration and commercial-level production, at least a decent enough rendition of a song, how I sing itself becomes a restriction on the kind of submission I can make for the contest, the kind of song I can write for this contest.

In Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns, about They Might Be Giants, I recall one of the Johns explaining how their “Dial-a-Song” service would fail to work if the songs they wrote had notes that were too long. Long notes caused the answering machine that ran the service to stop playing and rewind the tape. So they got used to writing short songs with lots of short notes.

I’m in a similar boat. No answering machine is going to stop because I sing a long note, but no long note I sing (nor many short notes) will ever sound really good. I can’t possibly write something vocally demanding. I mean, yes, of course, I can write something very demanding. But I’d better not, not if I’m going to be the vocalist, because I won’t be able to pull it off myself. Case in point, Step Back Swooperman, which although there are other valid criticisms, I’m pretty certain would have been generally better regarded, perhaps much better, if only it had a decent vocal, even if nothing else were changed at all.

Now, none of this excuses over-production. But Dave, at least, suggests that my Round 3 song “could be a winner” if not for its over-production. So here’s the thing. If this really were a contest about songwriting, if we were being judged based on what songwriting really is, based on what might be considered a lead sheet mentality, then my Round 3 song, as is, would look no different from that angle, regardless of how I record it. I could record it as I did. Or I could record it with the looser orchestration Dave suggests, a more subdued tone, and I could totally flub the vocals. Or I could record it with that alternative orchestration and tone and spend a fortune hiring Barbara Streisand to sing it, whether powerfully or quietly or both. And none of these differences would matter, because the underlying song itself does not change. These are changes to things other than the songwriting. And that’s all just taking the song as it is now, not even accounting for the fact that I could have — and would have — written it differently if I’d known that my own vocals were going to be a non-issue. It would have been written to take even more advantage of what a talented vocalist could do to evoke emotion.

But that’s not this contest, nor is it most or all other contests either. In a contest where more than the writing itself is being taken into account, what can I do? Write appropriately and fail to record it well, and lose. Or compromise the writing for the sake of my vocal ability, and record it sufficiently well, and lose. Scylla and Charybdis. A dichotomy of just the kind I lamented in Another Universe. The only ways out:

  • Become a better singer — for which I don’t currently have the resources, whether financial, time or otherwise.
  • Find some other better singer — ditto.
  • Enter contests that genuinely judge only the writing — not sure they are any more extant than unicorns.

Once again, at least barring some change in my resources or in how songwriting contests are run, lose-lose for me.

I wonder what would have happened here, in Round 3, if we all just submitted lead sheets. Or if we all had the same production team and vocalists perform our works. I wonder how that would affect every round. Of every contest that says it’s about songwriting and not singer/songwriters or a battle of the bands. To those who balk at this wondering, and I’m not judging you as wrong or evil or anything like that, but if you balk at this, then you’re clearly interested in something other than contests about songwriting, something other than contests about, quite simply, writing songs. And it’s fine to be interested in something else other than that. Given the time, so am I, because I like playing with production. I’d just like a spade to be called a spade, and I’d just like the opportunity to participate in a contest that judges what I’m interested in putting up for judgment and not the stuff that may have to surround that.

Prediction: At best, the judges will echo Dave’s comments, and maybe I’ll place as high as the middle. At worst, who knows what else the judges will come up with to say about my song, and I’ll place at or near the bottom. Either way, with only two contestants moving on to the final round, I’ll be out, and not likely even in 3rd or 4th place to warrant bothering to create a shadow the way the contest runners are suggesting for those placers.


  • Even when being careful about a challenge, be extra careful about it. Sometimes, the obvious and formulaic may be a better choice than even an extra ounce of originality.
  • In a challenge where the best possible path requires vocals and/or other resources I just don’t have, there’s not much point in hoping to do well.
  • In a challenge where my songwriting itself could potentially have been a winner without regard for vocals and production, my general feelings about songwriting contests are affirmed: I wish more than ever for a songwriting contest with a lead sheet mentality, where just the songwriting itself would be judged independent of everything else. The things that at least Dave counts against me here, and likely rightfully so, would not even exist at all or at least would be non-issues. The song, as a song, would stand on its own to be judged, and things might end up differently. Since this isn’t how things generally work in songwriting contests, then, my learning is: consider carefully and case-by-case whether it’s worth participating in them in the future.

7/31//10 — Round 3 Results Revealed

When the Round 3 Totals were revealed, Will It placed 3rd out of nine entries. Three of the dozen contestants who’d passed to Round 2 failed to meet the Round 3 deadline, leaving just the nine. By design, only two contestants would pass onto the final round, Round 4. However, the contest runners have been all along noting that if one of those two doesn’t make their entry, they will proceed down the Round 3 rankings to shadow entries. Ranked third, I have a pretty big incentive to shadow Round 4, then. And, intriguingly, I placed as a result of the public poll breaking a tie between the two of us who were ranked immediately after the top two. Who knew that the poll tiebreaker would come into play in just that potentially very important way, for anyone, much less for myself.

The judges’ overall consensus of my entry: Essentially a solid entry except that the song is just too groovy, taking away from the sadness of the story it tells. A few negative comments, with one judge believing the chorus too dissonant, and another predictably critiquing my vocals, though that latter judge actually ranked me first and particularly complemented the chorus. So be it, the usual subjective differences. But, overall, pretty positive, and to the extent not so positive, basically right in line with the Round 3 review from Dave Leigh of Dr. Lindyke as well as some other comments made about my entry. As I said above about Dave’s words, I really do see the point.

Interestingly, one judge ranked me 4th, feeling the music fit the lyrics well, while she ranked 7th a different song that she considered too upbeat for the content. This was the same judge who liked my Round 1 entry, so maybe I’m just on her wavelength a bit more! In any case, it does go to show that it was at least possible that my musical intentions might be received without having “upbeatness” held against.

Perhaps more interestingly, one of the judges, as it happens the one who ranked me highest, preceded his reviews by echoing Dave’s thoughts on the challenge itself — that it was simply demanding too much at once, being too restrictive. I say that’s interesting because it means he was sensitive to the difficulty of the balancing act, and so maybe inherently a bit more likely to be forgiving of not quite balancing everything. And there I am at the top of his list, while some other judges who were more sticklers for the tearjerker ranked me lower. It’s certainly their prerogative, given that this contest provides judges with no guidelines for judging. It does, though, suggest that maybe the nature of the challenge itself was, rather than simply being particularly challenging, possibly inherently problematic in some way. Not because I didn’t win! But because more than one person who wasn’t even an official competitor made these particular observations about it having so many restrictions.

I’m surprised I actually ranked this high. I’d figured I’d be in the middle of the pack at best. Now, the performance/production issue is that much more palpable for me. If I’d felt confident enough in vocally carrying a tearjerker, I’d have produced — and possibly written — differently. What would have happened then? Would I have placed even higher? Possibly so, even without changing the actual song, even with only a more sparse, ballad-like arrangement. What an odd feeling I have right now, to on one hand feel pleased for doing so much better than before, and yet to know that the thing standing in my way of an even better ranking is what I’ve been feeling worst about all along, i.e., the fact of a songwriting contest not being only about the writing.

In any case, it is gratifying to get a better overall reception than I did in previous rounds, and gratifying to feel that hopefully my own conscious learning process helped that happen. And though my time is pressed, I suppose I have a pretty good motivation to shadow the final round. If nothing else, it’ll just be a few days of a really intense schedule, and I’ll have hopefully a decent writing exercise to show for it.

An extra thought. Even though I’m the beneficiary of the current ranking system in terms of having the best shot at a shadow moving on next round, I have to admit that there seems something potentially unfair about the contest dynamic. What I’m about to say is in relation to Edric Haleen because it most dramatically makes the point, but the same perspective holds true in general.

Edric came in first in both previous rounds. I placed near the bottom in both previous rounds. Does it really make sense that I end up with a better shot at winning the contest than he does, simply because my Round 3 song placed ahead of him by two spots, with a difference between us of only a single point in the total scores for that round? Maybe there is a strong case for eliminating eliminations in favor of cumulative scoring across rounds. On the other hand, a challenge is what a challenge is, and just as I took an approach that sacrificed some potential for tearjerking, Edric certainly did as well, even moreso. From a sheer songwriting perspective, and even granting that the story is Arthur C. Clark’e and not Edric’s own, Edric did some really tremendous work, but if it was too far afield for the challenge, then, by the book, he goes down in the rankings and gets the lesser opportunity as a potential Round 4 shadow. Yet somehow that book doesn’t seem quite right to me. All of this also points, to me, to the crucial importance of consistent judging to ensure that all these different factors get weighed in a way that’s not arbitrary for each song and each round, independent of eliminations vs. cumulative scores.

One final thought. I almost hesitate to admit it, but I suppose it’s really no sin. With this round, I discovered my audio software’s pitch correction features. I took what was my usual pitchy vocal and set things to be essentially in tune. It feels like cheating to me. It is cheating in a way. But really, in the end, we have these tools to help our work sound better. And when it comes to something as blatant as my pitchy vocals — and when judges and others have so very clearly taken those pitchy vocals into account in judging my work — it just seems reasonable for me to correct the pitch. If I were a better singer, I would have an in-tune vocal. If I had other musicians working with me, I’d certainly have among them a singer better than myself. Should I leave a big hole in my submissions just because my untrained voice can’t do what otherwise could be done, what I can do using pitch correction, and what obviously makes a difference in how my songs are perceived? It would seem absurd not to do it. Earlier in the contest, I heard one of the other participants suggest to another contestant who is just learning to play instruments that she could go get Band in a Box as an easy way to make fuller sounding recordings. If that’s not cheating for her, then pitch correction can’t be cheating for me.

I only wish I’d discovered these features earlier so that my other two entries could have had a better shot, even if I’d changed nothing else. Apparently revisions will be accepted with no deadline for the songs to live in posterity at Bandcamp, so I suspect, after the contest is over, I’ll put in the bit of time to pitch correct those first two songs. I hope people will give them another listen and see if they might think at least a bit better of them. (Note: The revised versions of the songs became available sometime between 8/17/10 and 8/19/10. Hear them at Step Back Swooperman and Another Universe.)


  • Keep trying to learn from each round and each song I do, because even though I dropped the ball in a big way this round, overall I have been honing in on a better match between what I do and what will be effective for the contest.
  • Really search for that sweet spot in meeting a challenge, the Goldilocks spot, not too much, not too little. And then make sure that, whatever else is done to make a song good or great outside of the challenge, be very sure it stays outside the challenge and doesn’t come back inside in a way that hurt it — the way I came up with a decent challenge fit this round in terms of lyrics, then decided to go produce a decent track, only to have the production contradict the lyrics and diminish their impact and therefore the sense of how well I met the challenge. And if it seems like it’s not possible to have it all in the sweet spot, have as much as possible there while having as little as possible outside it. A soft-spoken tearjerker with my singing voice might not have been as effective as one with someone else’s better voice whether soft-spoken or powerful, but it would probably have done better than the not-really-so-tearjerking arrangement/performance I’d submitted this round.
  • Even though I’ve benefitted this round compared to the previous two, with respect to both the ways that I didn’t do as well as I could have as well as the ways I benefitted over others, the overall contest dynamic continues to affirm my general thoughts and recommendations about songwriting contests in general.
  • Know the tools at your disposal, then use them to your benefit. Namely pitch correction. Even if part of you feels like it’s cheating. If there’s no rule against it, it isn’t cheating.

Onto my first shadow entry.

8/1/10 — Round 4 Challenge Revealed

Musical Road Trip – Write a song using at least three different ethnic styles. The music from each of the three parts of the song should give the listeners a mental image of a place or group of people from a certain area. (at least 30 seconds each style) (3 minute minimum)

This feels up my alley and fairly well along the lines of the decathlon idea I’ve talked about. Topic can be anything. Piano only, or go for production to help paint the different pictures? If I can’t pull off the production truly well for each, is attempting to do it just shooting myself in the foot? Is it worth the extra work, especially when I’m going to be out of town for four days during the time period for creating the entry? Could a piano solo backing be underwhelming or oddly effective and amusing? We’ll see what I come up with.

8/11-12/10 — Round 4 Entries Finalized

It is revealed that both finalists made the deadline, and so my shadow entry will remain a shadow entry. Obviously I have no idea how it would stack up to either of the finalists, but it’s certainly a big “what if,” wondering what would happen if one of those finalists didn’t make the deadline. Or wondering what would happen if the contest rules put three or more people into the final round, as is currently being talked about for future iterations of SpinTunes. Quite a thing to think about how poorly I did in the first two rounds but how relatively close I came to having at least a chance at winning the contest nevertheless.

I’m proud of the work I did, but it was pretty time-consuming during a week when I didn’t have a lot of extra time to spare. Would I have even bothered doing a shadow if I’d have known for a fact that both finalists would come through with entries? I’m really not sure. Very possibly not.

I appreciate the idea of not wanting someone to win by default and therefore having a provision like the current one in case a finalist doesn’t come through. But I certainly didn’t like being in a position of feeling that I “had” to create a shadow entry just in case the shadow might turn out to not be a shadow. I’m certainly behind the idea of having enough finalists to avoid putting anyone in this situation again.

The matter was made even more interesting by the question of whether one of the finalists’ entries actually qualified for the finals. This was discussed (including by me) pretty extensively in the comments of both the Round 4 Songs post and Dr. Lindyke’s winner prediction, and it leads me to believe firmly in qualifying all entries using only objective criteria before putting an entry in contention, and then leaving judging based only on subjective criteria.

With alternate rules already being considered for future SpinTunes even before the finalization of Round 4 entries, obviously even the contest runners have some qualms about the current rules. In any case, with my Round 4 entry destined to stay a shadow, and with my own vote already in for Round 4, my participation in SpinTunes #1 comes to an end.

8/16/10 — Contest Winner Announced — SpinTunes 1 is Over

Of Ballroom Dance, my Round 4 shadow, one judge said that it was not only my best song from throughout the contest, but that he felt it would have won had it actually been in the final round. Others involved with SpinTunes also told me that their opinion was that it was the best song of Round 4 and also my best song of the contest.

And so the “what if” grows and grows! I feel like Chris Daughtry :) I can only hope my future is as bright as his turned out to be!

When I look back at my participation, I see that, in each of the first two rounds, I barely avoided being eliminated. In Round 3, I nearly made it to the finals. Because of quirky goings on regarding qualification, I seemed to come even closer to making it to the finals. And given the reaction to my song, it seems like maybe I even could have been the overall contest winner. Regardless of the “what if” factor, I’m really proud of my participation. I’m proud of all my songs, but it’s especially gratifying to see meaningful results from my explicit attempts to learn as I went and to grow as a songwriter and game player.

It was, again, a valuable experience in a lot of ways. Just reread the very first and third paragraphs at the top of this post :) And if you’re interested, go ahead onto my more general thoughts on songwriting contests and how they are — and could be — run.

Lost, Found: Last Tuesday

May 19, 2010

Last night, the final new Tuesday episode aired. As much as it moved things forward and set up the finale, I don’t have much to say other than this:

  • I remain pretty convinced of the general direction I posed the show taking in last week’s post and the post from the week before.
  • For a show so much about history repeating itself, and usually to people’s detriment, the ending can only be satisfying if “the curse is broken” — i.e., if in the end nobody remains “trapped” on the island, whether as protector or Smoke-Monster-prisoner or otherwise. If anyone stays on the island at the end, it must be because they truly want to be there.
  • Perhaps the very fact of the finale taking place on a Sunday instead of a Tuesday supports my perspective. A change is taking place. The old patterns are coming to an end. Indeed, the series ends on a traditional day of rest — a day for as many characters as possible to find a resolution to their age-old conflicts.

Also, the four remaining lostaways — Jack, Kate, Sawyer, Hurley — not only include, as I noted last week, one of the key conflicted pairs of the series, i.e., Jack vs. Sawyer. They are the very same four who were captured by the Others several seasons ago. And back then, Hurley was “set free” to carry a message to the remaining lostaways, leaving a love triangle captured. That love triangle has become more complicated since then, but there may be an interesting parallel between Jack/Sawyer/Kate and Jacob/Man-in-Black/”Mother.”

Jack and Jacob practically share a name and now they do have the island protector role in common.

The Man in Black has in common with Sawyer a stereotypical “bad guy” persona that is both caused by and tempered for the audience by past traumatic events. There is further the apparent namelessness of the Man in Black paralleling Sawyer’s having over time adopted many different names through his work as a con man.

Kate and the “Mother” share the killing of another inspired by some notion of higher good, and, of course, they find themselves the apex of a strange triangle relationship with the two conflicted males they most deeply relate to.

With Jack having already taken on the protector role and this larger set of parallels between these triangles of characters, I can’t help but wonder just how much else may repeat itself. I’d already suggested last week the possibility of Sawyer’s future as a Smoke Monster. Could Kate’s life be in danger, too?

With the importance of the old cycles becoming broken, I believe we will be in for either another repetition of “curses” followed by a breaking of the curse, or, perhaps preferable, a near-repetition of past pattern, averted in favor of something new to break the pattern without the need for a further repetition.

We shall see.

Lost, Found: Light at the End of the Tunnel

May 12, 2010

Good and Evil and In Between

The third from the last episode, and we start to see, literally and figuratively, a light at the end of the tunnel. And I believe more than ever in what I’ve said about Lost providing a complicated, atypical look at “good” vs. “evil.”

A Woman kills the twins’ Mother, apologizing to her right before smashing her face. She raises the kids as her own and lies to them about their origins, telling them they are from the island, that there is no place else in the world, that there are no other people in the world. Later, she’ll smash her “son’s” head with an apology as well, to prevent him from leaving the island, even though she needs only one successor to protect the island. She then kills all of the people in the Man in Black’s settlement after learning of their plans to leave the island.

The Man in Black sees his dead Mother — sees a truth Jacob cannot. He hears what she has to say and wants to honor it. If the other people on the island are his people, he wants to be with them instead of the Woman who killed his mother and lied to him all along. If the island is not his home, he doesn’t want to stay, he wants to find a way to leave. When the Woman subverts his goal, he kills her — an act that doesn’t really help him, but one that is understandable as something other than unadulterated evil.

As for Jacob, he smashes his brother’s face in when his brother wants to go live with the other people (the “Others,” in contrast to the Woman, even though later there will be “Others” serving Jacob himself). Instead of facing the truth, he chooses to stay with the Woman and her lies. When the Woman wants to pass the torch onto him and have him replace her as protector of the island, he does not want the job. He seems insecure and frightened. When he accepts, she says they are now the same — he is now the same as the Woman who has done all the not-so-nice things she has done. Later, when the Man in Black has killed the Woman, Jacob once again smashes his brother’s face in, and punishes him by sending him into the light in the tunnel, the place the Woman described as “Life, death, rebirth. It’s the source, the heart of the island,” right before telling him to never go down there, since a fate worse than death awaits. The fate worse than death is what Jacob wishes upon his brother.

Who is good and who is evil here? It would be too strong to say that the Woman and Jacob are “really” evil and the Man in Black really “good,” but it is equally misguided to pose it the other way around.

The Man in Black merely wants to face the truth about himself and find his way home. The Woman and Jacob are willing to lie, hurt, even kill, all in the service of a story the Woman tells about the source of the island, despite Jacob (and we, the audience) having no real idea whether the story has credence, or how she knows what she says she knows.

It seems that all these characters have elements of what we think of as “good” and of what we think of as “evil.” In other words, they are people, and the fact that they have conflicts merely means they haven’t figured out how to get what they all want collaboratively.

Procreation, Longevity and Power

The episode begins with a birth, of twins. We know that there are issues on the island with fertility, with pregnant women losing their babies. Claire was able to give birth on the island — because of the Others’ medicine, and/or because she was far enough along when she arrived. The twins’ Mother obviously received no such medicine, so her giving birth on the island can only be the result of either the fertility issue not having begun yet or of her having been far enough along.

In any case, consider that the island is known simultaneously as a place where fertility is problematic and where immortality is possible to some extent. Jacob and the Man in Black seem to live forever, even though they may have weaknesses that can cause their death. Richard receives the gift of immortality from Jacob. Even Locke’s having his paralysis cured seems to be of a piece with these phenomena. The island seems to be something of a Fountain of Youth, a place where health, vigor and longevity can be cultivated.

In the mid-1990s, I came up with an idea for a screenplay about Ponce de Leon and his quest for the Fountain of Youth. Some scientists in the modern day conducting experiments in the Bermuda Triangle would somehow discover that their actions have caused an old ship to appear, and on that ship would be Ponce de Leon. He would be grateful for having been freed from the triangle so he could resume his quest for the Fountain of Youth in Florida. Eventually, the story would make clear that the Bermuda Triangle was itself the Fountain of Youth, and that the only way to take advantage of it would be to relegate oneself to it’s parallel-universe-like existence in the middle of the ocean, a place where “real life” simply cannot be lived, since “real life” includes death.

On Lost, the island is, in addition to having these properties of longevity and health, also a place where fertility is an issue. Just as in the story I’d come up with years ago, perhaps wishing to live forever is an ultimately selfish thing that can only be done in a place cut off from the reality of the rest of the world, a place where the normal cycles of life, of generations, cease. The island’s troubles with procreation may be a necessary condition of the presence of longevity/immortality. To be cut off on the island and living forever, one can easily imagine people going mad and wanting to leave, to get back to “life” as it really is. In some sense, the island’s brand of immortality could be tantamount to death itself, a denial of life as it is.

Indeed, what to make of the Woman thanking the Man in Black as her final words, despite him having just killed her? Could she have felt trapped in a too-long life on the island herself? Is this why she killed the Mother and took the babies, grooming them to succeed her — simply to find her own escape? Perhaps she came to know that apparent immortality is more than it’s cracked up to be, and perhaps she needed a loophole to have herself killed, just as the Man in Black sought a loophole, getting someone else to kill Jacob on his behalf. Collateral damage may be necessary to escape the immortality of the island.

In contrast, what do we know of life as it really is, off the island? From most characters’ backstories, we know that they’ve got issues. Problems they struggle with. Violence and heartache and confusion and tragedy. And also good things, too. It’s a mixed bag — just as the Woman, Jacob and the Man in Black appear to be. And, crucially, this is true not only in the original timeline but also in Sideways world. Whatever created Sideways world, it did not “make everything better” in any simplistic sense, as the lostaways had hoped would happen as a result of blowing up Jughead.

Perhaps this all adds up to the very simple message that life must be lived, with its ups and downs, for better and for worse, including the fact of its ending in death, and that any attempt to do otherwise is bound to lead to undesired results.

This is not a lesson learned only through experiences with the island — it is seen even in characters’ regular lives separate from their island experiences. Christian drives his son too hard with expectation. Jack is a compulsive fixer. Anthony Cooper conned people to ensure his own “ups.” Kate killed for the sake of her and her mom’s “ups.” Jin is willing to obey the whims of Mr. Paik for a shot at a decent life. The list could go on and on. At least so far in the story, essentially everyone has failed to find redemption, and this failure appears to be to the very extent that they fail to confront the things deep in their past that have saddled them with a too-strong desire to strive for ups and a too-weak ability to accept life’s downs. If only they could embrace both sides — the ups and downs, the “good” and the “evil” — and let go of the striving, the attachment to only the pleasant at the expense of the unpleasant, then maybe they’d actually get more of what they want.

Long ago, when first writing here about Lost, I talked about the show as a critique of civilization. Civilization is, most basically, a social structure in which power is unevenly distributed, with some having much and most having little. Now consider the island and the light hiding beneath/inside it. It is a place where a special kind of power has been consolidated, with much of the rest of the world lacking it. Originally I’d thought the island to stand in distinction to civilization. While in some ways it clearly does, in its own way it also now seems to just be one more place where the same old things play out.

In civilization off the island — and in various civilization-inspired social structures on the island — the unequal distribution of power leaves many people wanting, searching, striving to find more “ups” to make up for their experience of too many “downs,” while also giving a few people more “ups” than they deserve and leaving them exceedingly protective of their status against the masses who aren’t so lucky.

On the island, the light is a power that is warned against, to be left alone. Somehow on the island, extreme longevity — a surfeit of “ups” — is made possible, surely through something having to do with that light. And yet direct contact with the light can release a Smoke Monster — the inevitable extremity of “downs” that must go hand in hand with ever bigger “ups.” That, too, is true of civilization, where psychological, social and ecological ills increase right alongside — and often because of — the so-called “advances” of civilization.

Jacob described the island to Richard as the cork which keeps evil from being released out into the world. But we already see plenty of evil in the world, and we are starting to get enough information to doubt just how unassailably good and right Jacob may be. Further, if the island needed protection prior to the Man in Black becoming the Smoke Monster, then the Smoke Monster can’t be the evil being corked up.

Was there another monster, which gave the Woman her knowledge of what happens when someone goes into the light? Perhaps it was the Woman herself. Trapped by accident on the island, she stumbles upon the light cave. Drawn in by its beauty, she finds her fate worse than death: she is granted immortality and turned into a Smoke Monster. Unlike the Man in Black, she has no desire to go home — that is not something that must go along with being a Smoke Monster. She perhaps understands the nature of the island’s power and realizes that, rather than it needing protection from people, people may need protection from the island. She resolves to stay, but time grows long, and she wants to be freed from the endless prison of her life. Perhaps this explains why she steals the babies, how she can grant them their own near-immortality, and why she needs a loophole and thanks the Man in Black for killing her. That we never see her turn into a Smoke Monster in last night’s episode may be incidental, since we know the Man in Black only takes that form in particular circumstances. But even if she can grant immortality without Smoke-Monsterhood, wouldn’t she just be setting others up for the same too-long-life? Yes — hence the need for Jacob to find a successor — and the Man in Black’s own long-held frustrations.

Is there some way in which that light itself could somehow be evil as opposed to good, the evil needing to be corked up? Of course, we’ve witnessed two “disasters” on the island, under the hatch at two separate times, where massive explosions caused that Dharma station’s pocket of energy to be released — and in neither case was the world destroyed, as some said it would be in those circumstances. If the light is life and death and rebirth, then it surely must be good and evil wrapped together — pure power, not yet applied. Perhaps, then, rather than seeing the island’s light energy as either something to exploit — as perhaps Widmore and the Dharma Initiative might — or as something to protect — as the Woman and Jacob would — it should instead be understood as something to be released, once and for all, and thereby dissipated. Power corrupts and absolutely power corrupts absolutely — therefore enormous sources of power in some sense “should” be dissipated, to reduce the potential for corruption and therefore to bring more balance to the world.

Releasing the island’s energy, then, could be what causes the island to end up at the bottom of the ocean, neutralized, as we saw at the beginning of the final season. Metaphorically, it would show the way for people elsewhere, out in the “real” world, in whatever timeline, to lead better lives. Release power, the need to control. Let power be distributed to all rather than bottled up in small pockets where it can become volatile, corruptible, dangerous. Accept that we all live and we all will die — no immortality for us. Accept that we must do well by future generations — fertility for us, backed up with good parenting, unlike what we’ve seen so often throughout the series and especially in this episode by the Woman. Raise our kids so that they will know from the start that they should do their best but within the context of accepting both good and bad in their lives. Struggle to free ourselves from the resistance we’ve come to have about this very acceptance, so that we will be able to do all these things for ourselves, our kids and others, instead of striving for more and more control and power. Through all this, through this balance, there can be redemption — for the characters in the show, and for anyone who chooses this path.

The End of the Tunnel

I’ve so far avoided making any concrete predictions about the plot. So far, mostly abstract analysis and suggestions about the basic shape of things to come — about the show becoming much more nuanced in its depiction of good and evil and vaguely what a resolution of that dichotomy may look like as opposed to one side simply winning somehow. With last night’s episode having seemed to corroborate my perspective to some extent, and with so little of the series left, this may be a good time to pose some more concrete possibilities.

With Jacob having been killed, the conflict between “good” and “evil” seems difficult to resolve. With his project of finding a successor, though, that becomes more viable. Will a lostaway step in and duel with the Smoke Monster? In light of the nuanced handling of good and evil, this seems doubtful, or at least not genuinely climactic. Perhaps other oppositions will come into play. Most notable seem to be Jack’s man of science vs. Locke’s man of faith, and Jack’s “selfless leader” vs. Sawyer’s “island unto himself.” The former, though, has shown Locke’s faith to have made him a sucker, leading to his death and the ascension of UnLocke, while Jack has himself seemed to give up some of his compulsion while embracing the less “scientific” truths of the island — not quite a resolution, but certainly that conflict is not what it was. As for Jack vs. Sawyer, likewise, Jack spent a fair amount of time very concerned about himself getting off the island, and it only led to the massive guilt he experienced during the flash-forwards, while Sawyer did a lot of growing up during that same time. Jack and Sawyer, though, do remain among the few remaining lostaways/candidates.

In the end, could two lostaways, Jack and Sawyer or otherwise, end up replacing both Jacob and the Man in Black? Perhaps on some level this could happen willingly, mutually, without real conflict, both replacements somehow believing in a need to serve those roles and stay on the island. Perhaps there would not be willingness, no more than Jacob and the Man in Black had themselves shown. However it goes, the show has proved time and again what it’s willing to do to characters we care about — kill them, maim them, torture them. And we have seen that the Smoke Monster we’ve come to know and hate was, as UnLocke had said, once just a man, and not only that but a man who just wanted to be loved and find his way home. Don’t put it past the show’s creators to turn someone we really like into another Smoke Monster.

Given that the island ends up on the ocean floor at some point, I’d guess we’re in for a followup to Jack’s Jughead plan, something to bring closure to “getting a fresh start.” The series, so much about free will vs. determinism, so much about our inability to change the past, seems poised to affirm our ability to affect our future, to change. Juliet had said that the Jughead plan worked — and we have seen the Sideways world which may prove that it did. But we have obviously not seen enough to know the real relationship between the original timeline and Sideways world. The Sideways experiences of Desmond, Charlie, Hurley and Libby suggest it is not mere conjecture, a storytelling “what if,” but something real. Perhaps, and especially if there has been any taking over the roles of protector and Smoke Monster, someone may deliberately cause the destruction of the island. Once and for all, its energy could be released, bringing to an end the dichotomy of protector vs. Smoke Monster, leaving the original timeline behind to somehow cause the Sideways timeline.

The slight hints we have in the Sideways world timeline that things are maybe working out a little bit better for people may be all we get. Jack having a son and making an effort. Kate seeming to be on her way to another chance with a more understanding law enforcement officer holding her custody. Hurley’s success with money and with Libby. Claire and Jack finding family in each other. Locke getting Helen and accepting his limitations. Ben having sacrificed an administrative career for the sake of the success of the “daughter” he mistreated in the original timeline. Jin and Sun finding their way together. And so on. Here in the Sideways world, life is still a mixed bag, full of ups and downs. Sideways world underscores how this cannot be avoided. Accepting this leads not to some trite, pat, happily-after-ever good-triumphs-over-evil ending but, instead, to small, one day at a time improvements. Therein would lie the hope that, whatever else may not be working out in Sideways world, change may be possible. The glimpses the Sideways characters are getting of the original timeline may end up being no more than a reason for them to appreciate what they now have, the proof that any path would be a mixed bag and that there is far more a point in just doing one’s best rather than in always wondering, with regret, “what if.”

Obviously these aren’t totally concrete, specific predictions. Obviously much remains to be addressed — the origins of the temple, statue and lighthouse; the role of Desmond’s parallel-worlds mission; countless other things, many of which are sure never to be fully resolved because they just aren’t core to the main throughline of the story. In any case, these are least some suggestive notions about what may lie ahead.

Lost, Found: That Sinking Feeling

May 5, 2010

Yes, I haven’t written about Lost for ages. Yes, I’ve procrastinated across the better part of the entire series in what was intended to be episode by episode commentary. Yes, this isn’t an episode-specific commentary. Yes, I realize nobody probably even reads this or cares much about my take on the show. But here are a few words, summing up why I thought I might have had an original take, why it may have been genuinely important if I was right, how the way things are heading toward an end may seem to go against the perspective I’d had in mind, how the show can’t really be ultimately satisfying except as pure entertainment if I’m wrong — and how it still may be possible that my take my be correct.

At the end of last night’s episode, The Candidate, in the preview for next week’s episode, we saw clips from earlier in the series. Locke explaining backgammon as a battle between black and white. Jacob (in white) and the Man in Black on the beach, the latter declaring how badly he wanted to see the former dead. And if that weren’t enough, there was even a title card in the preview, declaring a battle between Good and Evil in white letters on a black background. And today, The Candidate was described by Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff “Doc” Jensen as providing definitive clarity about a key issue. He says there “can no longer be any doubt about this: The Locke-ness Monster is pure evil.” It certainly seems that way, but in this show, things are often not what they seem. And here’s why I think the same may be true here.

Throughout its run, Lost has transcended the simplicity of black/white, of good/evil. The entire history of the show is filled with nuance, confusion, choices. Even though some characters may seem to be more at the extremes, more obviously “good” or “bad,” it’s hard to say of practically any character that they have been all good or all evil. If the show has seemed to be about anything, it’s the quest for redemption, with practically every character living in the gray areas, having their own past demons, their own transgressions, their own mistakes. All seek to somehow find a way to be free of those things and move into a new phase of life. And yet many of those past “evils” were wrapped up with “good” — Jack’s compulsion to fix and heal, Kate’s wanting to protect her mother, the list goes on and on. We simply cannot say that the characters’ redemption is about leaving evil behind to find good. The matter is always far more complex and real than that.

And so we’re supposed to believe that the Man in Black is just plain evil, and he will unleash terror on the world, and Jacob is just plain good, and he and his successor must somehow manage to keep evil all bottled up on the island, away from the world? When the world is already as filled with illness and damage as it is — evident in the very backstories of each of the characters, above and beyond our own everyday knowledge of the world — how can we possibly buy such a simplistic scenario?

Even if the Man in Black is a psychopath/sociopath, symbolically in the story, that’s just an extreme of immature selfishness. Yet there is in some sense just about as much immaturity in believing that the only thing to do in response to selfishness is to keep it bottled up. Children are naturally narcissistic, and they can grow up to become otherwise. Not when parents let kids run wild, nor when parents squash their impulses — those approaches just ensure that they “grow up” to stay as childish and selfish as they ever were, in one way or other, with demons they’ll have to wrestle with from that point forward, seeking redemption even if they don’t realize it, and yet not knowing how to find it. Kids become otherwise, they actually become mature, when parents help give those kids what they need so that they can get through the naturally more selfish early years and learn to become whole people who know how to balance their own needs with those of others. Selfishness indulged, properly and at the right time, allows a transcendence of selfishness. Nothing else can — especially not forcing selflessness and “maturity” upon someone not ready for those things.

The ambiguity of good/bad, indeed, has been one of the key themes of the show all along. It is there in the ways we’ve learned about each character. In the ways each character has interacted with those around them. In the ways those characters have seen how their choices didn’t always turn out to be wise. In the ways those characters have learned and changed. In the different and changing feelings characters had about being on — or off — the island. And, crucially, in the different feelings and life experiences the characters have in Sideways world as compared to the original timeline.

Significantly, it is also there in the nature of, and relationships different characters have with, “The Others.” The Others claim to be with Jacob, and so are opposed to the Man in Black. Yet Widmore seems opposed to both. Even without figuring in the lostaways, there is clearly a triangle here — and therefore a refutation of the simplistic division of good vs. evil. The lostaways find themselves at odds with all parts of this triangle at various times, though the only part of it they seriously entertain destroying is the weakest. Not the supernaturally powerful Man in Black, nor the financially powerful corporate titan Widmore, but the people who run about the island in rags and barefeet. And those very “others” are the ones willing to share the island, while almost everyone else at one point or other — not only Widmore and the Man in Black, but the Dharma Initiative and even the lostaways themselves — wished the others gone, banished, exterminated.

Who is the better or worse here, the good and the bad? Wouldn’t those who want to pursue harmony and co-existence deserve to be called good in comparison to those who would rather have the island world to themselves? Isn’t this the very difference just mentioned, between kids who grow up self-absorbed as opposed to those who truly grow up and know how to seek balance and harmony? Indeed, more than once we hear some “other” who seems suspect declare, “We’re the good guys.” Who are we to believe?

The inclination to extermination is just the extreme of selfishness, the inevitable conclusion of selfishness. And it is itself entangled with the very reasons certain groups define themselves in contrast to “others.” Defining people as “others” (as the lostaways do), as “hostiles” (as the Dharma Initiative do), as enemy, is a sign of dichotomous thinking. Self vs. other, us vs. them. “We” are always fully human, while “they” are always less so. We are subject, they are object, and they deserve less than us, perhaps even death. It doesn’t matter if they die, they aren’t us, they aren’t people, we owe them nothing. Perhaps we even feel they need to die, or at least to have less, in order for us to be who we are. It is, in terms of game theory, competitive, win-lose thinking — for us to win, they must lose, and vice versa. Again, narcissism is normal in early stages of human development, and even for mature people, this kind of thinking can have its place. But as a general approach to living in the world, it is wanting — evident from the strife we see on all levels through our own world, obsessed as it is with this kind of thinking.

From the start, though, the series has posed that only those who live together will not die alone. It has posed the opposite of dichotomous thinking. It has posed the cooperative, the win-win. This is the maturity toward which all the characters struggle. Some resist it consciously, others seek it actively, but seldom is anyone successful at reaching it or staying with it. Without this thinking, everyone resorts to seeing themselves as good and the other bad. Only with this thinking, only with an attempt to find harmony, can good and bad be transcended, and can we embrace the fact that things aren’t as black and white as we might have thought. This is the redemption the characters seek.

And yet there’s UnLocke, apparently having hatched a plan to have the lostaways collectively off themselves so he can leave the island — not with them as he claimed, not giving them their heart’s desire as he promised, but obviously with some other outcome. The destruction of the world, as Jacob and Richard suggest? Not clear. But what is clear is that he was lying to them about his plan to get off the island and has certainly proved to be something other than the beneficent entity he tried to make them believe he was.

Is the show becoming simplistic all of a sudden, and have I been wrong all along? This has happened to me before, thinking a piece of entertainment might be capable of showing the way toward a real understanding of harmony, beyond the pat contrivances of good and evil. But they somehow seem to betray themselves. Star Wars. Titanic. The Candidate, with the obvious heartbreak of the death of the Kwons and the back-from-the-dark-side Sayid, and the revelation of the nefarious plan of UnLocke, all presented through the sunken submarine, has given me a bit of that sinking feeling again.

However, I still believe there is much evidence on “my” side, and so I continue to hold out hope that something better, something more interesting, is in store for the series’ final hours. Crucially, we haven’t yet been given any idea what the show, the characters, actually mean by the terms “good” and “evil.” From the simplistic us vs. them frame, from a standpoint of win-lose, good and evil become immature and completely relativistic labels, where what’s good for us is evil for them, and vice versa. But growing up our notions and seeing our way to win-win, we don’t have to discard these opposites entirely. We can come to think of them in new way.

On one level, what’s “evil” is dualistic, oppositional thinking itself, and what’s “good” is holistic thinking, thinking that acknowledges the variety of our experience and attempts as much as possible to accommodate as many as possible, thinking that even allows for competitive, win-lose thinking when it’s warranted. From this standpoint, white and black stand together on the evil side, with a rainbow opposing them.

On another level, good and evil can simply be the pleasant and unpleasant things that happen to us, the desired and the undesired, the ups and the down, in which case it’s important to embrace them all as normal aspects of life. It is trying to only have the good in this sense, failing to embrace the bad, that often leads to there being more bad and less good. On the other hand, accepting them both for the opportunities they provide is precisely what allows us to create a bit more good all the time. Here, in some sense, white and black and all else stand together, worthy of embrace, with nothing left as truly evil — the only real evil is denying part of our experience, trying to separate one or more colors from the rest.

Both of these perspectives stand in contrast to a totalitarian view of good and bad as enemies which must duke it out until only one color, white or black, can triumph. And so it may turn out that the Man in Black is evil after all, as Doc Jensen suggests, but that may turn out to mean something different from what anyone expects.

This is where I believed the show was pointing. It seemed a sophisticated deconstruction of our typical notions of good and evil, and it therefore seemed to be heading to a surprising ending, one that might even be jarring or disturbing for those who may themselves be too wrapped up in dichotomous thinking. Such a conclusion could only lead the nuances from earlier in the series toward an unexpected, far-from-trite resolution. And that resolution would have the potential to have a positive impact on the many who watch the show. It would have the potential to actually transform.

It’s not over ’til it’s over. It’s still possible that the show could hand us this very kind of conclusion, a mature and transformative one. Even still, it seems somewhat likely to me. After all, with the story plotted out so far ahead of time and kept such a secret, with so much mystery and subtlety along the way, and with the show’s creators sticking to their guns to end the show both when and how they wanted, completely according to their terms, and repeatedly stating that they have no idea just how satisfied audiences will be, does it seem possible or reasonable that the grand finale could involve a cliche like white beats black? Given the amount of evil clearly already in the world even with the Man in Black already bottled up on the island, how could keeping him there be a satisfying triumph of good over evil?

If a simplistic ending is what ends up happening, though, then Lost will find a spot on the crowded list of entertainments that I’ve enjoyed and will always hold a fondness for but which nevertheless disappointed in the end because they failed to achieve the greater promise I saw in them. If that happens, then I suppose I’ll be pretty glad I didn’t bother spending all that time writing an episode by episode commentary after all. We shall see.

Still Life

October 2, 2009

His child will soon come
He fills vase with mum
Brightly drawn
Still life

The child is dead born
It won’t see the morn
It is gone
Still life

He lets the child leave
He lets himself grieve
He moves on
Still life

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