This challenge, in its way, served as a proverbial stroll down Memory Lane . . . at least insofar as my involvements in Masters of Song Fu and SpinTunes have been concerned.  This is the 57th challenge that I’ve gotten from MoSF or ST -- and over the course of the week I spent deciding what to do with/about this challenge, I was reminded of a great number of former songs in a surprising variety of ways.  This essay is my attempt to chronicle some of the things that were going on both “behind the scenes” and in the forefront in my mind this past week.

Reminiscence #1:  (Happiness)  (MoSF #3, February ‘09)

I remember that at the very beginning of my involvement with Masters of Song Fu, I was always very intentional about trying to write a different song that I expected anyone else would write.  I didn’t want to be “just one more entry” in a list of songs that all shared the same point of view or utilized the same songwriting approach/gimmick.  And in the early going, none of my songs exemplified this better than did “(Happiness).”  I even wrote in the song bio that I didn’t want to write a “cotton-candy pop song” or an “ironically-unhappy happy song” or a “snarky, ironical song” . . . precisely because I suspected that there would already be plenty of those from other entrants!


This time around, I was sure there’d be “comical interaction” songs.  I was sure there’d probably be a couple of “War of the Worlds”-type songs.  I was sure there’d be “we-came-in-peace-but-UH-OH-WE-JUST-GOT-SLAUGHTERED-BY-THE-HUMANS-oh-no-now-they’ll-never-know-we-meant-them-no-haaaarm...” songs.  Plus probably a couple songs predicated upon already-famous aliens from literature or cinema.  Or songs which commented upon current events through either a naïve or an ironical alien viewpoint.  I didn’t want to tread those same trails.  But I did hit upon a concept that intrigued me.  And that actually taps into a strong through-line as well.  Throughout my time meeting these Internet songwriting challenges, there’s invariably always been just a single song that I truly wanted to write for each challenge.  There’s never been a time when I was ever torn between multiple appealing options.  There have even been times when I’ve tried to “trade-away” a song I didn’t think would be very popular for a song that might be more fun.  But inevitably, I’ve always returned to and finished my “one true vision” for each challenge.

Reminiscence #2:  Blue Moon  (MoSF #2, August ‘08)

“Blue Moon” was my very first Internet songwriting challenge song; we had to write “a song about the moon.”  I ended up spending a whole week of my summer vacation on my mom’s computer in Minnesota doing research about the moon, the early space program, the discovery of radio waves and the subsequent invention of the radio, and all manner of other esoteric facts.  It spawned a song with a great deal of depth (for the people who cared to delve into all the research underpinning the lyrics) . . . but a decidedly lesser amount popular appeal.  (I like to think of this song as my “first-in-a-long-line-of-songs” for which people, if they had nothing else nice to say about it, would at least be forced to admit a begrudging respect for it . . .)


[Especially since I’m worried about whether or not I’m going to have to be pissed off at the citizenry of the United States as a broader electorate again in a few days] I was feeling absolutely not on the side of the dominant species on this particular planet as I contemplated meeting this challenge this week.  As such, I wanted to try to upend as many biases and tropes as I could in any song that I ended up writing for the challenge.  I for damn sure didn’t want the aliens to speak English.  I also didn’t want them to grant us the prestige of seeking us out a priori as the species with which they intended to interact upon their arrival.  I didn’t even particularly want them to necessarily inhabit the same “scale” or “speed” as we do.  (That is, I explored the idea of them being either so large or so small that we would completely escape their notice . . . or that they processed the passage of time so much slower or faster than we do that our activities wouldn’t even “register” with them.)  As such, I was setting myself up for another song with a lot of thought put into the backstory . . . and probably a lot of “behind-the-scenes” research to boot.

Reminiscence #3:  Exultation!  (Spintunes #4, March ‘12)

I wrote “Exultation!” entirely in a foreign language . . . and then I didn’t provide a direct translation for the listeners.  And then, when Spin wrote his review of the song, he wrote, “I rank heavy on lyrics & story. So at the bottom you go...”  Now don’t get me wrong -- this was totally fine with me . . . and it even made me laugh when I read it.  But going forward, I did remember his response to not having been given a translation.


My plan for this song was to create a language for the aliens based entirely on clicks and scrapes; I had in my mind a very insect-like chattering sound.  (I also planned on speeding up the clicks somewhat, to suggest that they were processing time faster than we were and could therefore squeeze more communication into a given interval of time than we could.)  I was going to notate this language with/as strings of punctuation marks (one example being ’.‘”;÷,’“.-’   ‘;’..“÷,.’.,’ ) and then assemble those “words-as-printed” into their aural equivalent by splicing together the sounds which I’d choose to correspond to each individual mark into full segments of sound.  Each unique “word” would thus be faithfully recreated (in painstaking fashion) aurally in GarageBand . . . and then incorporated into the larger song.  (And then -- yes -- I’d also provide a translation in English so that human who listened to this song would understand what was going on in the story.)

Reminiscence #4:  Beating The Challenge  (Spintunes #13, August ‘17)

I was up against a nearly impossible challenge this time around.  I solved the dilemma by “coding” the music as melodic tones which corresponded to individual letters.  As such, the entire middle section of “Beating The Challenge” wasn’t so much “composed” as it was actually “predetermined” by the repurposed lyric I was compelled to use.


The conceit of my song for this round was that the aliens had arrived at a world which they planned to analyze to determine whether or not they would be able to comfortably survive on it.  So the beginning of the song was going to have them deploying an emission spectrometer from their spacecraft which would fall towards our planet -- first through our atmosphere and then down into our ocean -- sending back critical data on the chemical composition of each.  The song, then, would essentially be an aural interpretation of the emission spectra sent back to the aliens.  Each spectral band would correspond to a note in a chord; each chord would represent a different atomic or molecular component measured by the falling spectrometer; and as the density and composition of our atmosphere changed at ever-decreasing elevations, the chords of the song would correspondingly fade in and out and replace each other.  Slightly different synthesized sounds would also serve to suggest different molecular structures (e.g. free oxygen atoms found in the exosphere would sound timbrally slightly different than the molecular oxygen gas encountered in the thermosphere and below).

Reminiscence #5:  Reality  (Spintunes #7, August ‘13)

“Reality” took a lot of work to create.  It was one of those songs which were more assembled than composed, and it had a lot of things going on throughout it, musically.  Plus -- it also had a dark, dystopian view of humanity.  The only other songs I’ve written that took as much or more work to create had a counterbalance in that they were by their nature a lot more fun and happy (Dance! being chief among those).  So “Reality” comes readily to mind when I think of labor-intensive songs that don’t have a great deal of popular appeal.  (It’s also one a song where I did make a concerted attempt to try to think of another song I wanted to write . . . instead of a song that I knew would be a lot more difficult for an audience to “digest.”  But in the end -- as seems to always be the case with me -- there truly was just “one-and-only-one” song that I wanted to write for that challenge . . . and I wrote it.)


So -- I get the aliens’ language coded.  I get the atmospheric emission spectra recorded.  I balance all the levels and properly place and dovetail all the musical entrances and exits.  What does that get me?  (Or rather -- what does that sound like to an audience?)  An amelodic aural soundscape with a “spoken word” lyric in an incomprehensible language that sounds like nothing more than a speeded-up collection of clicking sounds.  And espousing a dim view of humanity to boot -- for I haven’t mentioned yet that the emission spectrometer would not actually ever reach the ocean to continue its mission.  The humans would, of course, blow it out of the sky first before it reached the surface of the planet.  And the aliens would react to the abrupt loss-of-signal by quickly analyzing the cause of the failure, and then [correctly!] assuming that the wisest course of action would be to abandon this planet in search of other, less hostile possibilities.  (The aliens would be safe by dint of the fact that their chosen orbit around the planet would be distant enough that the human race would not have enough time to coordinate and launch an attack against the aliens’ actual ship before the aliens plotted a new trajectory away from Earth.)  This song sound like an enjoyable diversion for anyone yet?

Reminiscence #6:  On The Matter Of Bullying (Part 1)  (Spintunes #6, February ‘13)

This first song from my “Bullying” trilogy not only took a dim view of humanity, but it also actually ended by raising the specter of humanity escaping the bonds of this planet and taking over any and every distant sphere it could claim for itself.


How many video games are there out there which don’t even have to explain any more that of course you just automatically start shooting at whatever aliens you see . . . or you just automatically start working towards the goal of taking over their home worlds . . . or you succeed by just automatically start decimating their fleets?  My aliens in my song were going to come to this planet blithely unaware that the existence of human beings on this planet was even remotely relevant to their exploration.  My aliens in my song -- had they been invited to contemplate the question at all -- would have been inclined to assume that they’d have no greater issues with coming to coexist with humans on this planet as the would with bears or jellyfish or whales or orchids or squirrels or elephants or wasps or pumpkin plants or protists or sequoias or eagles or ants.  My aliens in my song would have had, if not in fact an actual earnest mission to form symbiotic partnerships, at least the instinct and inclination to “live-and-let-live.”  (But my aliens would have also had the intellectual capacity to both recognize and respond appropriately to a hostile situation when one presented itself to them.)

Reminiscence #7:  Born Of Hate  (SpinTunes #8, February ‘14)

There have very occasionally been rounds of which I’ve not been particularly fond.  Sometimes they’ve gotten better once I’ve finished the song and can see the full extent of what I’ve wrought.  Others?  Not so much.  But the worst round of all was far-and-away Round 2 of SpinTunes #8, where we were literally instructed to “write a hate song about someone.”  I had just finished the final installment of my bullying trilogy in Round 1, and was really hoping to maybe finally win a SpinTunes title after finishing second, second, second and third in the previous four iterations.  So I wrote a “placeholder” song.  I didn’t like it; I wasn’t proud of it . . . but I did “embrace the hate” so I could turn in a serviceable song that would get me through to the next round.  That way, I’d earn the chance to write something else in the next round that maybe would improve the world in some small way.  (It’s not an accident, by the way, that the title of this song is not a working hypertext link like all the others are.  I really do not like this song . . .)


Knowing full well the type of song I would be willing to submit for this round, I also knew that -- even if it was well-produced and highly-polished when it was finished -- it would not be a song of which I’d be terribly, terribly proud.  It would certainly rank higher than “Born of Hate” . . . but it’d probably still be down with the likes of “Sir Isaac Quickmud [No. 138]” (the odd song spawned from the John Hodgman-inspired “Moleman challenge” from MoSF).  So this song started to feel a lot like another “placeholder song” to me, rather than a song which would stand on its own merits.

Reminiscence #8:  This Changes Everything  (Spintunes #12, January ‘17)

I wrote “This Changes Everything” specifically to send a very pointed message.  (As well as to help myself process a series of disheartening current events.)  And disqualifying myself from competition was, in this case, part of the message; it lent even another layer of seriousness to the song I submitted.


“This Changes Everything” came out 10 days after the inauguration of the most unpresidential president our country has ever seen.  This song would come out the day before the midterm elections that would serve as the country’s officially registered opinion about said president.  The parallel timing  of events and the similar tracks of my thoughts were not something I could ignore.  The fact that I felt like sacrificing an entire iteration of SpinTunes again was undeniable . . . even as I understood that there wasn’t/wouldn’t be a bright, clear connection between this challenge and my state of mind as there was last time I felt this way.

But this time, the mechanism would be different, wouldn’t it?  Sacrificing SpinTunes #15 by not submitting a song at all would actually save me work and time and effort.  I wouldn’t have to rouse myself to laboriously craft both an alien language and then the complicated aural representation of same.  I wouldn’t have to laboriously track the entrances and exits of various absorption spectrum-based musical chords and the relative volumes/intensities of each over time.  I wouldn’t have to give up a full weekend to create something which would only really serve as a dense, highly-unrelatable academic exercise and an opaque political statement . . . as opposed to something I actually cared about or liked.

(And I also knew that if I did go through all that labor . . . the resulting song could very easily land itself swiftly at the very bottom of the ranking of all the round’s submissions, which would then take me out of SpinTunes #15 anyway.)

So I was selfish this time.  I didn’t write the song about which I really didn’t care that much.  (And I didn’t write any other songs either, because those would have been songs I wanted to write even less than the song for which I didn’t really care).

Instead?  I gave myself my weekend back.  I also saved myself the eye and back strain that comes from hunching over my computer, working on the mechanics of a song.  And I let myself enjoy the extra hour afforded me by the ending of Daylight Saving Time as an extra hour of free time . . . as opposed to an extra hour with which to work on finishing a song.  And I gave myself my weekday evenings to relax and recover from teaching a particularly tricky group of second graders this year . . . as opposed to filling it up with researching atmospheric levels and atomic emission spectra and the phonics of alien languages and the catalogs of free FX files of clicks and scrapes available for download from the Internet.

But I also took the time to write this essay -- this “Bio of a Song-That-Never-Actually-Got-Written” -- to give you enough hints about what, in some parallel universe, this song would have been . . .  so that you could begin to imagine what you might have heard if I had submitted such a song.  (And those of you who have followed me across over a decade’s worth of songwriting challenges will probably agree that, yes -- begrudging respect for my intellectual efforts is probably about all I would have garnered from the judges and the listeners this particular round.)

Thanks for reading!