On Unconventional Measures: That “Selfie” Song

By conventional measures, “Selfie” by the DJ duo The Chainsmokers is a clichéd, threadbare, and annoying piece of music. But if you can endure it, it’s also a fascinating bit of meta-commentary on the rituals of nightlife and club culture circa 2014.

The song enacts its stance through copious use of voice samples of a fictional female clubgoer voiced by Alexis Campisi, a real world friend of the DJs. Campisi doesn’t sing, but just sort of rants on about whatever she’s thinking about at the moment. Her character articulates the drunken musings of a generic clubgoer contemplating the exigencies of the moment. (“Is that guy sleeping over there? Yeah, the one next to the girl with no shoes on…” Etc.) On the one hand, the whole thing–the music, Campisi’s spoken word–is ridiculous and easy to make fun of. On the other hand, it’s such a direct way to voice a song. Why waste time with melody when you can just enumerate the issues that listeners in the song’s intended performance space are consumed with? Maybe this song is not about the music at all–maybe the music is just a generic supporting character in the Selfie woman’s unfolding drama? And this drama, strangely enough, is somewhat compelling because Campisi’s voice is so expressive and exaggerated in all the right (and annoying) ways. To my ear it sounds like the last word of every one of her phrases is audibly italicized.

All this to say that “Selfie” raises questions. Is the song making fun of club culture? (Probably, yes.) Is it a kind of faux ethnographic dance music made with the intent of cashing in? (Probably, yes: after all, the song made the charts around the world and has been watched on YouTube, oh, 90 million times.) Alternately, is the song for real? (Again, probably yes!)

Listen at your own risk. Here is a YouTube video of the song that displays the lyrics only:

On Michael Jackson’s Vocal Artistry

A real audio gem recently appeared via a blog devoted to Michael Jackson. The gem I’m referring to is a clip of Jackson singing one of his biggest hits, “Beat It.” But it’s not the finished song we all know. It’s a demo of Jackson’s ideas for the yet-to-be song. It sounds like he’s in the studio, demonstrating the harmonies for the vocal parts. As the tumblr author reminds us, Jackson “would sing and beatbox out how he wanted his songs to sound by himself on tape, layering the vocals, harmonies and rhythm before having instrumentalists come in to complete the songs.”

What is wonderful, in my opinion, about the recording is how it shows us the roots of the song. Not surprisingly, it’s not very different from the finished version. Even as an a Cappella, everything here is intact–actually, more than intact. Jackson’s performance is crystalline: melodies perfectly in tune, the parts already set, the groove sitting just right.

You can listen to the demo here.

 

On Ken Dryden’s “The Game”

Ken Dryden

When my brother and I were kids, we spent a lot of time playing ball hockey in the driveway, taking shots at one another with a fluorescent orange “sting” ball that really did sting when it was frozen from the cold and hitting you in the face. One of our always followed conventions of the game was that we would announce which famous player we were that day, and both of us always wanted to be “Dryden”–as in Ken Dryden, the goalkeeper for the Montreal Canadians during the 1970s. Dryden was an iconic figure for us because of his great athletic skills and his mysterious identity hidden behind that tribal-looking protective mask he wore while playing. A superhero with precision reflexes who stopped pucks like no one else, Dryden captured our imagination.

***

In his stellar sports memoir-ethnography, The Game (1983/2013), Dryden renders with lazer detail his experience playing his last season with the Canadians. It turns out that during all those games when his teammates were dominating their opponents at the other end of rink, Dryden, alone in his goal crease and leaning against his propped up stick, was observing and thinking about everything going on around him on the ice. In many ways, The Game reads like a micro-study about the performing artist and human behavior. Dryden conveys the mix of attention, anxiety, and flowing, in the moment thinking/non-thinking often felt by expert performers at one time or another in their work. But unlike many a memoir, Dryden backs up his personal observations and reflections with deep historical perspective on the past, present, and future of his sport. Most athletes and performers don’t have the ability or interest to get outside themselves like that–to see, describe, and analyze the contexts in which they work. In this way, The Game provides a masterful insider’s view of dozens of different people, situations, and dynamics, while maintaining a guiding authorial voice.

Speaking of voice, sparkling here and there in Dryden’s text like little gems are sentences that articulate new ideas, have affect, and provoke thought. Reading them as gems of advice, here are a few that I enjoyed:

Then the present slowed down and the future changed direction.

It had to do with what he did and what he didn’t have to do because of how he did it.

It is in free time that the special player develops.

He invents the game.

On Voice In The Tour De France

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“Why do you watch this? It’s pretty repetitive.”

“I just kind of trance out.”

“Do you like it because it’s soothing and mellow?”

“Yes! It’s all about the scenery and especially the voices.”

“Okay..Can we watch Wimbledon now?”

***

When July rolls around, the world of professional cycling rolls into our apt, bringing the bright colors of the Tour de France peloton and the French countryside through the TV and straight into my imagination. I can watch it for hours. I have written before about the Tour, but this year my fervent watching and listening have reconfirmed one of the best things about the event: the commentary and voices of Phil Leggett and Paul Sherwen.

Leggett, who has been commentating for some forty years now, is the steady calm voice of observation. He talks as if viewing the proceedings from a perch at 10,000 feet above looking down, making easy notice of the scenery (“Here they are skirting the Camargue, which is famous for its wild horses and pink flamingos…”). But when the action heats up–a surprise breakaway from the peloton say, or an unexpected sprint finish–Leggett can find a higher gear, raising his voice abruptly and almost running out of air so long and continuous are his sentences that track the unfolding action in a feverish pitch.

Sherwen is a little more intense. There’s an urgent quality to his voice, and he often begins sentences by agreeing with his co-host, but then pointing out a potential difficulty ahead: “That’s absolutely right Phil, but [name of cyclist] has got to pace himself and be very careful here…”–with the emphasis always on the word “got.” Sherwen also has a lower verbal gear in which he recites facts about the passing landscape such the names of centuries-old churches and the precise height of their spires (in European metric). Great TV if you ask me.

As you watch the Tour and listen to Leggett and Sherwen’s commentary, you notice a clear call and response quality to it as their voices alternate back and forth just as reliably as the cyclists’ legs move up and down. Occasionally, when there is a brief (2-5 second) lull in the talk, you can hear the road hum of the bicycles buzzing up and around mountain ranges and the cheering of the spectators lining the course. When either Leggett or Sherwen return to continue weaving their real-time narrative, you realize how important their voices are to making sense of the Tour’s relentless repetition over thousands of miles. Without their voices describing and animating the action, it would just be a very long and taxing ride.

On Influence And Voice

This is a post about influence and voice.

It’s about how each of us is influenced by one another–by other writers, musicians, teachers.

By voice I don’t mean our actual speaking voices (though those can have their influence too).

I mean that something in the character and essence and presence of each of us that resonates outward and affects others–whether we know it or not.

I think about this because it amazes me how deeply I can be influenced by just a single voice.

Which reminds me: voice is always singular.

By influence I mean a process of immediately taking on some of the qualities of another’s voice in one modality or another.

In being influenced we become ventriloquists of sorts, channeling and re-voicing those who have influenced us. I’ve explored this idea of ventriloquism in my Ventrilo-Dialogues, such as this one.

I have encountered a small number of influential voices in my orbit of experience, and I continue to discover new ones, though not very often now. Sometimes the voices are those of people I know, sometimes they are musical voices, and sometimes they are writing voices.

What is most significant about the influence of another’s voice, though, is the metamorphosis of its influence into immediate change. As you assume the voice, you assume persona, inhabit gesture and space, and take on affect in a new way. Like when a music teacher shows you something and says: “Do it like this.” You do it like that and immediately assume a new voice–or at least get a glimpse of what that voice feels like. Not on you, but as you.

So, as this is a blog post about influence and voice, it is also about how malleable we are.

All we need to do is pay attention to the process.

On Lip Syncing And Musical Authenticity

Like a lot of folks, I watched the music acts perform at the Obama presidential inauguration. The Brooklyn Tabernacle choir, singing “Battle Hymn Of The Republic” sounded fantastic;

American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson, singing “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” sounded smooth and polished;

James Taylor’s “America The Beautiful” was a reassuring presence;

and megastar Beyonce sounded quite amazing on “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Imagine the pressure to nail a song like that on a big occasion with many millions watching and listening?

But in the days after the inauguration, gossip about Beyonce’s performance began emerging until the gossip became confirmed fact: she had lip synced her song! I read several outraged news pieces about this, and all of them shared the belief that lip syncing is a profound kind of sonic deception–a kind of karaoke without the fun factor. No matter that it was cold out (hard on the vocal chords yes, but then neither the choir nor Clarkson nor Taylor had a problem with it) and no matter that Beyonce didn’t have (or make?) time to rehearse–one just should never ever lip sync. Period. To refresh your memory, other earlier cases of lip syncing in popular music that inspired public outrage include the entire career of Milli Vanilli

and Ashley Simpson’s performance on SNL in which her pre-recorded voice jumped the gun and began without the singer faking along to cover its tracks:

To her credit, Beyonce lip synced flawlessly to her own recorded singing and the result was what looked and sounded like a seamless performance. (It fooled me.) But when word got out that hers was fake singing, critics weighed in with discussions about the nature of authentically live musicianship. Writing in The Guardian, Gary Younge explained that performing live is important because it’s the only context where performer and audience can meet in a truly meaningful way:

“the essence of a live performance is the understanding that the audience is experiencing the event in real time and anything can happen. It is that combination of synchronicity, spontaneity and frailty that gives live performances their edge – it’s the one take that matters.”

It seems that there needs to be an element of risk for us to deem a performance the real McCoy. That’s what makes live music so thrilling and the news of Beyonce’s slight of mouth so disappointing.

On The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes The Mind

Seth Horowitz’s The Universal Sense is an exhaustive, lucid, and entertaining neuroscientific foray into the many ways hearing, listening, and sound shape the mind–how sound affects the way we think, feel, and act. Horowitz is a professor of neuroscience at Brown University who specializes in studies of comparative and human hearing. He’s also an enthusiastic sound generalist, driven by a conviction that “much of the inner life of sound dwells beneath conscious thought” and gleefully sharing story after story on a dizzying array of topics related to human and animal perception of sound and music. Among these topics: Horowitz explains why some sounds are irritating (nails scratching on blackboard) or ominous (buzzing wasps), the unsettling effects of subsonic and infrasonic sound, movie soundtracks and jingle music, and the vibratory phenomenon that causes us to fall asleep while driving on long and straight roads. In sum, The Universal Sense is an inspiring read that further confirmed my own conviction that music and sound-making are very special ways of knowing the world indeed.

The more Horowitz explains it, the more our sense of hearing and sound perception seems very remarkable. Sound is the swiftest of emotional triggers, and our hearing is a faster sense than vision (“vision maxes out a fifteen to twenty-five events per second, hearing is based on events that occur thousands of times per second”). And hearing outpowers taste, touch, and smell by allowing us to perceive the world around us at great distances. But with this speed and power come vulnerabilities as well. Horowitz explains the many ways sound can “hack” the brain, and how we can engage sound or silence to deliberately hack our own minds. We can, for instance, limit the sounds that reach us to increase our focus (hello noise canceling headphones!) or voluntarily expose ourselves to loud sounds to give up control–as if under the spell of a hypnotist. I don’t know about you, but by these measures I am most definitely a mind hacker.

Horowitz also explains how sound can have particularly powerful effects on us when it makes deep perceptual demands. In one passage that reminded me of the challenges of perceiving polyrhythms (more than one rhythm sounding simultaneously), Horowitz explains that a key to musical entrainment is having multiple sonic inputs that are diverse yet also acting together: “To get massive amounts of brain entrained to a single rhythm, you need complicated input from a number of sources all acting in concert. One method is to use binaural beating…”

From here, Horowitz details how we perceive two pitches that are tuned slightly different from one another–like the gongs in an Indonesian gamelan tuned closely but not exactly the same–as having a “beating” effect. As we are reminded over and over again in this book, sound, even though immaterial, has very physical effects: the acoustic has affect.

Finally, Horowitz reminds us that affect is all important in how we understand sounds–whether the sounds of our favorite music or the sounds our own voices. Indeed, “the emotional basis if communication relies not on what is said but on the acoustics of how we say something.” Consider saying, Horowitz tells us, the word ‘yes':

“Now say it as if you had just found out you won the lottery. Now say it as if someone had just asked you a question about something in your past that you thought no one knew about. Now say it as if this is the fortieth time you’ve answered ‘yes’ in a really boring human resources interview about how much you love your job […] What you changed was how you said the words: overall pitch, loudness, and timing.”

Inspired by Horowitz’s discussion of “yes” I remembered a humorous video called “50 Shades Of Hey” in which an actor demonstrates dozens of different ways to say the word “hey.” The video demonstrates the musical and affective qualities of everyday speech and how easily we can discern shades of meaning out of slight variations of tone and delivery. From this perspective, making and listening to music is just one of the ways we make sense of the world through hearing sound.