Sunday, March 31, 2013

Explaining (away?) the humor: Rickrolling 5 years out

April 1, 2013 marks the fifth anniversary of the height of Rickrolling, or the the willful misdirection of Internet users to various versions of British singers Rick Astley's 1987 hit “Never Gonna Give You Up." 5 years ago today, Rickrolling was the joke du jour. The question that I want to ask today is: Why did “Never Gonna Give You Up” become so popular as an Internet video prank? Three reasons explain its appropriateness: popularity, incongruity, and catchiness. (1) 

Popularity: He's never letting us go

The first is the song’s recognizability and popularity. When "Never Gonna Give You Up" was released in 1987, it catapulted the Astley from relative obscurity to international stardom, topping the charts in numerous countries on both sides of the Atlantic. It has a catchy melody and a beat designed for dancing. The song has continued to be played with relative frequency on eighties radio stations across the United States, becoming associated with the eighties in general.

Incongruity: A duck with wheels?


Additionally, like it's predecessor duckrolling, the video of “Never Gonna Give You Up” itself is incongruous, and so lends itself to being used to accentuate humor incongruity. Rick Astley’s deep voice seems strange coming out of his young, Caucasian body. His idiosyncratic dancing and the outdated, seemingly exaggerated eighties clothing and hairstyle add to the humor of the video’s unexpected positioning. Even the music itself, with its proliferation of dated synthesizers and synth-drums, seems out of place in contemporary popular music. Thus, when the Internet user is confronted with an incongruous video with incongruous music in an incongruous situation, the experience is so unexpected that it becomes humorous.

Catchiness: a technical term

Many eighties’ music videos appear dated to the point of absurdity to us in the twenty-first century, but “Never Gonna Give You Up” combines this dated appearance with music that continues to be catchy. The features that make it catchy and musically popular also make it a good joke. Both its introduction (the first thing people being Rickrolled hear) and its chorus can be categorized as “earworms,” a term made popular by David Levitin to describe the psycho-acoustical phenomenon of how your brain will repeatedly replay brief snippets of music (2). Because the brain involuntarily replays the music, it can continue to annoy someone for long periods even after only one hearing.

An earworm is more effective for pranks as its music is more easily remembered, and “Never Gonna Give You Up” is full of short, repeating motives (or short, recognizable music units) that serve this purpose of easy, unconscious memorization. The introduction begins with a short three-note motive played on a synthesizer that is immediately sequenced (or repeated at a different pitch level). At the same time, the rhythmic bass line also begins with a motive that is also immediately sequenced at a higher pitch level. These two integrated sequences return several seconds later. The chorus functions in the same way—the vocal line is constructed of a seven-note melodic phrase that is sequenced three times. Immediately, these three iterations are repeated (with some alteration to prevent boredom). To complete the artful construction, the chorus vocal melody is layered on top of the introduction melody, making the whole chorus a construct of three different short sequencing motives heard many times in the short fifteen-second time span of the chorus, the perfect length for an earworm. This fifteen-second chorus is played six times within the three-and-a-half minute span of the song (not including the introduction), making it even easier to remember after only one listening.

Teaching new meaning to old dogs

To understand about how these features, the incongruous images and catchy music, can gain new meanings, let's look at the original Grand Theft Auto prank, where Rickrolling got its ignominious start. As those looking for the video game trailer are misdirected to a new music video, they feel disappointment at not viewing what they expected. They now associate this disappointment with what they see now, the video of “Never Gonna Give You Up” (3). Instead of the song’s original signification and content, a pop song about love, the song now signifies being misdirected. Instead of an enjoyable event that one experiences by choice, hearing the song or viewing the video becomes a disappointment or punishment. The incongruous elements embedded in the video, which were unimportant to the original intent, are exaggerated and foregrounded along with the song’s ability to replay inside one’s head long after the initial exposure. Internet communities have been successful in imposing this new meaning.

The lyrics of “Never Gonna Give You Up” facilitate its transformation into a subversive prank. The lyrics contain a wealth of data for manipulation and reinterpretation. For example, the initial lyrics of the chorus, “Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down,” can now be interpreted to mean that Rick is pervasive and ubiquitous on the Internet. Once he has found you in cyberspace, you cannot escape from him. He will always show up when he is needed, i.e. when you are searching for information and need misdirection. In accordance to this new interpretation, after a subject has been Rickrolled multiple times, he or she may exclaim in exasperation “I wish you would give me up, Rick!” The Internet prankster may also take this meaning to heart and try to plant Rick in as many places as possible to prove that Rick will never “give [us] up.”

Well, not all that disappointing

Despite the new meanings the song has easily gained, Rickrolling as an annoying prank is problematic—some people enjoy being Rickrolled. As pranks go, this is not a malicious one. It does not contain a computer virus or material that some would deem inappropriate. The lyrics to the song are clean and inoffensive. Someone being Rickrolled for the first time might not even realize that they had been purposely misdirected or that the experience was somehow undesirable.

The music itself could be blamed for this lack of annoying power. Evidence suggests this song is still enjoyable to many people now, twenty years after its release. In April 2008 after YouTube’s April Fool’s joke, in which the video of “Never Gonna Give You Up” received an estimated 6.6 million views in one day as the site linked all of the videos on its main page to the song, enough people bought a digital copy of the recording to raise it to number 77 on Amazon's downloads (4). Some people were happy to hear this music. This popularity might be related to eighties nostalgia—the generation of people most comfortable with the Internet right now grew up in the eighties, and to that generation the period and its music may now signify a happier and simpler time. The video’s first use as a prank in place of the Grand Theft Auto trailer may have been celebrating the song’s twentieth anniversary. Or perhaps the song is constructed well enough that it has found a new audience that did not hear it during its initial popularity.

Well, I hope in my attempt to explain why something is popular and funny, I didn't suck the enjoyment out of the joke. Happy April Fools!

Vocab: earworm, motive, sequence

1. This post is excerpted and adapted from a paper I wrote for an Ethnomusicology class.
2. Daniel J. Levitin, This is Your Brain On Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (New York: Penguin, 2006), 151. 
3. This appropriation through placement in what Roland Barthes calls second-order signification, or De Certeau's textual "poaching."
4. Katie Hasty, “Rick Around the Net,” Billboard: The International Newsweekly of Music, Video and Home Entertainment 120 (12 April 2008): 44. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Amanda Palmer's TED Talk: Too much to ask?

There's been a lot of discussion lately about how the way musicians make money has changed. One question that has risen to the forefront: can the new system even support musicians? This is a question Amanda Palmer tackled in her TED talk "The Art of Asking," which posted a few weeks ago. It's had 1.6 million views so far and caused quite a stir.

Here's the video, if you haven't seen it.


Amanda Palmer's main idea is that we shouldn't make people pay for music (or other art), but instead we should let them pay. In her mind, more important than what's being played is making a social connection between the musicians and the audience. She gave as an example her time working as a living statue. In that role, making social connections was how she made money, and she claimed that she made a pretty predicable income this way, despite relying on voluntary donations. When she presented, Amanda Palmer had just raised a fair amount of money on Kickstarter for an album project. Her point: if passing around a donation hat at a concert is okay, than what's wrong with doing virtual online hat-passing?

Amanda Palmer continues: Making social connections is hard and scary. You have to put yourself out on a limb when you present your personal music, exhibit yourself on stage, couch-surf (as she did), or ask for money. Her conclusion: It's okay; ask without shame. Donations are the way musicians should be funded. As a bonus, in the new system, the artists now maintain creative control of the music they produce, which didn't always happen with the labels. Now, artists are only beholden to their fans.


But there's some who say there are problems with this new approach to arts funding that Amanda Palmer espouses.  In David Lowery's "Meet the New Boss, Worse Than The Old Boss?", a story he published on The Trichordist and discussed on NPR's On The Media last week, Lowery argues that as bad as the old label-based system was, most musicians were doing better under the old system. Tech lobbies (the new music controllers, Amazon and Apple and others Lowry calls the Digerati) fund the studies that claim musicians are doing better now, and these studies misconstrue the real state of musician remuneration. In the old system, labels still paid musicians advances even if their music didn't sell, because it was considered a normal risk. The new post-label regime says something like: "You should give your music away for free, let us profit, and I hope you sell some T-shirts on your tour". Lowery also claims that these tech-sponsored studies are wrong about recording costs, too; recording costs are not lower, and they are still labor-intensive (and time is money). He continues: if these tech companies want musicians to give up their music for free, why don't they give up their software patents, too?

Lowery also asks if the new system is really a return to an even older system, the model of patronage, where musicians have to find a wealthy donor to support their livelihood. Some might say that today's patronage is different because groups can now fund a project instead of one wealthy person. Yet, unless a musician has built up a reputation like Amanda Palmer (who had the help of the old system), there's very little chance they are going collect enough capital without label support to get off the ground. And how do artists build that reputation without capital? At least in the old system, there was a small chance a label could do it for the musicians if they just convinced the gatekeepers. 

Can artists succeed by themselves?

To Lowery's response, I add a question of my own: Would Stevie Wonder have made it big today without Motown scouting him out? Though he was pretty good at busking at 11, it seems unlikely to me, even with YouTube. The only music artists who have built up their audience from scratch without any type of label have succeeded by marketing themselves almost exclusively to internet natives: mostly the young, male, geeky type. Perhaps the internet will be more democratized in the future, but it's skewed at the moment.

And no one in this debate has yet to mention health care; how can musicians even get any in the new system? Ever wonder why British musicians are over-represented in the pop charts? This is just speculation, but maybe it's because more musicians decide to go part-time or pro because they are not worried about where their health care is going to come from; the government's got them covered.

There's another problem Amanda Palmer's vision: when we're vulnerable, it means we could fail. And it's true, musicians could fail asking for money. She said "do it," but by all accounts, failure is still very likely, even if you work really hard. I guess that's not any different than the old system, in which bands worked really hard until they were picked up by the label but could still fail. But it seems even easier to fall on your face now.

So what do you think of Amanda Palmer's vision for the history of music? Is this the new system, and is it better than the old, or worse?

Vocab: counterpoint

Sunday, March 17, 2013

4 Irish groups for St. Patrick's day

I'd like to wish you all a very merry St. Patrick's day! While people in Ireland celebrate by going to church, people around here seem to celebrate by wearing green and getting plastered. While there's some cultural basis for celebrating green things and Guinness-driven drunkenness, here are some alternative things to celebrate on St. Patrick's:
  • Freedom from oppression and colonization,
  • Immigrant populations and our cultural inheritance from them,
  • Problems of crop monocultures (I don't think we've learned our lessons there), and
  • Irish traditional music!
So, to help you celebrate the last one, here are Irish music acts you should check out. Sure, you've heard of the Chieftains, Riverdance, and maybe even Eileen Ivers or Clannad, but these groups are my favorites, and I've been able to see all of them live!

1. My favorite Irish group of all time is Solas. Lead by multi-instrumentalist Séamus [SHAY-mus] Egan, their latest effort delves into the lives of the large Irish immigrant community of Butte, Montana. My favorite of their albums, however, are the first three with vocalist Karan Casey (who you should also check out). Yes, they're traditional, but they also push some boundaries...

2. Martin Hayes is a Chicago-based fiddler from County Claire and is on the cover of my Pocket History of Irish Traditional Music. While most of his playing is amazingly understated, sometimes he really pulls out the fireworks.

3. The instrumental group Lúnasa, especially their album The Merry Sisters of Fate. Their music really makes me want to bust out my jig and reel dance moves. One of their members plays the Irish Uilleann bagpipes; unlike their louder cousins the Scottish Highland bagpipes, they are played sitting down, pumping with arm bellows, reach more than one octave, and are made for playing indoors.

4. The venerable Altan, formed in 1987 and led by singer/fiddler Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, was one of the first Irish traditional supergroups. I remember hearing this song randomly on a train station in Spain, and I got really excited. When I saw them perform this live in London, everyone was singing along, even though it's in Irish. By the way, the chorus basically says: "Irish seaweed! It's the best!"

Well, I hope you like my selections. Do you have any favorite Irish traditional music you like to listen to?

Vocab: jig, reel, Uilleann pipes

Monday, March 11, 2013

Do we have to keeping singing in German, even in America?

This week, I'll be performing Bach's St. John Passion with the North Carolina Master Chorale. It's the first time I've performed a Bach cantata. It's kind of difficult, not just because Bach's music is more complicated and contrapuntal than Handel, but because it's in German.

Why are we performing a piece in German in the US? The answer to this question might seem obvious to music-lovers, but I want to tease it out a little. I've taken some German classes (I don't consider myself an expert), but I know that my German is better than 70% of the members of my choir. I'm sure our pronunciation is not incredible, especially since we're also worried about getting the right notes. And I bet that very few of the people in our audience will have any German proficiency. And even if someone speaks German, it's much harder to understand sung German than spoken German. So why do we work so hard to do something that has no obvious effects?

It's hard to fight tradition

The first reason is tradition. Singers are taught that we must always sing works in their original language, because the music was designed that way. If we don't perform it "authentically," the result will be less desirable. To give an example, while there is an English version of St. John Passion that sometimes gets performed, our director only mentions it in a discouraging way. And fair enough, anytime we translate something AND try to fit it in a certain number of syllables, the meaning is going to change. This is especially a problem when it's a text as well known as the Bible.

So, once we decide we must sing the music in German, we now have to solve another problem: our audience cannot understand what we are singing. The usual solution is to put the words in the program or use subtitles. But even if they do put the words in the program, do people follow along with the words? How could they, if they don't know German? True, most movements in St. John Passion don't have many words. But even if the general idea of the words is conveyed, the specific word-to-music connects (for which Bach is famous, and for which we put time and work in rehearsal) are lost in the moment. In other words, our choice to sing in German means that for our audience, we have separated the music from the text.

Religious experience?

There's a further problem with the audience being removed from meaning: originally, St. John Passion was not just an entertaining piece of music, it was an interactive church service. As many other church composers during his day, Bach interspersed well-known chorales, which are four-part harmonizations of well-known hymn tunes, so the audience could sing along with the melody.* The audience would use their prior experience of that hymn to realize "that's the take-away lesson in what we just heard." It was an internalizing moment. That familiar musical object was given new meaning, making it more powerful in a communal way. Our audience, however, will just be listening during these chorales, and unless they are working really hard, mostly not understanding

Should we keep performing this old music if it's true meaning is lost on most of our audience? I do think the St. John Passion is a great work of music and think that many people can have a great musical experience, audience and performers alike. I would argue, however, that our concert in German is now more a museum of a great work of art from a distant culture than a religious service, and I'm not sure we should pretend anything different (though in our case, it might be an amateur artist's reproduction instead of the original; not that you can EVER hear music something like the original, but that's a discussion for another time). I suppose someone could have a religious experience with it, just as people can have a religious experience in a museum. If we really wanted everyone to have a religious experience, we should sing in their language. Which may not be Baroque counterpoint.

Do you agree or disagree? Am I not expecting enough of audiences? Am I not giving Bach's ability to
reach across time and language enough credence?

Vocab: chorale

*Bach also likes the free resolution of the alto to the 5th of the chord at the end of the chorale, which most textbooks would say is a violation of harmonization rules, rules that were developed by mostly examining Bach's music. But that's for another post.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Victor Wooten's TED video "Music as Language"

A few months ago, a friend of mine posted this video on Facebook. It features Victor Wooten, a world-renowned bass player who plays with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. Wooten also teaches at music schools and camps and writes music education books and online courses.

In this video, Wooten central idea is that music education should be treated more like children's language acquisition. While I agree with Wooten generally, I think he simplifies the issues in a few places.

At the beginning of the video, Wooten lists the similarities of music and spoken/written language. Yes, music can make you laugh, cry, question. And I agree that music be used to communicate with others. I would make one caveat, however: one has to be very educated in a particular dialect of music to understand what exactly is being communicated. I suppose that is the same for language, also.

Wooten also suggests that music does not have to be understood to be effective, which he says sets it apart from language. I would argue that for this attribute, music and language are not really as far apart. In either case, we can understand generalities without understanding the specifics. Yes, a loud, consistent beat seems to get people moving not matter what the music genre, but someone shouting can also express similar things across many languages. A slow, atmospheric piece of music might communicate the same thing across cultures, but so might a soothing whisper. The specific meanings of music and language are still lost to those who haven't studied it. One could argue that a soothing whisper could carry a specific, opposite threatening meaning, but I believe soothing music could also carry the same threatening meaning. I'd like to hear more examples from Wooten about what he meant by this.

I really like what he talks about teaching music as we teach language, however: if people grew up with and absorbed music instead of being taught it, they would be better musicians. I like his thoughts about mistakes ("You were allowed to make mistakes, and the more mistakes you made, the more your parents smiled."): mistakes should be smiled at instead of punished. We still know that the mistakes were a problem, because of the reaction. And these aren't moral mistakes, but semantic mistakes. If we as music teachers and students followed this, I think we would lose less music students and have a healthier view of our own music making. I also like Wooten's idea that teachers should find out what their students want to say with their music, because students will be more motivated to learn if they find music or messages they really believe in. Teachers will have to be willing to let their students pursue that, however, even if what's the students choose is against what the teachers believe.

I foresee problems with the implementation of this new model of musical acquisition, however. If young people played with professional musicians daily instead of taking lessons, how would the older musicians make money? Would the professionals just charge for every playing session? That would price most students right out of the system. But we can't take away paid lessons, because often, a musician's steadiest form of income come from teaching lessons. This new system might mean the end of professional musicians, with the exception of some big acts who could attract large crowds. On the other hand, if there were a larger body of amateurs, perhaps we might able to support more professionals. Another implementation issue is that unlike English speakers, there's not enough musicians to go around. We'd have to create a culture of musicians, which is perhaps what Wooten is suggesting. At he moment, I don't think society values music-making enough to throw the time and resources necessary for this kind of program.

Another issue is Wooten's admonition to "play" more than practice, meaning mess around and play music for fun. This can be a problem, too, as people don't necessarily play what's best for them to improve their skills. They could play the same song over and over again, and play it badly,  because it sounds okay to them instead of trying something more challenging (like episode 6 of Freaks and Geeks, "I'm with the Band"). I guess playing with better musicians daily might solve this problem. While I think that we should encourage students to mess around more than we do, I think play encouragement needs to be tempered with some pedagogy and directional advice.

Finally, Wooten's approach would probably work great for jazz, folk, and rock music (where jamming is possible), where oral tradition is how the music is transmitted. But would this approach work for Western, classical music, with its written tradition? I'm not so sure. We learn oral languages naturally, by assimilation and trial and error, but do we learn written language by osmosis? I think the existence of many illiterate adults living in a literate world suggest that Wooten's approach would not work for classical music.

What are your thoughts about Wooten's video?

And how about that bass playing?

Vocab: jam