Riker's Mailbox

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Biography of a song - "ToughJobs vs. IronGates"

What follows is not so much a song bio, but instead something like a DVD special-features bonus material for the song; it’s a list of all the computer or comic references I included in the song’s lyrics. There’s a clue to the presence of each of them in the official lyric sheet; any time I incorporate conspicuous mid-sentence capitalization, etc., it’s a hint that I’m trying to be clever. Some of them are easy to notice, some are pretty hard. Let me know if you got all of them!

For those of you who want the torturously long song bio, it appears below the easter egg list. I highly suggest you do not read it.


  1. Not so much an easter egg, but an explanation. The opening voiceover is from a video Steve Jobs recorded in the 80s describing a study that compared how humans fared against all other animals in terms of energy efficiency while traveling a distance of 1 kilometer. The condor was the most efficient, while a human walking was rather unremarkable. But, Steve explains, one of the people doing the study had the insight to recalculate the human’s performance after putting him on a bicycle. The human was still traveling under his own power, but it accounted for our ingenuity and ability to invent tools that scale our capabilities. Of course, the human on the bicycle calculated way off the charts, easily surpassing the condor’s score. So, in the voiceover, we hear Steve explain how he equates computers to being ‘bicycles for our minds’. Very cool.
  2. Bill refers to a ‘basic passion’ in his opening stanza; BASIC was the computer language he first learned, which inspired him to pursue software and form Microsoft.
  3. Bill refers to ‘opening windows’; Windows is the name of Microsoft’s operating system.
  4. Steve’s second stanza includes the constructed words, ‘iDo’, ‘iWant’, and ‘iKnow’, all references to Apple’s popular product naming convention: iMac, iPod, iPhone, etc.
  5. Bill says “I’m trying to get our world in sync”; SYNC is the name of the Microsoft-engineered computer interface featured in new Ford vehicles.
  6. This one was hidden across two stanzas: Steve says “I’m trying to change the way we all think”. The next lyric in the song starts with “Different means...” When sung together, you hear, “Think Different”, which was a marketing slogan for Apple for several years.
  7. Steve sings about Bill’s ‘Blue Screen of Death’; this is the popular nickname for a screen that is displayed when Windows suffers a fatal system crash.
  8. The first comic book reference: Bill has more money than “a dozen Bruce Waynes”, referencing Batman.
  9. Steve “shines a green lantern on manufacturing process”, thereby referencing the superhero Green Lantern by name.
  10. Bill mentions “not waiting for Superman”, Waiting for Superman was the name of a documentary about inadequacy in childrens’ education; Bill Gates made a prominent appearance in the film. In real life, he runs the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which focuses on addressing health and education inadequacies in the 3rd world.
  11. Bill refers to his “Uncanny X-Box”. This one was a dual reference to the Microsoft gaming console, and also to the ‘Uncanny X-Men”, as the X-Men franchise was named for several issues.
  12. Just a neat factoid: The deep boom that comes in during the outro is actually a five-gallon Arrowhead water cooler jug. I always wanted to record that sound after first hearing it; I was just expecting to use it as a low percussion sound. but as I was recording it I delightedly discovered that the jug resonated at a perfect D; it was a complete coincidence that it matched the key of the song!


This is going to be a bit of a schizophrenic post. I hope to achieve two loosely-related goals in the space of one essay, and I'm going to try my best to thread them into each other. The first major topic is a deconstruction of the most recent song I wrote, and the second is an investigation of my songwriting style and how SpinTunes has affected it.


SpinTunes #1 began with 31 contestants, and the Round #1 challenge was titled, "'I'm a Marvel, and I'm a DC' - Write a song from the perspective of a superhero or supervillain." However, this past Valentine's Day my band played a gig at a benefit show that took place in a comic book store. Since we always like to write at least one song specifically for each gig we play, and given the event's date and location, I decided to write a 'superhero love song'. I was quite proud of it, and so I couldn't help but feel some frustration upon receiving this first SpinTunes challenge. I had already written a song perfectly compatible with this round, but I couldn't use it. Furthermore, I've only read one comic in my life (Watchmen, upon which my song 'Crimefighter' was based), so I'd already felt like I'd exhausted my comic-song fodder. Add the fact that SpinTunes required me to write another song in relatively no time at all (I developed the guitar part for 'Crimefighter' over a period of years), I was a tad bit flustered.


Fortunately, what I lack in geeky comic knowledge I make up for in geeky computer knowledge. I couldn't help but notice the challenge title was an allusion to the Apple TV commercial series, "I'm a Mac, and I'm a PC". As soon as I became aware of this intersection, I knew exactly how I was going to tackle the challenge and there was only one direction I could take it. The entire roadmap was laid out before me; it was time to just shade in the detail.

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates (the current and former CEOs of Apple Computer and Microsoft, respectively) are both pioneers and living legends in their industry, and have actually been referred to as members of a class of 'superhero CEOs' in newspaper and magazine articles over the last few decades. It's not so much a stretch to envision these two seeing themselves as literal superheroes. Both of them are responsible for shaping the entire computer industry, and by extension and in more than one way, the quality of life in today's world.

So I have two main characters based on people in the real world, but exaggerated. They are of equal stature and they both believe in bringing positive change within their respective fields of expertise. They should be, and have been (albeit in the past and tenuously at best), partners. But as business competitors, they're antagonists to each other... and each has been responsible for enough failures and faults to justify being vilified in the mind of the other. The public at large is equally polarized in their opinions on the true nature of these men as well.

Bill and Steve have very defined personalities, and so do the companies they created. Since each hero's philosophy is revealed explicitly in the song's lyrics, I decided to use the music behind each of them as 'virtual characters' to implicitly identify their respective companies... which in turn represent the heroes’ respective superpowers.

Bill and Microsoft are a classic monopoly: large, powerful, traditional, very structured, but both borne of a rebellious attitude. This lends itself well to my typical percussive folky acoustic guitar style. In this role, it's intricate yet predictable, a little peppy but generally pleasant to listen to, and composed entirely of major chord voicings. The acoustic bass plays a pretty and simple melodic line underneath. Single bass notes only. Traditional.

Steve and Apple, on the other hand, are the insistent, arrogant young punks... despite having been around just as long. He's a know-it-all, he’s edgy, blunt and brilliant, and his company is hip and popular yet counterculture at the same time. They're dynamic and nimble. Wild cards. Steve is straight up dirty rock and roll. I telephone Steve’s voice, pull out the stratocaster, and to give it the dirtiest sound I can... I plug it into an overdrive pedal with an almost-dead battery, and play through a bass amp. Steve's entire accompaniment consists of a raunchy, unstructured, minor pentatonic guitar solo. At points it even strays from those bounds, breaking scale regularly and throwing in nonsense notes and slides/bends. The bass guitar shifts to a driving 16th-note D chord; it's a persistent rumbling noise below the guitar lead.

The song begins as a back-and-forth between Bill and Steve in the theatrical spirit of "Anything you can do, I can do better", but modernized a bit to avoid sounding too ‘Broadwayish’; there are others much better equipped to pull that sound off.

When we get to what most would probably call the 'bridge' of the song (Side Note: I'd call it a preemptive interlude; I rarely follow the rules of 'verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus' song progressions very tightly. I've written a song where each verse is identical and repeated throughout the song, while the chorus changes its lyrics each time. At that point, are those parts actually what I'm calling them? That's a question for a music theorist, not me), however, both characters are finally singing together, and the tone of the song changes the same way the ambiance would change if you put them in a crowded room together. Things get tense, a little dark, and almost-but-not-quite dissonant.

While everything is progressing more or less cohesively, there's no consistent interval between either vocal progression or between the guitar and bass lines. Since the guitar and bass are playing single note progressions, complex ‘virtual chords’ emerge between bass note, guitar note, melody vocal note, and harmony vocal note. I’d love to tell you what they are, but I have no idea. Maybe I can get someone to transcribe them for me.

What I do know is that the entire song hangs out around the D chord; I wish I had a particular reason to explain this, but the fact is, I have practically no knowledge of music theory, and my songs will always start with an experiment on a guitar fretboard. When I started writing the song, I just grabbed the guitar and aimed for a random fret, then searched for a second note after that. When I heard something I didn't mind, I just rambled away at it. It turned out to be in the key of D.

When we hit the actual chorus, I wanted to give each character’s tone equal presence, so the melody progression is major part of the time, and minor the other part. That they both end up singing in D major and D minor together suggests that they’re more similar than they think, despite the upcoming distinctions they’re about to attempt to make in the second verse.
The first verse served as an introduction to each character; they didn’t speak to each other at all. In the second verse, they finally address each other and get into the argument. This verse runs longer since I needed to bring the argument in and resolve it without requiring a third verse (the song doesn’t feel long in my opinion, but it was flirting with the 5:00 mark so I figured I’d condense a little). One more extended chorus and we arrive at the outro, which is a slight modification from the guitar progression in the chorus, tweaked to give the same tense ‘weighty’ feel of the prechorus. The music swells behind voiceovers from Steve and Bill; they’re paying each other compliments, but the tension in the music reminds the listener that while they’re cordial, they’re not exactly comfortable pretending to get along.


Because of the time constraints and near constant perspective shifting, recording this song would have been incredibly difficult for me without changing the way I go about it. Rather than recording each instrument’s part for the whole song, I recorded the song piece by piece arranged according to character parts. Rather than trying to change beats over and over without screwing up, I recorded all of Bill’s drums on one track, going silent for the duration of Steve’s parts. Then I’d go back and fill in the gaps, recording Steve’s drums on another track. The acoustic guitar I just played as much as I could ‘till I screwed up, then stopped. I’d set up a new track and punch in after the last fully successful measure and go again as long as I could. The result is that the continuous acoustic guitar part is actually distributed over about six tracks in the song. Electric guitar was done in two tracks, and the bass was done in one. By patchworking the song together the way I did, it saved a ton of time. If I didn’t have the deadline, I don’t think I’d choose to record this way, but it was a hell of an exercise and it’s certainly making me step up my game. I couldn’t be happier with the way the song turned out, and I couldn’t possibly enjoy participating in the contest any more than I do. This is magic.

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