Riker's Mailbox

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Biography of a Song - "Dinosaur Sam"

Spintunes Round #3. Things are heating up. They are hottening. Temperaturafying. Terrifrying. This week, we had to set our metaphorical bras on fire and write a song protesting something. Actually, the challenge referred to it as a 'protest song' but sold it more as a persuasive piece, where we were supposed to win our audience over on something we believed strongly.

The Challenge

I had some ideas in the beginning that I discarded pretty quickly - "everybody should learn to drive a stick shift" would've been fun, but the words protest song just kept niggling at me; I needed to go sociopolitical, or else the song wouldn't stand a chance in the competition.  I could resort to my go-to topic and write a "God doesn't exist" song, but... I already wrote that song once, all the way back in Spintunes 1, Round 2.  I thought I could write a good '99%' song, but the title of the challenge referenced the Occupy movement, and that effectively made it "already taken" in my mind.  But I was getting closer to my target, at least.

So I kept thinking.  I wanted to tackle gay marriage, and I thought about legalized marijuana, but thought better of them both for fear that the topics would be thoroughly covered by other competitors and I didn't want to oversaturate the pool of entries.  In the end, I failed to find one solid idea that inspired me to crank out a worthy song; I was just left with all these disappointments floating on the surface of a general sense of dissatisfaction with our government, and that's when it resolved for me.

The thing I believed strongly is that the people in charge are out of touch with the society over which they preside, and that's fucking everything up.

The Song

I blew most of my week just arriving at that conclusion, but I knew the song was going to come out quickly once the idea fell into place.  I first put pen to paper on Saturday afternoon, and something happened that never happens to me: the first verse just came out in one flowing sentence, and it was done.  It appears in the song exactly as first written, the only exception being that I padded the length of the first line so it better matched the rest of the verse.  While doing so, I took the opportunity to identify the employer as a man to reinforce the gender roles at play in that first verse.

Anyway, that first verse gave me my hook and a rough draft for the whole song was finished Saturday night.  I put it away until the morning to let the ideas marinate in my subconscious, and managed to bang out the final draft by mid morning on Sunday.

The Music

This was a challenge I'd been waiting for.  Not the content of the challenge, mind you, but the fact that it didn't force my hand musically like it did in the previous round.  I regretted not being able to do a full rock n' roll arrangement in Round #1 and I had to wait until now to get that out of my system.

I started out noodling away on the guitar and found something pretty fun and interesting, but it reminded me, again, of my Spintunes 1 Round #2 song, so I eventually abandoned that for use in a future unrelated project.  Once the cadence of my lyrics began to emerge, however, I realized that I had an old riff written years ago that I never finished that would be just perfect here.  I had a nice funky jam in E that didn't have a very complicated progression at all, but contained some really fun flourishes.

The thing I'm most proud of is the main riff, in which I figured out how to play some choice harmonics interspersed with -- and sometimes, simultaneously with -- the fretted chords of the progression.  It's really fun to play that riff.  So fun, in fact, that I decided not to strip it down during the verses against my better judgment.  Somehow, it managed not to be too distracting during vocals, which I attribute solely to dumb luck.

This is the first time since Spintunes 1 that I've played a full drum kit in a song, and it's something I sorely missed.  Unfortunately, I moved since those days, into an apartment complex where I'm a little more sensitive to the truth that drummers make terrible neighbors.  I played very tentatively on this track, and stopped recording well before I had a take I was truly satisfied with, because I wanted to get in and out as quickly as possible before I used up the available good will and patience of my cohabitants.

This is also my first foray into recording a properly mic'd drum kit.  Before this christmas my only recourse was to throw a dynamic mic in my bass drum's sound hole and place my vocal condenser on a stand somewhere south of my left butt-cheek.  It was okay, but not really something any serious musician would call adequate.  I now have a full 7-channel setup to play with, but this essentially quadruples the amount of audio engineering I have to perform in order to get a drum track recorded.  There are many many variables at play, and it's going to take a lot of time and experimentation before I'll call myself confident in my ability.  But damn if it isn't fun as hell.

As funk rock demands, I hung up my trusty acoustic bass and brought out a recently-acquired hand-me-down electric.  I stuck to my typical formula here: structured and layered bass part for the verses and meandering solo for the chorus.  The only truly 'written' part was for the verse; everything else was just winging it.  Definitely happy with the results.

The Lyrics

I wrote three verses as self-contained vignettes, each dealing with a specific sociopolitical topic: first was gender-based wage inequality; my earlier ideas on gay marriage and legalization of marijuana made their reappearances here, bolstered by the subtexts of church-state separation and the privatized prison system, respectively.  I strung the first two verses into a narrative, and had I more time, I'd have tried to do so with all three, but the third verse is already longer than the first two without adding any thematic connections, and since it's separated from the first two by the first chorus, I felt that it was alright to let it stand on its own.

Wordplay was front and center for this song.  My rhyme scheme borrowed heavily from hip-hop's playbook, with extensive use of slant rhymes and internal rhyme.  My formula loosely follows an 'A' family of internal rhymes for the first half of the verse which then shifts to a 'B' family of internal rhymes in the second half.  The Chorus is sort of a dense shuffling of the above, with at least four unique slant rhymes in use at once.  Also in the chorus is an instance of my favorite little wordplay trick, where I create "virtual words" that don't actually exist where you hear them.  In this case, the virtual word was an identity rhyme to 'Dinosaur':

You're a Dinosaur, Sam
Your ideology needs to die
No sore winners in my promised land

In Closing

All in all, I think this is one of the better songs I've written for Spintunes, particularly for its 'standalone' factor - it doesn't come off as something that I wrote for a contest, it just sounds like a straight ahead song that I'd have written for the hell of it.  Given more time I'd maybe throw in a bridge or embellish it with a guitar solo, but as is, I'm VERY happy with the results of two days' work.

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