Friday, August 22, 2008

The Best Song That Also Tells A Story.

Let's say you like stories. Let's say that you love stories. But let's also say that you sometimes, like me, don't have the time to commit to a long story. You just don't have the time or energy to devote to taking in an entire long story from start to finish, because there's a lot of other things going on in your life, or you are (like me) pathologically impatient.

I am, too, pathologically impatient. I can't wait for microwave popcorn to finish. The 3 seconds that the "Interpol warning" is up on the screen before I watch a DVD? Intolerable. That one-hundredth of a second between Michael Phelps' gold-medal win number 7 and the second-place finisher? I was already bored and turning away before number 2 touched the wall.

That's maybe why I can no longer always commit to a long story, and not just long stories in books, either. I'm passing up movies and TV shows more and more, because the stories are too long and because they demand too much from me.

I first realized it was a problem a couple of months back, when I was going to watch a little TV, and my first choice was going to be a recently-taped episode of Monk. I also had waiting an episode of House, and a couple of Battlestar Galacticas. I chose, instead, to watch an Invader Zim. Not because it was good, mind you. It was good, in fact, but that wasn't why I watched it. I watched it because it was only about 15 minutes long and that's how much of my life I wanted to commit to getting into a story.

Books, movies -- all the same thing: increasingly, I have less and less attention span and try to read fewer books and watch fewer movies. There are days -- more and more days -- where I just don't want to commit to a full-length show or book or movie, and instead look for something that will allow me to get some entertainment while doing something else.

That something is almost always music. Music can be enjoyed while doing something else; I can listen to music while working out, or driving, or cleaning up, or cooking, and get in some enjoyment while also holding my attention with whatever other task I'm working on.

It has to be music, not an audiobook or something like that, because on those days when I have no patience for anything or am busy, audiobooks suffer from the same problem as books or TV shows or movies: they take too long to finish and demand my full attention, and I don't want to give my full attention for an extended period of time to something. I just want to be distracted and keep moving. Plus, if it's just a book, or just a TV show, it might not hold my addled attention fully enough; with music, there's words and a beat and instruments and a tune and all that to add into what I'm doing while I listen to the music, so, like a juggler keeping plates up, my mind has a lot to do and no time to get bored or impatient.

Music, unlike books or tv, can be added into the mix easily right next to whatever I'm doing. I can't read or watch TV while I'm driving or cooking or talking to someone else; I can have music on, though, and that keeps me from getting too bored. Music also helps keep my attention going by not just having words, but also having a beat and instruments and a tune, so when music is combined with the rest of my life and everything else I'm doing, it does a great job of keeping the various parts of my brain humming along happily -- a part focusing on not burning the deep-fried meatballs, a part focusing on making sure Mr F and Mr Bunches aren't climbing over the fence to pull the TV off its stand, and a part focusing on the music that's surrounding me.

I have a lot of days where I need to be doing all of that at once, and music is essential to keeping me focused and patient.

But remember, we began this by saying that you, like me, like stories, and you do like stories. I do, too, and I need them. While I like almost any music, I can get tired of music that doesn't really try to engage me, and a lot of songs don't. I can spend only so long trying to figure out if Miley really lists 7 things she hates about some guy before my attention wanders and I get impatient or bored.

That's where story songs come in. Songs that tell a story are a vital part of the American fabric, going all the way back to...

... I don't know. I'm not some music historian and I don't feel like Googling it; if you're really curious, you could check on Wikipedia, where they'll tell you that Sinbad invented them.

I'll just say they go all the way back to Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron.

They couldn't go back much further than that because before rock and roll was invented, most songs didn't have words. It was centuries before mankind realized that music and words could go together in something other than an opera; the fact that music and words were combined in opera was no doubt one of the reasons people didn't try it in other forms of music; they probably figured that opera was so terrible, it was better to just not combine music and words. I'm reasonably sure that the only piece of music before 1900 that had any singing in it was Beethoven's 9th Symphony, and those singers weren't saying actual words. They were just making up nonsense words, the way British bands like The Fratellis do, and the way American bands don't anymore.

Have you noticed that? The Brits are way ahead of us Yankees in terms of ability to make cool pop and rock music with nonsense words in it, and Americans have to import British songs for their commercials just to get some of that ba da bop ba da da da action:

Although Americans can still do it with some style, if the band is really good, like the Violent Femmes:

To get back to the point, story songs help fill that vital niche in my life: interesting enough to jump into the mix with the rest of my attention; short enough that I have the time to actually devote to them.

There are those, to get off the point a little, who say that all songs tell a story. Those are the kind of people who think 30 Rock is "neat" and who have a lot of Justin Timberlake on their iPod but try to convince themselves that it's hip to have him on there (it's not); the kind of people who are, in short, wrong. A "story" is not any old collection of words that conveys something, anymore than a painting is a bunch of slop on a canvas (sorry, Jackson Pollock!). A "story" has a plot and characters and themes and action. The Backstreet Boys claiming their mother is a great person is not a "story." (It's also not a "good song.")

Snoopy vs. The Red Baron is a story. But it's not the only story told by a great song. There are lots of great story songs out there -- most of them by Bob Dylan, and some of them true:

But all of them pale in comparison to The Best Story Song. What makes a good Story Song is this: It has to have a great plot. It has to have you listening to make sure you know what the story is. But it also has to have great music, and, ideally, a chorus that lodges in your head so that you never, ever forget the story.

Like The Mariner's Revenge Song. Give it a listen:

How'd you like that? Creepily good? Compelling? You bet. When I first heard that song, I was bowled over. I still am. I've listened to it three times just while writing this, and I can't get over how well put together it is. Plus, that chorus. I bet you'll be hearing that tonight when you go to bed. Lie there in the dark and picture that: Sitting in the belly of a whale, and the guy talking to you starts singing find him, bind him, tie him to a pole...

Whew! I've got goosebumps. All thanks to The Mariner's Revenge Song, The Best Song That Also Tells A Story.

Want a song that tells a longer story? Check out The Best Concept Album!

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Children tormented by demons. An old man accidentally killing people. Witches who live hundreds of years and escape from Hell repeatedly. An astronaut drifting through space... these and other great stories can be found only on AfterDark: The scariest things, you CAN'T imagine.

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