Monday, September 28, 2009

The 6 Best Quirky Chick Singers (And How To Tell Them Apart)

"I've heard this song about 50 times today already," Sweetie exclaimed Saturday night when I was cleaning up after dinner and put on the song "You and I" by Ingrid Michaelson:

But she hadn't. She'd only just heard that song for the first time that day, and ever, because I'd only just downloaded that song.

I don't blame Sweetie for being a little confused, though, because I had been listening, most of the day, to my "Quirky Chicks" playlist on my iPod.

I don't, as a general rule, go in for playlists. I prefer to think that any of the 10,197 songs on my iPod could come up next, and limiting myself to a playlist takes away the surprise of an unusual or seldom-heard song coming up. That, and I don't like to ever be more than a click or two away from Rock Lobster, Rock Lobster being the song that made me go from an iPod mini to a full-size iPod: I had to make the jump up, because back when I had just an iPod mini, I could only get about 1,000 songs on it, and eventually I had more than 1,500, which meant that I didn't have every song available every moment that I was listening to it. That dilemma sprung into a full-fledged crisis when I was jogging one day at the health club and decided I needed Rock Lobster to spur me on to go that extra mile, literally, as I was trying to stretch a 3-mile jog into a 4-mile jog. But I couldn't find Rock Lobster, and eventually realized that I didn't have it on my iPod. Depressed, and looking for an excuse to stop running anyway, I stopped and went home and cursed the Fates.

I almost lost faith in America and humanity that day, but I forged bravely ahead, got a bigger iPod, and now have Rock Lobster constantly available. Like now:

I don't, then, tend to segregate my songs into playlists, but I do have a few that I use for specific purposes. I have one for each of the stories I'm writing, a playlist for Lesbian Zombies and a playlist for Up So Down, and so on. I have my "Upbeat" playlist of songs that make me want to dance and sing along with them. I have my "Running" playlist of songs that are good to run to, a playlist that features this song:

I don't know why that song is good to run to, but it is. So is this one:

And recently, I created my "Quirky Chicks" playlist, after I realized that about 1/3 of my iPod is taken up with songs by Quirky Chicks, Chicks who sing songs about weird things, or who swear sweetly in feminine voices, or who play unusual instruments, or who seem just too shy to sing but there they are singing, or who use dolphin imitations as part of the chorus of a song.

Quirky Chicks, in fact, are a whole genre of music now, as legitimate a genre as "Rock" or "Hip Hop" or "Songs Written, Sung, Performed, Produced By, Or Somehow Or Other Associated With Jack White," that latter category itself accounting for 97% of everything you hear on the radio or Internet. The theme music to Parks & Recreation? Written by Jack White.

Well, I don't know if it was or not, but it could have been, and "could have been" is as good as a fact in the Virtual Age.

Sweetie's comment, though, concerned me that society, as a whole, may not appreciate the differences that make each of the top Quirky Chicks unique. It's easy to lump them all together as peasant-blouse wearing, piano-playing, high-voiced chirping chicks, but to really get the most out of their music, and the genre as a whole, it's necessary to dive in a little more deeply.

As usual, I am here to guide you in that effort, and so I will walk you through The Six Best Quirky Chick Singers (And How To Tell Them Apart.)

UPDATE! Because Alli Millstein reads this blog and got in touch with me, I have upgraded her to the UNDISPUTED QUEEN OF QUIRKY CHICK SINGERS! and have moved her up to number one from her original spot of number four:

1. Alli Millstein. "Mend My Heart" is the song that had played before Ingrid Michaelson's You and I, and is the song that Sweetie thought was the same song, even though the two songs are not very much similar. You have to forgive Sweetie; her last three musical purchases were "Live Through This" by Hole, because she thought it played over the credits of the horrible movie Jennifer's Body, then Doll Parts, by Hole, because she thought that was the actual song that played over the credits, and then Cruel To Be Kind, by Nik Kershaw. Sweetie does not have good taste in music.

(Whereas my last three purchases included What Would Brian Boitano Do? From South Park, so clearly I do have good taste in music.)

Alli Millstein is on my Quirky Chicks playlist by virtue of that mix-up. Listening to her music (which you can do on her MySpace page, since she doesn't have any videos on Youtube yet), you'll note the absolute lack of weird sound effects, unusual instruments, stories about people who are enraged with love, or anything else that would mark her as quirky.

But she has quirk potential, as she has a song called Skeletons (as does Kate Nash, making skeletons a de riguer stopping point on the Road to Quirksville) and she describes her music as "

The moments between sleep and awake.

On her Myspace page, and also she's from Brooklyn. Brooklyn is quirky, isn't it? Or it was. Or should be. Wasn't Brooklyn the home of Welcome Back, Kotter?

You know what borough is underrepresented in pop culture? Staten Island. There's the Bronx, Queens, Manhattan, Brooklyn... and Staten Island. All the others have their pop culture moments and signifiers: The King of Queens, the Bronx Bombers, Alli Millstein & the Sweathogs and the Tree that Grows in Brooklyn. But Staten Island... has there ever been any significant piece of music, film, art, literature, or cookery that celebrated, or was set in, Staten Island?

I can't think of any, and if I don't know about something, it doesn't exist. So you writers, singers, painters, and cooks: Get going with your Staten Island stuff.

Representative Song: As I said, you can't get an Alli Millstein video on Youtube, making her sort of the Staten Island of Quirky Chicks. But I'll pick out her song Skeletons, as the quirkiest of the bunch. It features a cello and a moog, and that's pretty out-there for music. Plus, again, it's about skeletons. Hear it here.

Where You Might Have Heard Her Music: Connecticut. She's playing open mic gigs in Connecticut, which is the Staten Island of states.

What's The Weirdest Thing She's Done? She's friends on MySpace with some guy who goes by the name of "Meepy Meep."

We'll begin with the undisputed Queen Of Quirky Chicks, Regina Spektor:

1B. Regina Spektor:

Representative Song: On The Radio.

Why That Song Is Representative Of Her Work: Regina specializes in strange images, pop-culture collages strung together in impossible-to-sing-along with lyrics, the impossibility coming from the quirky way she sings, all pauses at the wrong time and stretched-out words that carry through 2, 3, or seemingly seventeen verses. I expect the time signature for Regina's sheet music involves both pi and imaginary numbers.

On The Radio hits all the Spektorisms: Pop culture reference (On the radio, you'll hear 'November Rain,"), strange imagery (worms? Styrofoam? Driving a limo through a crowd?), oddly-syncopated music that kind of hypnotizes you: all there and accounted for.

Where You Might Have Heard Her Music: Since almost none of these singers makes it onto the radio -- radio doesn't reward originality or brilliance or quirkiness or even unsualality, remember, especially not since they invented a machine to tell what songs will be a pop hit...

... they really did, you know. There really is a machine that can tell, with phenomenal accuracy, whether a song will be a hit. Using what the inventors call "spectral deconvolution software" the Machine predicts whether or not a song will be a hit. It works, too: It was tested on a then-unknown singer's album, and the Machine predicted that the album would be a phenomenal smash; the album, by a then-unknown singer named "Norah Jones" sold 28 million copies. (I learned about the Machine from Malcolm Gladwell; read more about it here.)...

Since machines now tell radio stations what will be a hit, and since studies have shown that radio listeners instinctively turn off music they haven't heard before, it's unlikely you'll hear a Quirky Chick on the radio sometime soon. But you have heard them, and you maybe heard Regina Spektor if you went to see (500) Days Of Summer. Her song "Us" was featured in the movie and in previews for it. I can't play you that song -- Regina won't let it be embedded -- but here's an even quirkier version of it than I could have imagined existed:

Marimba! Plus, it's kind of like that guy traveled in time, like he got the time machine they used in Primer and used it exclusively to play along with Regina Spektor on that song. I wouldn't necessarily have used a time machine for those purposes myself, but I can admire that he did.

What's The Weirdest Thing She's Done, Musically? With Regina, that's hard to narrow down. Virtually every song features something that would make the general population say "Well, I don't get that. I'm just going to go watch According to Jim instead of listening to this song any further."

(That, I imagine, is the only way According to Jim ever got any viewers: People who were confronted by something weird in the culture, who retreated into the most banal point of human existence as a way of comforting their souls. That's also the only reason, I imagine, that people read Jacquelyn Mitchard books.)

But if I had to choose one really weird moment that makes me think Oh, that's too far, and then think wait, no, it's not far enough, but then go back to just trying to learn the lyrics, it would be the chorus in Folding Chair:

Yep. She went Full Dolphin on you.

2. Kate Nash: I just went and Googled the number Two Quirky Chick, Kate Nash, and I have this to say: When I saw her photo on her MySpace page, I first thought "Oh, that's what she looks like?" and then I thought "Yes, that's exactly what she should look like." And how many people can you say that about, that they look exactly the way they should.

Here is Kate Nash's MySpace photo:

And here is a Kate Nash song that shows you why she should look like that:

There is a certain type of British girl who probably exists only in movies and Nick Hornsby books and Kate Nash songs -- the kind of girl who won't give a shit when she fights with her friends and who, in fact, would write a song called This Shit Song, with lyrics like

i'm sittin with my friends gettin drunk again
on wine and i think about you
i'm sittin with my friends gettin drunk again
on wine and i think about you
darling don't give me shit

And the type of girl who exists in those realms should look exactly like Kate Nash looks in her MySpace photo, so bravo to you, Kate Nash: You've nailed it.

Representative Song: There's certainly nothing wrong with Foundations and the way it's jubilant piano background is underscored by the grim lyrics and under-underscored by the rising, threatening, monotonous tone in the background (if you missed that, go back and re-listen and turn the sound up), but while that song is good, the true essence of Kate Nash seems to me to be found in Mariella:

Note: I know nothing about Kate Nash, so when I say the "true essence of Kate Nash," I'm speaking about the "Kate Nash" that exists in those Nick Hornsby books.

Where you might have heard her music: Because I'm 40, I'm constitutionally prohibited from watching this channel, but apparently MTV featured Kate Nash all over the place, from baguette competitions to a commercial for Run's House. I wouldn't have imagined that you could use a British Quirky Chick to advertise a reality show about a rapper-turned-preacher raising his kids, but then, that's why I'm going to be excluded from the future postapocalyptic society (or at best used as monster bait.)

What's The Weirdest Thing She's Done? Aside from the Baguettes & Run? I'm going to go with Birds. I'm already a fan of love songs that don't seem as though they're love songs but are actually phenomenally good love songs, and Birds is one of those:

You have to listen carefully to it, but if you do, you'll realize that amidst the swearing, Kate Nash comes up with a fantastic metaphor for love and puts it in the hands of two people trying to stretch themselves above this mortal life and into the poetic life -- that being another metaphor. These two people, who really want to express themselves in a lyrical manner (but can't) manage to come up with the image of love as a bird that flies up high, poops on you, scares you... but is beautiful.

I know; it'll never replace Never Tear Us Apart as the wedding song of choice, but it should.

3. Lisa Hannigan: Lisa Hannigan is one of the reasons I give why it's sometimes better to stay up a little late and be tired the next day than to get a good night's sleep. With twin 3-year-old Babies! that never sleep, I don't need excuses to be awake all night, but it's nice when being awake pays off with something like Lisa Hannigan, who I saw when I happened to blearily watch The Colbert Report as it aired one night at 10:30. Lisa came out and took out a weird instrument and played a song that I liked within the first three notes, and it only got better from there.

Representative Song: "I Don't Know."

She's got the unusual accent, and she's gunning for Regina's throne as Queen of Quirk: She was covered in chocolate to promote fair trade, her blog includes cake recipes, she knitted the cover of her album herself, and "prepared" her album in a barn, something I hadn't heard of a band doing since Cowboy Junkies recorded The Trinity Sessions.

But it works, giving her the "plinky plonk rock" (her words, coined by a friend) sound and image she's trying for.

Where You Might Have Heard Her Music: Being a male, I'm constitutionally prohibited from watching this show, but I understand that she's featured about every 30 seconds on Grey's Anatomy. She also appeared on The Colbert Report, and she's the background music to a same-sex marriage support video that apparently is an Internet smash:

"Sinead's Hand,":

You learn something every day. I didn't know that the debate over whether gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry -- a debate that shouldn't even exist-- existed overseas, too. I guess people are stupid and shallow and narrow-minded in other countries, too. But maybe Lisa Hannigan can help end that.

What's The Weirdest Thing She's Done? I think she found the instrument she played on The Colbert Report in the trash. But I may have dreamed that.

5. Garfunkel & Oates: I only know about Garfunkel & Oates because I read Dan Savage every week, and one week he mentioned them in passing. I don't know anything else about them beyond (a) Dan Savage listened to them, (b) now I listen to them, and (c) they're both hilarious and quirky and good musicians.

I always secretly suspect that albums are concept albums. Or, to put it more clearly, I always secretly suspect that albums which are not reputed to be concept albums are, in fact, concept albums (like Get Behind Me, Satan, by the White Stripes) while also deciding that albums which claim to be concept albums aren't, like American Idiot by Green Day. So when I first heard most of Garfunkel & Oates' songs, I immediately decided that they told a story about two girls who fall in love and then fall out of love. If you listen to their songs, you'll see why; they seem to follow that pattern. (You can listen to a lot of them here.)

But I hate researching, and like most Americans I'd rather believe something than know something, so I've never checked that out.

Representative Song: I Would Never (Have Sex With You): Probably NSFW. Or NSF-sharing-with-the-kids, and it's also TKOSTWSHI,SWS"WDTJS?" (which stands for The Kind Of Song That When Sweetie Hears It, She Will Say "What Did They Just Say?")(I don't foresee that acronym catching on.)

Where You Might Have Heard Them: This song:

Called "F*ck You" (safe by an asterisk!) was reworked as "Screw You" and sung on Scrubs. Meanwhile, this song:

"Sex With Ducks," has been all over the airwaves, they say, only it's on shows I don't watch because I am stupidity-intolerant and have trouble watching "The O'Reilly Factor." What is that supposed to mean, anyway? The X-Factor was the gene that gave mutants their powers. Is O'Reilly saying he's a factor in something? And if so, can someone please tell me what effect Bill O'Reilly has ever had on the world, besides making me shoot milk out my nose everytime someone says Play us out?

Weirdest Thing They've Done: They played a show with "The legendary" John Oates.

6. Imogen Heap. Here's why it's a good idea to keep kids around: Sometimes, they introduce you to new music that doesn't suck, as happened to me when The Boy introduced me to Imogen Heap.

He didn't know he was introducing me to Imogen Heap; he thought he was introducing me to a Saturday Night Live skit making fun of an obscure The O.C. episode in which one kid kills another or something; that led to the skit, Dear, Sister, in which a bunch of people kill each other to the repeatedly-restarted song Hide And Seek by Imogen Heap.

Here's the OC part:

And here's the parody, which is pulled off of Youtube all the time, so don't be surprised if it doesn't work. If this is out of order, go to Youtube and look for "Dear Sister."

The song in the background of the short is "Hide and Seek" by Imogen Heap, and apparently is not at all representative of her work, even though it's a really great song.

What is representative of her work, then, you might ask? Having asked it, let me have Imogen Heap answer you. According to her Youtube channel, her work sounds like:

Starlings @ sunset, food, brain ache books. Coming out the cinema after an amazing film feeling, log fires. Folk I know + like who make music + also spend lots of time alone, noodling : back ted n ted, Milosh, Zoe Keating, David Sugar, Pixelh8, Leo Abrahams, Jon Hopkins. Family, Men or the lack of them, people i violently disagree with. A calm beautiful day. Bustling London. Driving my car, jogging, RJDJ. Basically pretty much anything! yay o yay bring forth the wonderfully random jolts of life.

Representative Song: I've listened to a bunch of her music, and I tried to pick out the song that best captured the "starlings @ sunset... back ted n ted...RJDJ" feel. That's not, as you'd gather, an easy feeling to encapsulate. It's even harder when most of what Imogen Heap has on Youtube is a video blog:

No, I didn't watch the whole thing. I don't want to watch singers talk, any more than I want to watch writers sing, or actors run for political office or Brad Pitt do anything. Instead, I clicked around and found "Headlock," which seemed pretty good:

Where You Might Have Heard Her: You didn't watch The OC, did you? Because if you did, you and my dad have something in common, and I still can't believe anyone, let alone my dad watched that show. Or you might have heard her in the SNL parody. And her song "Can't Take It In" was used at the end of the movie The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe:

What's the Weirdest Thing She's Done? I'm just going to go ahead and quote from Ms. Heap's blog:
The thing about flamingos which I learnt pretty quickly is that they're not that into us getting too close to them. They like to keep a good wide berth! So In order to combat this situation I went down the local fancy dress shop and bought myself a 6 foot flamingo suit. I was very convincing!

She goes on to note that she was just kidding about that. She then played a B-side of her song "Headlock" for a Maasai warrior. She seems like she'd be pretty cool to know, come to think of it.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Guy Who Played The Creeper Cleans Up Well, Don't You Think? (The Best Actual Horror Movie Monsters, 4)

Since, this week, the public largely rejected an ill-defined horror movie monster that simultaneously embodied every horror-movie cliche while also making no sense (why would pulling off the "BFF" necklace take away the demon's power, I wonder?), I thought I'd again help everyone remember just what it takes to be an Actual Best Horror Movie Monster, by presenting, without much ado, the Fourth Best Actual Horror Movie Monster:

The Jeeper Creeper,

Or whatever he was called. Whatever it was, it was amazingly, brilliantly, scary, and it was that because (a) it had big leathery wings and also drove a rusty truck and wore a hat, (b) it was building a person out of parts of other people, and then sewing the used up people into a big mosaic, and (c) it avoided every single horror movie cliche in one fell swoop -- a fell swoop being what the Jeeper Creeper used to get people.

The Jeeper Creeper had no backstory, beyond Cat Lady saying it's been around forever. There was:

-- no television news show setting out exposition,

-- no professor beginning the movie with a lecture about how we've discovered every possible kind of creature and therefore there are no new creatures left in the world to be identified, after which the main female character says "How can you be sure?" and leaves class only to later realize that the Jeeper Creeper is just what she was sure existed, thereby ironically proving the professor blah blah blah pleh.

-- no scene in which the main characters try desperately to research this thing online or in print, coming up with a half-baked plan based on dusty old books/an obscure website/A Milton-Bradley game.

There was just a truck-drivin' bat-thing that wanted to listen to oldies' music, eat people, and use their body parts for his outsider art.

True story: the night I watched Jeepers Creepers, by myself in our house, I didn't want to turn off the lights before going to bed, and then had such trouble falling asleep that eventually I had to watch Disney's Hercules just to clear my mind. Compare that to this weekend, when for most of the latter part of Jennifer's Body, I was preoccupied with wondering whether it would seem cheap to ask for a refill of my popcorn on the way out.

Also, this is the guy who played The Creeper.
He also played "Bald Cop" in that movie. But you know what the greatest part in that movie was? Officer With Hole In Chest. If I were an actor, I would love to have that on my resume. Imagine the conversation starters:

Me (In alternate world where I'm an actor:) Hey, baby, can I buy you a drink?

Her: Don't I know you from somewhere?

Me: Maybe. I played "Officer With Hole In Chest" in the movies. And not just one movie, either -- there was a whole series of movies, like Officer With Hole In Chest 2: Electric Boogaloo, and Officer With Hole In Chest Vs. Predator.

Her: No, it's not that. Wait a minute... you're the guy from my apartment complex who took all my clothes out of the dryer and then put his clothes in. And you threw my clothes in the garbage!

Me: Sorry. The Fast Officer With The Furious Hole In Chest didn't actually pay that well.

Yeah. That's the dream.

Friday, September 18, 2009

What's really scary is the state of modern science. (The Best Actual Horror Movie Monsters, 3)

I will eventually get around to the horror movie monster, but I'm first going to discuss the fact that scientists have started to pay attention to me, a little, although, sadly, they did not pay attention to the part where I suggested they stop lying about things and making stuff up, leaving "science" still somewhat less trustworthy than "my 4-year-old nephew."

Here's what I'm talking about: Back in February, I took "science" to task for constantly lying about dinosaurs they found, making up new and exotic dinosaurs in an effort to seem cool and exciting.

I said:

Why invent a new obviously-fake dinosaur when the bones you found are from a perfectly good, perfectly entertaining already-known dinosaur? Doing that just undermines people's regard for science and continues the trend towards having the "truth" be whatever people believe it to be.

Then I suggested that instead of always inventing new "Raptors" and things that obviously never existed, scientists should focus on (a) telling the truth, and (b) Tyrannosaurus Rex, which was not only a great dinosaur, in its time, but also a better choice for the 12th Cylon than the character the Battlestar writers ultimately came up with.

That's what brings us up to today, when I have finally verified the "scientists" (a) read this blog, but (b) don't really get the point. Here's the headline that set my teeth a'grinding this morning,

Fossil identified as mini-T. rex

If you read that article, you'll find that scientists found a small skeleton that physically looks like a T. Rex skeleton, except that it is much smaller than a T.Rex skeleton. Otherwise, it's identical to a T.Rex skeleton.

Most people, when confronted with a skeleton that is identical to another, larger skeleton would say "Oh, the smaller skeleton must be a baby." But most people are not "scientists," who remain unconfined by logic, reason, or the truth.

"Scientists" are free to say "This skeleton, identical to that other skeleton but much smaller, is obviously an entirely different species from that other skeleton," and then "scientists" are free to go on "So you should definitely pay attention to me and allow me to name the skeleton, and also give me money and put me on TV. But not the Jay Leno show, because that's like two weeks from being cancelled."

See, if you discover a baby T.Rex, that's worth approximately (to quote Berke Breathed) "diddly/squat." But if you discover a brand new species of Miniature T.Rex, you get to have your rich patron donate the skeleton to "science," and you get to name it, and you get to apply for grants, and you get famous.

And isn't fame what science is all about? Remember the song: I'm gonna live forever/I'm gonna learn how to lie.

Or something like that.

Now, I can't say for sure whether or not "Mini T.Rex" really is a different species (note: It's not, and I'm sure.) But I can say for sure that the "science" is dubious. Listen to the provenance of Mini T. Rex, as described by the "scientist" who made the "discovery:"

"The specimen was found perhaps in the dark of night, spirited out of China and possibly sold."

Well, you've got me! "Perhaps?" "Possibly?" Those are certainly hallmarks of science. I could go on about this, including the fact that appparently nobody carbon-dated the bones at all, but instead they just looked at the sediment in which the bones were encased (concluding that there's no way to fake a clump of mud) but I think the point stands: "Science" is now firmly rooted in the glorious tradition of "Let's just make up whatever sounds good, especially if we can release the news on a Friday of a slow news cycle."

Anyway, about the movie monsters: The Chattering Cenobite from Hellraiser.

Everyone goes all nuts over Pinhead, but what's so scary about him? He's just a guy. A guy with pins all over his face, yeah, but just a guy, anyway. And that fat Cenobite? I'm not scared of a fat monster, not even one that can move through dimensions using a generic Rubik's Cube. (That's why you always buy the original.)

But Chattering Cenobite? Hellraiser is one of the few movies that scares me each and every time I watch it, and a big reason is Chattering Cenobite, who doesn't talk logically, can't be reasoned with, and wouldn't get distracted from chasing you if you threw a couple of Snickers bars off to the side. No, Chattering Cenobite just keeps on wanting to chew. And he looks like he's half inside-out shark and half man. An inside-out SharkMan with a taste for human flesh who's come from Hell to grab you. That's creepy.

And, also, one will probably be "discovered" by "scientists" next week.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The worst part was when that guy was just standing in a corner, at the end. (Oops... Spoiler Alert!) (The Best Actual Horror Movie Monsters, 2)

It's a MiniBest!

I liked the movie Sweetie and I saw, The Final Destination, or, as I like to call it, The Final-est Destination, just fine. The 3-D worked well, and the movie itself was not bad, given that I kind of knew what to expect from it.

But I remain unscared by it and still perturbed that people call The Final Destination 4: Final Boogaloo a "horror movie." It's not, because there's no monsters or demons or anything like that in it, nothing to make it a horror movie. In my book, a horror movie has to have some kind of supernatural thing-that's-not-human coming after things-that-are-humans. Inanimate objects, viruses, giant radioactive monsters: those don't count as horror monsters.

That doesn't mean those movies aren't good (even though many of them aren't), it just means that they're not horror movies. (Also not a horror movie? The Silence of The Lambs. No matter how many times people say it is a horror movie, it's not a horror movie, not unless CSI and Law & Order: SVU are horror movies.)(Also also not horror movies? Psycho, Jaws and Halloween. Sorry, "Movie Lists." You got three wrong in the first 10.)

To continue teaching the world what is or is not a horror movie, I'm now presenting the SECOND of the Best Actual Horror Movie Monsters, which is:

The Blair Witch.

I'm going to confess to something here. Sweetie and I saw The Blair Witch Project back when it first came out, and it scared me. Here's how much it scared me: We lived in an apartment complex at the time, and we came home from the movie about 10 p.m. It was, of course, dark outside and we parked our car and walked towards the apartment complex, and as we neared the small group of bushes and a single tree, I got a little nervous, because they were kind of like the woods in the movie.

That's not bad enough. The next night, I went for a jog, and I opted, because it was getting a little dark, to not jog down the wooded path I usually would have taken. Instead, I stuck to the well-lit streets, and shied away whenever there was a copse of trees or group of bushes to go by, again because I didn't want to get caught by The Blair Witch.

I'm not embarrassed to admit that. Well, I'm a little embarrassed, but not completely embarrassed, because it's not so much that I'm a weenie (I am). It's more that The Blair Witch Project was an awesomely frightening movie that sunk so deep into my psyche the moment I saw it that I'm surprised I can even look at a forest nowadays.

It was that scary all because of The Blair Witch her (it?) self -- the unseen, mysterious haunting presence that may have been a serial killer, may have been some hillbillies, and may have been an actual witch, but which really was...just my imagination.

Horror movies always work best if they let our own minds scare us. As frightening as it can be to see a semi-trailer truck bearing down on the glass window of a coffee shop [I'D SAY SPOILER ALERT BUT YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT MOVIE I'M TALKING ABOUT UNLESS YOU PUT TWO AND TWO TOGETHER AND THINK TO YOURSELF "I BET HE'S TALKING ABOUT THE MOVIE THE FINAL DESTINATION: THIS TIME IT'S REALLY FINAL" IN WHICH CASE, YOU'RE RIGHT AND IN WHICH CASE: SPOILER ALERT!], as frightening as that can be, it's not half as frightening as the thing that we imagine might be in the woods, or in that abandoned cabin...

... or in the bushes outside of our apartment complex. Look, I already admitted I'm a weenie, all right? Let it go.

Read More MiniBests Here.

You know what's really scary? Evil Supercomputers. Read which one is the Best here.

Friday, September 04, 2009

The Best Way To Write A Movie Theme Song.

I write today to help revive a long-lost art form that the world sorely needs: The Movie Theme Song.

Theme songs have largely disappeared from our world, victims of remotes and DVRs and of Seinfeld, which is the first instance I can recall of a show not having a theme song at all, just that little jazzy, peppy thing that introduced the show and each scene after a commercial. That's a far cry from great theme songs of television shows past, theme songs like the Three's Company Theme or the Diff'rent Strokes theme or The Facts of Life, or, even further back, Gilligan's Island's song telling you just how they got on that island and setting out the characters.

I'm not too sad about the end of television themes, because I wonder about their need. If you've got a complicated show like Arrested Development, maybe you need a theme that explains (like that one did) the show so that people who don't watch the show regularly might get what's going on, the concept of Arrested Development not being one you could immediately grasp. Then again, if you've got a complicated show like Arrested Development, most people aren't going to tune in anyway. Nobody, really, will watch good, complicated shows that require your intellect and attention, except for those 0.0001% of people in the world who like that stuff. They're smart and they'll keep watching, so you don't need to keep explaining everything every week via your theme, and, in any event, you won't be explaining it for long, because your show will be cancelled quickly and replaced with reruns of Yes, Dear, a show that needed no explaining.

(Although a Yes, Dear theme song might have made that show a little more tolerable. Just a little, though, because any show that casts the ubermean telephone communications girl as a loveable wife has an uphill battle right from the start.)

If themes were used by TV shows to explain what was going on, you have to marvel at how far we've come since the 1950s and 1960s. Back then, a show like Leave It To Beaver required an introduction, each week, to remind people who The Beav was and that this was a family. Gilligan's Island, which was such a good show it deserves a second mention, constantly had to explain the whole shipwreck again, even though the plot of almost every episode was "Let's repair the ship and try to get off this island," so it would seem that even the most casual Gilligan viewer could have pretty quickly gotten up to speed on the plot. Sure, he/she might have been a little lost, wondering why Ginger acted that way and, more importantly, why it was that Gilligan constantly slept in the hut with the Skipper instead of just moving in with either Ginger or Marianne, but those were secondary to the plot, anyway, and any bewilderment you had over the plot would have been replaced by bewilderment at the idea that the Professor was able to make superglue out of island materials but yet never thought to maybe distill some rum and get the party started.

No, television show themes aren't that great and aren't that necessary and, truth be told, I'd just DVR past them, anyway, nowadays, unless they were really good. (You take the good you take the bad... just doesn't cut it. But that groovy beginning to Diff'rent Strokes: the world don't move to the beat of just one drum. That could get me to sit through it, I suppose.)

But movie theme songs are a different matter altogether. When did we lose these, and why? Why do movies nowadays feature plenty of old and new songs that were just splattered into the movie at random, that appear in more than one movie, and that most importantly don't serve as little aural advertisements/reviews of the movie?

There's no reason not to have a movie theme song, after all. Nobody can fast forward through the movie theme song; we're all stuck in the theater while the opening credits roll, or during the musical montage showing how the main character lost all his hair/climbed that one mountain/secretly became a fireman, or at the least we're waiting patiently for the people on the end of our row to get up already so we can go instead of sitting and watching the end credits.

On that subject, as an aside, am I the only one who feels a little weird, sometimes, getting up and leaving during the credits? Every now and then a movie will put some little scene into or after the credits, like The Hangover or Dawn of the Dead did, and they don't generally tell you that they're going to do that. That means that sometimes I get up to leave as the credits come on, and I'm usually in a hurry because I like to get the Extra Large Soda and I don't like to use the restroom during the movie, but sometimes people in the theater don't get up so quickly, making me wonder if I'm supposed to wait because there might be some little extra scene that everyone will be talking about and I'll have missed it. It would be nice, Hollywood, if you'd just tell us about that extra scene. Just put it right in the beginning: After the movie, if you sit through the credits, you'll get to see an outtake of a scene in which the actors hilariously mispronounce each other's names.

We can't skip through the theme song, and most people don't watch movies repeatedly and every week, so the boredom-through-repetition aspect of theme songs doesn't factor in, either. With movies, too, the theme song serves as an advertisement and outline for the movie, playing on the radio and over the commercials and trailers and helping people like me know what the movie is about and whether we want to see it. The lyrics, the tempo, the music, all serve as cues and hints about whether I'll like the movie or not.

Plus, Hollywood, movie theme songs are free little commercials for you. Everytime a DJ played Ghostbusters or Xanadu or something, everyone hearing it would listen to, and dance to, and make out to, your commercial, which was not only airing for free but was probably generating money for you, too, if you played your cards right.

On that note, I'd like to point out that I never actually made out to Ghostbusters, but I totally would.

Despite there being no good reason not to have Movie Theme Songs, and plenty of good reasons to have them, movies persist in not having Theme Songs. Instead, they just take some dumb Modest Mouse song or something, plaster it over the trailer, and call it a day. What a waste! If I wanted to listen to Modest Mouse, I'd have my sister illegally copy all their CDs and send them to me so that I could have their music without paying them royalties. But I don't need to do that, because she already did that, so I can focus on Movie Themes, instead. (Sorry, Modest Mouse, but I'm sure you're doing okay even without the extra $27.99 I'd have spent on your CDs, and, really, there's only like five good songs between them all, so if I had bought them, you'd owe me.)

I don't understand why there's no Hangover song, or (500) Days Of Summer, or The Transformers or ... what was another movie this summer? I don't get out much. Whatever movies were released, the theme songs for them don't exist. I don't get to turn on the radio and hear a DJ say Now, let's hear that number one hit, Terminator: Salvation by Beyonce.

I think that we've moved so far away from Movie Themes, by now, that even the last few James Bond movies didn't have a theme, and that's a dang shame, because those movies, at least, could be reliably counted on to produce the sole Movie Theme song we'd get each year. A View To A Kill? Goldfinger? Live and Let Die?

Actually, I'm not sure that last one was made for a James Bond movie, but let's just count it anyway.

I came to the conclusion the other day that Movie Themes weren't going to come back, at all, unless I did my thing and gave everyone a little help. I will now do so as part of my ongoing contribution to society, and also as a way of convincing you, the people of the world, that I have something useful to contribute (something I keep trying to convince everyone of in case an asteroid hits Earth and ends civilization as we know it, forcing us to rebuild society. I don't have any marketable skills and I'm terrible with a hammer, so my only hope of being accepted into the next society as something other than monster bait is to convince people that I'm useful in some way) I am therefore providing you with The Best Way To Write A Movie Theme Song, a series of steps designed to help you, me, them, or the next society create Movie Themes again, because Movie Themes were awesome, and because I really, really don't want to be monster bait.

Step One: Use The Movie Title:

This sounds obvious, but if it was obvious, then we wouldn't be hearing Bob Dylan's The Times They Are A' Changin' over The Watchmen's opening scene, we'd be hearing The Watchmen by Bob Dylan. (And why weren't we? If you're presenting a parallel world to our own, wouldn't it have been better to hire Dylan to make a song called The Watchmen and mimic, to a degree, The Times..., indicating that the Watchmen world has Dylan, too, but he made a different song? God, I'm a genius.)

"Spies Like Us," the only song on this list that I came up with on my own (Sweetie had to come up with the rest, using her peculiar powers to identify movie themes when my own abilities, such as they are, failed), shows the simple power of titling your song after the movie. The whole rest of the song, really, has nothing to do with the movie: The movie was about a couple of bumbling decoys sent out to distract the bad guys from the real spies, while the song features lyrics like: No one else can dance like you/so what's all the fuss, there ain't nobody that spies like us.

But that didn't matter, because McCartney does step one just right: He called the song Spies Like Us, and then, after making a song that has nothing to do with the movie, he decided to spend the last minute or so repeating Spies Like Us over and over (a lyrical laziness that gives a listener the feeling that the day he wrote the song, it was getting on towards 5 o'clock and the Arsenal match was coming on and Sir Paul just said "o, to 'eck wif it," or something like that.)

McCartney didn't need much more than that; people hearing the song on the radio, back in the 80s, driving around in their Fieros, would absorb Spies Like Us into their skin like so many audio ShamWows, and end up blurting that phrase out when they approached the box office, inadvertently getting a ticket to the Chevy Chase movie, which would not feature any dancing, that I recall.

Still, as good a song as Spies Like Us was, it didn't achieve immortality, because it only made it to Step One, and there's more to it than that. So, it's on to...

Step Two: Give The Listener An Idea What The Movie Is About:

Spies Like Us failed to hit this mark, but Flash Gordon, by Queen, marches right up to Step Two and pwns it, as the kids like to say. Or, liked to say, since I hope they'll stop using that stupid word now that I've used it . Step Two, like Step One, seems obvious, but everything seems obvious once you're told it. It seemed obvious to me that my wallet was in my dresser drawer once Sweetie found it there, but it hadn't been so obvious the first two (okay, three)(fine, FOUR) times I looked there.

If Step Two was so obvious, don't you think Sir Paul would have mentioned, in Spies Like Us, that the movie was about Spies? (Like Us?) Do you think you're a better songwriter than Paul McCartney? I suppose you think could come up with a song about a serial killer and make it as catchy as Maxwell's Silver Hammer was. You do, don't you?

Well, you can't. Don't even try. You could, instead, hire me to write a script and turn that song into a movie, and it would be a great movie, too. Just listen to that song:

Note: I only just realized (three days after first posting this) that I had copied the wrong video in there. So if you clicked that and thought to yourself, What? That's the same song! then I have to say: Sorry. And also: Are you really re-reading this?

That's got Movie written all over it. Probably starring that guy that played Gilbert in Revenge of the Nerds as Maxwell.

Also, you know what Beatles song would make a great movie? The Continuing Adventures of Bungalow Bill:

Anyway, Flash Gordon, by Queen, serves as a great example of how to give the listener an idea of what the movie's like, not just by telling a little of the plot but also through the music and the way you sing and the generally-sort-of-insane way you just keep repeating Flash and having screaming guitars and all. It's impossible to listen to Flash Gordon and come away expecting anything but the movie you got, all lasers and Ming The Merciless and Dale Arden in clingy shirts and hawkmen and bad special effects. The pulse-pounding beat, the space-age-but-in-a-retro-way guitars and synthesizers, music that sounds as though instruments from our time fell into a time warp and arrived in the future, where they were gathered by aliens who then fell into another time warp and had to go back to the 1800s where they were instructed on what the future would be like by Grover Cleveland, all of that, combined with snippets of dialogue like:

"Flash, I love you, but we only have fourteen hours to save the universe!"

Set out in a nutshell precisely the movie you were going to see.

Still, things could be better, as we see in

Step Three: Make The Song Stand On Its Own.

To truly move beyond "Oh, hey, it's that one song from that one movie" territory, a Theme Song has to become it's own thing, has to take on a life of its own. It's one thing to incorporate a couple of lines of dialogue, or intercut movie scenes with the band playing some cool instruments. It's another thing, entirely, for a song to tell a whole story on its own, a story that somehow jibes with the story you'll see on the screen while also being an entirely independent thing, and Ghostbusters met that second mark, going Flash Gordon one better (and Spies Like Us two better. Tough break, Sir Paul. I hope Arsenal at least won that day.)

Ghostbusters took the key points from the movie: ghosts, busters, and who you gonna call, and then made up its own story. Starting, seemingly, where the movie lets off, as though it were a spinoff of the movie, Ghostbusters mentions something strange in your neighborhood, then talks about an invisible man, lying in your bed, a ghost that, I hear, likes the girls, and then, for good measure, tacks on it's own catchphrase: "I ain't 'fraid of no ghost." (Ray Parker, Jr., maybe flew a little too close to the sun in that song, trying for not one, but two, catchphrases: after establishing the cool I ain't 'fraid of no ghost, he also threw in a "Bustin' makes me feel good," but we can forgive him for that, because the rest of the song is so awesome.)

There's only one real way to make your Movie Theme better than that, and that's

Step Four: Totally Give Away The Ending So That The Song, Not The Movie, Gets the Benefit Of The Emotional Wallop.

As I noted, I not only couldn't come up with any of the songs on this list except Spies Like Us, but, to my shame, I also completely forgot what might well be The Best Movie Theme Ever: Convoy.

Convoy looked at the first three steps and drove through them like Rubber Duck through a blockade of Smokies, and then, for good measure, established, and ran over, Step Four.

It's hard for me to write about this song because I'm listening to it as I type this, and, as always, I'm getting goosebumps and a lump in my throat. This song does that to me, building slowly but sturdily (just like a real convoy! Wow!) and generating momentum. Beginning with C.W. McCall's near-monotone reading of the lines detailing the start of Rubber Duck's mythical quest -- an Odyssey for the CB Radio era -- and slowly amping up with quotes from the movies and the chorus of angelic-sounding women (no doubt with feathered, long hair) telling us that the convoy's getting bigger (we got a little old convoy... turns into we got a big ol' convoy, and then We got a mighty convoy, ain't she a beautiful sight!), Convoy uses the title of the movie and tells us what to expect (Truckers & Bears!) and supplements the movie by adding details...

...and then goes a little further: We hear the convoy rolling up interstate 44 like a rocket sled on rails. The Illinois National Guard is there, a thousand screamin' trucks, and then a CB radio intercuts and lets us know that the long-haired Friends of Jesus need to move up because Rubber Duck's hauling dynamite, and they aint'a gonna pay no toll... leaving the trucks to crash through the barricade and the angels jump in again, singing and cheering jubilantly, the implication being...

I can't say it. I'm tearing up. I'll miss you, Rubber Duck!

So anyway, let's get cracking out there, songwriters and movie producers. I've shown you the way. All you have to do is find a movie, think of a song about it, write the song, record it, get it released, and get it on the air. That's the easy part. Especially because Ray Parker Jr. isn't too busy these days, I hear.

As for me, I'll be busy. I've got a great idea for a movie. It's called Monster Bait, and it's about this guy who...