Author: Jason Black

Jam of the Week: “I’m the One That’s Cool”, by Felicia Day and Jed Whedon

“I’m the One That’s Cool” is the third song Felicia Day wrote as an extra for her (now complete) web show The Guild. The Guild is pretty much my favorite thing from the Internet, and Felicia Day is one of my heroines (I had her sign the back of my iPad), so I love all the songs she wrote. They’re all very different songs, and they’re all great but “I’m the One That’s Cool” is probably the most interesting, because she’s commenting on the whole “geek is chic” thing, which she’s commented on before. That’s cool, and I could write a lot about that, but the important thing about this song for our purposes is her use of tropes.

Tropes are essentially building blocks that writers can “reasonably rely on as being present in the audience member’s minds and expectations.” Tropes are similar to cliché in that they give the audience a quick idea of what you mean, but tropes aren’t stereotypes, they have more value in that they still have a connection to something the audience actually recognizes. Tropes that get used too much and outlive their relevance become cliché.

So why talk about tropes? Because they’re useful, and this song is full of tropes connected to “geek” life and culture. Tropes allow writers to express things concisely, without having to resort to excessive exposition or explaining details. You know the idiom concerning jokes that, if you have to explain it, it isn’t funny? The same idea applies, the more time you spend explaining what you mean by something, the longer it takes to move on with the story. Check out and see how others have identified and used tropes, and see where you can fit them into your own writing.

Jam of the Week: “What is Love?”, by Haddaway

This song has been stuck in my head for like, two months now, I listen to it every few days, and I take every single chance I get to sing the chorus, preferably without context. But I keep coming back to the question: what is love? And more importantly, why doesn’t Haddaway ever tell us what love is? Does he not know? If you listen to the lyrics, he seems confused by it, as if he wrote the song to ask the early 1990s for help in answering one of the fundamental questions of the human experience.

For our purposes though, I think it’s a pretty good example of a rhetorical question. Rhetorical questions, to quote my best friend in the world, Wikipedia, are “not posed to elicit a specific answer, but rather to encourage the listener to consider a message or viewpoint.” So Haddaway wants us to think about love, that’s fair.

Rhetorical questions can be useful when you’re trying to get your audience to think about something they might not be used to thinking about, and therefor can be a good tool for essays and other academic papers.

They do pose a risk though, in that when you ask a question of your readership, they might expect you to answer that question. I think the trick is to pose a question that seems like it has an obvious answer. Rhetorical questions should be reasonably broad. Overly specific questions can lead them to seek answers in your writing, which you may be trying to give them, but they’re going to want those answers to be clear and probably pretty soon after the question.

Rhetorical questions can be useful, but they can be tricky, too. Haddaway may not have chosen the right format, because generally I’m too busy bobbing my head and trying to figure out why he’s at a dance party in a vampire’s house, to really think about what love is.

From Screen to Page: Orange is the New Black and The Wire

from screen to page logoFor this installment, I’ll be talking about two shows, and how they use language, specifically to make the dialog of their characters feel realistic. More specifically, this comes in two forms: swearing and lingo.

First a little about the shows. The Wire ran on HBO from 2002 to 2008, with five seasons totaling 60 episodes. The Wire is, at its core, a show about Baltimore, West Baltimore to be specific. While there are a number of police officers at the center of the show, it isn’t a cop show per se, and it’s certainly not a procedural (shows like Bones, or Dragnet). The cast is huge and sprawling, and includes the aforementioned cops, as well as drug dealers, addicts, lawyers, politicians, longshoremen, reporters, judges, teachers, parents, clergy, and children.

Orange is the New Black is a a Netflix original series, the first season of which debuted in July 2013. The show follows Piper Chapman, an upper-middle class white woman who is sentenced to 15 months in a minimum security women’s prison. The show explores the kinds of relationships and problems that arise in such places, and while the bulk of the characters are prisoners, the prison staff and Chapman’s family play an important role, as do people connected to the other prisoners, often presented in flashbacks.

Both shows make liberal use of vulgarity, emboldened by their relative safety from the FCC. Part of the reason I haven’t shared clips of the shows is that it would be next to impossible to find any that were “safe for work,” so I didn’t bother. The kind of characters the shows deal with tend to use “colorful” language in their day-to-day life, the kind of language that can’t be heard on regular television, gets censored on the radio, and earns your move an “R” rating. The use of this language is important though, because when gangsters and prisoners and cops use watered down vulgarities, the characters sound unrealistic. This kind language, whether people like it or not, is a part of daily life everywhere in the world, and shows like The Wire and Orange is the New Black purport to present the real world as closely as possible (albeit as fiction).

I’ve had students in the past ask whether or not they should include vulgarities within quotations in their term papers, and I always tell them yes, if it’s relevant. Quoting historical figures swearing because you want to be “edgy” or try and freak out your professor or teaching assistant is ridiculous (and I swear constantly in real life, so it wouldn’t have bothered me anyway). But if a quote from a historical figure is particularly relevant to your argument, and it contains some vulgarity? Include it. Continue reading “From Screen to Page: Orange is the New Black and The Wire

Jam of the Week: “Twilight of the Thunder God,” by Slaughter of the Bluegrass

Slaughter of the Bluegrass is a Swedish folk band that does bluegrass covers of death metal songs. In this case, they’re covering Amon Amarth’s “Twilight of the Thunder God.” The video above is the original Amon Amarth music video, with the sound cut and replaced with the SotB version of the song.

I chose this song, and this cover in particular, to talk about mood. I don’t have room here to discuss death metal in depth (although I could, and it would take a while), which is why I linked the original version above. You should go and listen to it, but suffice to say, death metal is pretty different from bluegrass. Although the lyrics are the same, these are basically two different songs. The original is much darker, much heavier, and much growlier than the cover.

This makes for a very different presentation coupled with the video, because the two versions offer very different moods, to use a literary term. Mood is used in writing to evoke certain feelings or emotions in the audience, and the same can be said of music. Bluegrass, despite sometimes having pretty dark lyrics, usually comes off as bright and cheerful because of the way it’s performed. Death metal tends to come off as aggressive, angry, or gloomy, even though the lyrics may not be any of these things.

The mood you present to your audience can seriously impact the way they interpret your writing. Think carefully about what you want your audience to feel, not just what you want to tell them, and construct a mood that works with your writing. Or give them a mood that doesn’t quite mesh with the content of your story, like Slaughter of the Bluegrass did it with “Twilight of the Thunder God.” You can pull it off too.

Jam of the Week: “Natural Science”, by Rush

Disclosure time: Rush is my favorite band. There are a lot of reasons for this, but songs like “Natural Science” are a big part of it. Rush’s sound has changed a lot over the 39 years since their first album, and none of their albums (or songs, for that matter) sound like each other, although they still sound like Rush. Part of this is because they like to try new things, and they change up some of the fundamentals, like time signatures, from song to song. Sometimes within individual songs.

“Natural Science” is a great example of this kind of variety. The song consists of three movements, or to use more literary terms, you might think of them as chapters. Each of these movements/chapters are different, but still form one cohesive song, and even within the movements there is a lot of variety. Part of the way Rush does this is by varying the tempo of the song, and I think this is important for making a song feel dynamic, especially if you’re trying to tell a more complex story than most popular music tries to do (something Rush excels at).

Varying tempo, or perhaps pacing, in your writing can have the same effect. The speed at which the narrative moves can make all the difference in a work of fiction. Think about  the narrative pacing of a film like Pirates of the Caribbean as opposed to something like The Hunger Games. The former is almost relentlessly fast, with the narrative rarely giving the audience time to catch up, while the latter, not without a significant amount of action, has a number of slower scenes.

Try shaking up the pacing in your writing, with events coming fast and hard at some points, or slower, with more time to dig into what makes the characters or events interesting. You don’t have to radically shift your pacing, or jump back and forth in one piece, but it’s worth thinking about pacing and how it helps, or hinders, the narrative.

Jam of the Week: “You’ve Got Time”, by Regina Spektor

I had heard of Regina Spektor before July 15th, of course, but I had never heard her before then, when I started watching Orange is the New Black on Netflix. “You’ve Got Time” serves as the theme song, and was recorded for the show.

I want to compare “You’ve Got Time” to System of a Down’s “Prison Song.” System (one of my favorite bands, mind you) puts things bluntly in the song: prisons are a way to control Americans, and American society relies too heavily on incarceration to hide its problems. There’s even a more-or-less spoken word section about the growth of the American prison system.

“You’ve Got Time,” on the other hand, is laden with metaphor, which seems like a good decision for a song about prison life. Metaphor is an important part of the English language, and kind of central to artistic expression. On the one hand, it’s possible for different audiences to interpret metaphors in different ways. On the other hand though, when an artist flat out tells you what they’re talking about it feels…less artistic.

I think it’s safe to say that Spektor is also criticizing the prison system (that’s a central theme of the show, after all) but she uses metaphor to help put the listener into the shoes of an inmate. “You’ve Got Time” isn’t about prison, it’s about the experience of prison. This is an important distinction.

When you’re writing something, any kind of piece really, it helps to really think about what you’re saying. There’s a big difference between knowing about something and experiencing it first hand, and there’s a big difference between telling someone about something, like prison life, and helping them understand the experience of that thing. I expect that, when done well, the latter is more powerful than the former: if you’re trying to reform prisons, for example, just telling people why prisons need to be reformed might not sink in, while showing them the details of prison life, in a show or a song, might be more effective. It’s just as possible to walk a mile, or something close to one, in someone else’s shoes through a song as through actual experience.

Jam of the Week: “Take on Me”, by a-ha

There’s a pretty good chance that you’ve already seen the video for a-ha’s “Take on Me.” I mean, you’re on the Internet right now, and I’m guessing it’s not for the first time. It’s a pretty famous video, and won a bunch of awards, for good reason. It’s creative, original, and it really illustrated what the then relatively new medium of music videos (or is it a genre?) was capable of.

It’s also a really catchy song, which is why I decided to write a Jam of the Week about it, because one of my co-workers got it stuck in my head.

But I’ve been trying to write this post for like a week, wracking my brain to figure out how to connect this song to writing. It hasn’t been easy, but I think I might have something.

Watch the video, but pay attention to the lyrics. They have nothing to do with each other, do they? Music videos, near as I can tell, come in pretty much two flavors: with a story, and without. The latter is usually just the band performing or the artist dancing or something (take a look at Solange’s “Losing You”). Videos with a story try and tell a story. Sometimes the story is kind of thin, just an excuse to show somebody dancing (most of Michael Jackson’s videos, amazing as they were, fall into this category). Sometimes the story is more coherent, it has a narrative flow, characters,  etc. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” which is more a short film than a video, and is absolutely amazing, is a great example of this.

So “Take on Me” has a story, but unlike, say, “War,” from the first installment of this column, that story has, well, very little to do with the lyrics. But that’s not really important, because the story has characters, it has a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion (or rising action, a conclusion, and a denouement, if you prefer). Try watching the video with the sound off, and the story still makes sense. It’s a simple story: girl meets boy, boy pulls her into comic book, boy gets in a fight with random bikers (?), girl flees comic book, boy is transported into real world, they live happily ever after.

Maybe there’s something deeper going on here. Maybe the guys in a-ha really love comics, and this is a statement about the depth of the medium, and its ability to draw readers in. Maybe its about the dangers of relying too heavily on escapist literature and the potential for fracturing your grasp on reality. Maybe it’s just a really cool idea.

I think what I’m getting at here, is that stories can, and will be, interpreted in different ways by different audiences. I mean, this is essentially why people study literature. But more than this, it’s possible, with a little thought, to reinterpret your own work for a different medium, or a different audience. If a-ha hadn’t rethought their song as a music video it probably never would have been as popular as it is. Keep your medium in mind, and adjust your story to fit within it.

And as a final note, I give you this, the original “literal version” or a-ha’s “Take on Me,” created by youtuber DustoMcNeato. If you haven’t seen this, you don’t spend enough time on the Internet.

Jam of the Week: “Losing You”, by Solange

This week I want to share “Losing You,” by Solange. If you’re not familiar with Solange, I’m so very, very sorry. She’s Beyoncé’s little sister, so you can probably expect she’s pretty talented. You’d be right!

The song is catchy, but the lyrics have a somewhat somber feeling. It’s a song about facing loss. If the uptempo nature of the song and all the dancing in the video are anything to go by, it’s also about facing that loss with courage, and refusing to let it break you.

Can we talk about this video? It’s amazing, there’s just so much energy in it, and it looks like Solange just absolutely loved filming it. As far as inspiration goes, I don’t really know what to tell you. I don’t own this album yet, so I only get to hear the song if I’ve got the video playing, and then it’s pretty hard to get anything done, because I’m watching the video. I can say this though: this song usually puts me in a good mood. It doesn’t get me pumped up, but it does give me a sort of contented feeling, something that makes me feel like I can face down deadlines or edit difficult term papers or whatever other task awaits me.

From Screen to Page: “The Mind’s Eye”

from screen to page logoThis week I want to write about narrative organization. Namely, I want to write about how simply presenting things to your audience in chronological order can sometimes work against you.

For this, I’ll be referring to an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, called “The Mind’s Eye.” Now, this is an interesting challenge for me, because while I’m a huge Star Trek fan (the technical term is Trekker), I can’t assume that my audience is, or knows anything about Star Trek. So this means I need to give you all a summary of the episode, but not confuse anyone with a lot of references to the series that don’t make any sense.

The episode in question is about one of the main characters (Geordi) being kidnapped and brainwashed by some of the Bad Guys. They do this so they can use him to assassinate an ambassador. He goes back home thinking everything is fine (he’s brainwashed, after all) and goes about his business. Then some mysterious stuff starts happening, and the Good Guys are accused of helping some Other Bad Guys. Geordi gets his chance, and tries to kill the ambassador, but the Good Guys stop him, figure it all out, and he is cleared of charges. The episode ends with Geordi talking to a psychiatrist, trying to unravel what happened to him.

So that’s the break down. If you want a more detailed version, check out the episode’s Wikipedia entry here. For a really detailed version you can check out the entry at Memory Alpha, the Star Trek wiki. Continue reading “From Screen to Page: “The Mind’s Eye””

Jam of the Week: “Birthday Cake”, by Stephen Walking

I don’t know how you feel about electronic music in general, it seems like people with opinions on it either love it or hate it. I’m in the former camp, I’ve been a fan of most of the sub genres for years now, but I’ve been listening to a lot of electro, house, and dubstep lately. This is how I discovered Stephen Walking.

Stephen Walking covers a number of sub-genres, but “Birthday Cake,” my favorite track by him so far, is electro. I listen to a lot of electronic music when I’m reading or writing for a couple of reasons. The general lack of vocals tends to be less distracting than lyrical songs, which is really useful. In a similar vein, since electronic music is primarily written for clubs, it tends to favor rhythm over melody, and good electronic music (especially trance) tends to remove the listener from the rest of the world. It’s probably best listened to through headphones.

“Birthday Cake” does these things well, but it’s also got just a ton of energy, this song gets me pumped up. Having the energy to write (or read, there’s a lot of that in graduate school!) is as important as having the motivation to do so. I find that music can keep me writing or distract me, and “Birthday Cake” tends to do the former.

If it helps, I also tend to listen to electronic music when I’m thinking about or working on science fiction. Something about electro and the like feel futuristic to me, and I doubt that I’m the only who feels that way.