Tag: features

Chicken Little

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

When I was in high school, we were all addicted to AOL Instant Messenger, which allowed you to use small images as your account’s icon, sort of a 48-pixel precursor to today’s profile pictures on Facebook and elsewhere. Usually you’d just download something — fake “buttons” that contextually mimicked the visuals of the program were all the rage — but much to the amusement of my friends (or some of them, at least) I was handy with Microsoft Paint. Instead, I hacked together a rough self-portrait caricature by clicking on individual pixels at the 800% zoom setting, and then pulled a series of head swaps to create variations like the one you’re seeing here — bond.bmp. (The clear “crowd favorite,” as it were, certainly seemed to be turtle.bmp, but personally I was also quite fond of ninja.bmp, devil.bmp, and dead.bmp, as well as a special edition which I used during the week-long beach trip we took together right after graduation.)

Sorry about that clunky intro, but there’s no other way those images were ever going to see the light of day. Anyway, I’ve just written an enormous feature for Grantland, parsing through the catalog of the James Bond theme songs in anticipation of the release of the newest film Skyfall on Friday.

From the outset, the idea was to rate and subsequently rank the songs using more sophisticated logic than simply “which song is the best” — for example, in a wild break from most of the other music writing I’ve done, we consider and even award points for the complexity of the music theory underneath the pop surface.

But I’d been also closely reading New York Times political statistician Nate Silver’s articles for months, and as election night drew nearer, the extremism of his predictions for an Obama win (all since proven correct, as you are likely aware) created a firestorm of controversy in the mainstream news coverage. He was inescapable, and consequently more of his approach was absorbed into my own writing than I could have predicted. I soon found myself writing about music in a ludicrously academic and mathematical fashion.

Considered on its own, the strength of the song roughly corresponds with that first expectation of artistic unimpeachability, the idea that a secret agent of Bond’s formidable aptitude should not be introduced by anything less than the finest entry music. But the smoldering remains of the music industry do still like to chase after popular success, so we also need to consider the prominence, popularity, and reach of each song — for our purposes here, this is a rough amalgam of sales numbers, chart positions, eventual cover versions, and more generally the extent to which the song can stand on its own as an independent cultural allusion many years after its initial release. (This also acts as an automatic populist counterweight of sorts against what would otherwise be an isolated critical opinion for strength — please remember that as you’re composing your angry tweets about this article.)

Using two numbers allows us to measure intrinsic quality separate from widespread success, but those are already valid metrics for every song in existence, and we’ve not yet accounted for the fact that this is a Bond theme, and thus just the latest tiny piece of a high-profile long-running whole; let’s see what we can do about that. The cleverest of the Bond pop songs are undoubtedly those that seamlessly incorporate a very specific melody, known among Bond music enthusiasts as the “suspense motif” — this is the slinky chromatic line that kicks in during the main title music, after the horns stop. If you listen carefully, you can hear it in the background at the beginning of the verses in Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger,” for example. This is what everyone thinks of as “the James Bond theme.” Constructing your pop song around the mathematical constraints of the suspense motif is the most fascinating compositional approach, but there are also other ways to “sound like a Bond theme,” so we’ll simply assign a third score here for cohesion, which is the extent to which a given song cooperates with the rest of the series.

This now gives us three scores instead of one for each of the Bond pop songs — roughly speaking, we now have separate numbers for each of those words: “Bond” (Cohesion), “pop” (Reach), and “song” (Strength). From these we can calculate an overall average which we hope will better reflect the effectiveness of each theme song using more reasonably balanced criteria than a simple gut reaction.

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This continues apace for five thousand words. It’s easily one of the most demented things I’ve ever written, and I’m delighted that Grantland was willing to entertain it anyway.

Need A Bigger Blog

Monday, August 13th, 2012

In my first piece for Grantland, the new sports and pop culture site from Bill Simmons and ESPN, I help commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week extravaganza by rounding up all the cornball shark attack movies available on Netflix Instant.

2-Headed Shark Attack

The students are ferried to a nearby island to wait out the repairs, but fresh blood attracts the titular monster again, who proceeds to pick them off one by one — er, two by two. When earthquakes start causing the island to sink down into the ocean, the remaining survivors suddenly remember the ending from Jaws and blow the shark apart using a barrel of gasoline that conveniently happens to float by. The climactic final battle actually unfolds twice — once for each head.

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In which I give my heart to Autechre

Friday, May 6th, 2011

autechre

I’m fantastically excited about my latest essay for the Village Voice (and tickled that they started the “appreciations” tag just for this piece). It can be hard to cut through the torrential weirdness of the British experimental electronic duo Autechre, so they often get filed away as music to academically respect rather than passionately adore. Here, I defend them as a band that’s well worth your emotional investment, filtered through the autobiographical story of my own decision to move to New York City.

By the time Quaristice came around in 2008, just a few months before my big move, almost all the sensible time signatures had been subverted by experimental ambition, and sure, there was probably also a little ego in there too. “Perlence” was an especially difficult track–just two minutes and change, but I still can’t figure out how to count its pulses, and when the inevitable remix came, its running time had been expanded to a full 58 minutes. Even the song titles grew stranger: from “Flutter,” “Chatter,” “Eggshell” and “Further” to “fwzE,” “ThePlclCpC,” and “90101-51-6.” It’s mostly from these obnoxiously antisocial shenanigans that we get the common but misguided notion that if Autechre’s music displays any beauty at all, it comes in a sterile and mechanical form, like a sculpture built from gears or animations made with a glitching graphics card.

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