Monthly Archives: July 2013

Describing a Certain TV Show (Or Two)

I’m going to describe a TV show that aired when I was in college. I won’t say the name of the show, but you should know that this post has MASSIVE SPOILERS for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Alias (up through the first few episodes of all of Season 3, which is as far as I’ve gotten). Hint hint and such.

Photo of a doll of Buffy

“This is obviously about me.”

In this show, Female Lead is an attractive young woman who can kick anyone’s butt. She’s adept at using any weapon that comes her way, but she’s especially impressive at hand-to-hand combat, using lots of kicks and flips. She’s the subject of a prophecy, and sometimes has nightmares involving religious iconography and blood. Perhaps the hardest thing about her life is the hidden nature of it: some of the closest people to her don’t know anything about the butt-kicking, evil-fighting part of her life. She dies at one point, yet when she returns she has a sort of shadow around her, a new sort of dark seriousness and fierceness that wasn’t there quite as much before. She would gladly sacrifice herself to save the people she loves. (While I won’t tell you her name, it has two syllables, emphasis on the first, ending with an -ee sound.)

Female Lead has two best friends. Female Best Friend is usually whimsical and fun, except for that time that her boyfriend ran away from her, which crushed her. And there was also that time that she turned evil and tried to fight Female Lead–long story. Male Best Friend often gets the show’s best humorous lines, but he senses that he’s often seen as merely the jokester: he feels left out of all the awesome evil-fighting that Female Lead does, wondering what he can offer. At the beginning of the show, he has a secret crush on Female Lead, but that kind of evaporates. At one point, Female Best Friend and Male Best Friend even get together for a while. (It ends badly.)

Female Lead’s fight against evil is helped tremendously by a father figure, a fellow who has a lot more experience in this kind of fight than she does. Sometimes he seems cold and distant, but deep down he really loves her and trusts her abilities.

Photo of Sydney Bristow from Alias

“Who is that other girl up there? Is she trying to take my story or something?”

Female Lead’s main Romantic Interest is a man who hangs out in all those secret places in Los Angeles that most people don’t know about. He looks great in a trench coat and gets beat up a lot. Once, for the greater good, Female Lead even stabs him, despite her love for him–but it’s okay, he doesn’t die. And even though he has flings with other women (most notoriously a blonde woman with a nasty side), we all kind of know that Romantic Interest and Female Lead are destined to be together.

Female Lead puts up with some flirting from Young, Blonde, British Bad Guy (YBBBG), a man who has led a successful life of crime over the years. Even though he fights with Female Lead a lot, he still proposes they work together at one point. He’s a fan favorite, a cool guy with a soft spot for a certain red liquid. (His British accent is faked for the show.)

Gina Torres doesn’t enter this fictional universe often, but when she does, bad things happen.

One trademark of the show is its heavy use of pop music–especially moody, female singers singing sad songs, often heard toward the end of an episode over a montage of events. Besides that, the orchestrated music accompanying other action and emotional scenes is notably good.

The man who created this series wasn’t nearly as popular and well known when it began as he is now. He’s gone on to direct major stars in big-budget action flicks, but some of his directing roles have shown that he still has a nostalgic memory for older styles of filmmaking. He’s pretty much required to be at Comic-Con from now until he dies.

(What have I missed? There must be more parallels.)

UPDATE

Two more for you, and they’re good:

  • Lindsay Crouse guest stars on this show as someone who investigates secrets that the general public doesn’t know about.
  • In the second half of this show, Female Lead discovers that she has a sister (and in a way has kind of had a sister all along, but it’s complicated). This sister’s name is short, with three prominent sounds: the consonants and and the vowel-sound AH.

Images: quichisinsane, “Sydney Bristow” and Scorpions and Centaurs, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer

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Thinking about the Rhetoric of Bonus Tracks

Tape in a window

What if a mixtape just grew from the dirt, unauthored?

So I’ve been playing a game lately when I’m driving long distances alone:

  1. Before leaving, fill mp3 player with only the tracks I’ve given 4 or 5 stars in Winamp. (Yes, Winamp.)
  2. In the car, listen to everything on shuffle.
  3. Pretend I’m listening to a carefully curated 10-song mixtape, 5 songs on each imaginary side, listening for subtle connections between tracks and an interesting difference between Sides A & B.
  4. Drop my jaw in amazement at the subtle connections that surface, on their own, born of the crafty agency of the machinery.

This isn’t totally my idea; Rob Sheffield’s Love is a Mix Tape gave me the idea long ago (“I can load up my iPod with weeks’ worth of music and set it on shuffle to play a different mix every time”), but I bet thousands of people have played the game, pretending there was a an author behind an authorless shuffle.

It’s an attractive idea in part because it’s the opposite of my recent obsession with the different ways we can create meaning by purposefully curating tracks. This takes the curator out of the mix.

But that’s not what I’m here to think about. I’m really here because of Step 5 of the game: 

5. Imagine that the 11th track in the random mix is a bonus track on the mixtape, explicitly labeled as such by the imaginary tape-maker.

While playing the game, this somehow never fails to work. The 11th track somehow feels, well, bonus-y. There’s something quirky or unusual or off-putting about it that seems to say, “Dude, you had to hear this, but it just didn’t fit with the rest of the tape. You understand why, right?”

Well, yes. I understand. But do I?

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A moment of clarification: I’m not sure what the difference is between a bonus track and a hidden track in my mind. (If I already knew what I wanted to say, why would I write about it?)

I know my first hidden track: that lovely, meandering instrumental groove at the end of Pearl Jam’s Ten

I might be remembering this wrong, but I don’t think this was included on the cassette release. And my first copy of Ten was dubbed from a friend’s tape, so I didn’t hear this extended hidden track until I bought the CD from a friend’s older brother a few years later.

Then there was “I’m going crazy” stuff at the end of the Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish:

Eventually, looking for a hidden track was one of the first things I would do when getting a new CD in middle school and high school: I’d listen to the first 10 seconds or so of every track and then check the length of the final track, looking for signs that something was hidden in there, like a digital cavern, its walls darkly painted with ones and zeros that no one else knew about.

And there’s something in a hidden track that’s akin to what I’m thinking about here. The Pearl Jam example seems to say, “We had this sweet sound we played around with in the studio, but we didn’t quite know how to get it to you except on some B-side that no one would hear, so we put it at the end of the album instead.” And the Smashing Pumpkins example says, “Hey, we don’t always take ourselves so seriously. You know that, right? I mean, this is a serious album, as you can tell, but here at the end we want you to put your feet up for a spell.”

So what if both of these tracks had been numbered, included on the list of official tracks, but explicitly called “bonus tracks”? It would afford the tracks a visibility, a legitimacy that the bands want them to dodge when they hide them, either because it’s not their best work or because it’s more fun to hide.

Either way, hiding it or bonus-ing it, it’s a rhetorical move. That is to say that it’s a decision made by a composer who wants its explicit placement in that way to communicate something, to be given a sort of metadata about how it’s to be heard, understood, considered.

Which is to say that it’s a move I can make when I’m composing in some other medium, too.

Which is to say that it’s fun.

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When I search for the word bonus in Spotify and sort the results by popularity, I see bonus tracks from Mumford & Sons, Justin Bieber, Kendrick Lamar & Dr. Dre, Skrillex, Mac Miller, City and Colour, Flo Rida, SOJA, Blake Shelton, Christina Perri feat. Jason Mraz, and of course, tons more. 

I’m not familiar with a lot of those artists, but I can’t help but wonder: if you know some of those artists’ albums and I mention bonus tracks, does the bonus track come immediately to mind? Is it part of your experience of the album? Is it marked as unalterably bonus-y in your mind? 

And is it different if you listen to the album on CD, mp3, vinyl, tape, whatever?

*

As I write this, I’m listening for the second time to Balance and Ruin, a four-disc album of music from the OverClocked ReMix community inspired by Final Fantasy VI, the Super Nintendo game that kept everyone my age from wanting to do any extra-curricular activities at all because it was that stinking good, and because its music melted our ears with awesomeness.

Wait, did I say four-disc? I mean five-disc. Even though the official cover art for this remix album only lists four discs, walking listeners through sweet new versions of the tracks from the original game with no repeats, there’s a fifth disc that feels very bonus-y to me. It offers arrangements of some tracks that were already featured in discs one to four, and it starts with a hard-to-describe, four-movement, forty-minute, guitar-shredding odyssey through only two tracks from the game. So it’s different. But it’s included. It’s a bonus.

In a Reddit discussion, album director Andrew “Zircon” Aversa defends the music on disc five as important, integral, and hella-good:

To be clear, the tracks on disc 5 definitely made our cut. We had multiple takes for a variety of reasons. In some cases, someone started a remix and said they couldn’t finish, so we found another musician to fill their spot. Then, the original arranger finished their track after all. We also ran two contests which produced tons of great material, in some cases multiple takes on the same tune. In any case, anything on ANY disc of the album is absolutely stamped with our seal of quality. Deciding which take to put on which disc was just a matter of subjective preference for which version fit the main track flow the best.

Aversa is onto something here in my thinking about bonus vs. hidden here. A hidden track might not be said by a band/musician/album director to be “absolutely stamped with our seal of quality.” (Five Iron Frenzy’s hidden track “Kingdom of the Dinosaurs” even includes apologies to people still listening to the weird sounds they’re making.)

But a bonus can still be good. Really good. It just feels different. 

But what I can’t get over is this: does it feel different because I was told to think it was different? Is it the label, the context that makes it feel bonus-y? Or is it inherent in the music itself? After all, any track that comes up as track 11 during my imaginary mixtape game could come up as track 1 on my next drive. But when it’s track 11, I convince myself that it’s different.

And if I played you a disc-5 rearrangement of Terra’s Theme from the FFVI rearrangement album, would you know it from the disc-2 version? Could you tell that it was a bonus?

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Lucky me: there’s a Wikipedia page called “Bonus track.” (It’s headed by a warning from August 2007 that it doesn’t cite any sources, and it still doesn’t. By now, is that warning kind of like a textual bonus track to be experienced separately from the main article?)

It’s an interesting stub, with some points about the relationship of bonus tracks to major labels’ distribution deals with Japan and some thoughts on the relationship of purchasing habits on iTunes to the bonus track. But my favorite part is this paragraph:

A song by MC Lars featuring Ashley Jade entitled “The Bonus Track for Japan” pokes fun at the Japan-specific instance of this phenomenon, with Lars singing a series of facts about Japan. It was actually used as the “Japanese bonus track” for Lars’ album The Graduate. It has, more recently, been remixed and put on the MC Lars album 21 Concepts (But a Hit Ain’t One).

It’s the last sentence that intrigues me the most: a remix of a bonus seems to give a new legitimacy to the bonus track that it couldn’t originally have had. (Imagine a remix of the Pearl Jam or Pumpkins tracks above. Doesn’t feel worth it.)

The talk page extends the conversation in two more delicious ways: 

  1. A list of 163 albums with bonus tracks was deleted from the page but copied onto the talk page because “Unwieldy, useless lists do not aid understanding.”
  2. A few clever folks are discussing the possibility of adding some points about the history of the bonus track, but they don’t have any references, just their own memories. (“So the first bonnus track is a real mystery. But it would be good to find out.”) 
    • Corollary: This suggests that memory itself is a bonus track to our lived experiences.

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That talk page also includes this line, under the heading “mistaken identity”:

i have this twin thet i have never met befor and i whant to kowe who she or he is if i can find them she has been wandiring if —Preceding unsigned comment added by 208.181.90.67 (talk) 21:45, 9 February 2008 (UTC)

It’s not part of the topic of the page or related to any other conversation on the talk page. It’s just a bonus.

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Image: Personal remix of linda yvonne, “Once upon a time…..” and Nils Geylen, “365-164 MAR 31

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