Tag Archives: videogames

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?


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.


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?


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.


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 (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.


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

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The Affective Slam of Sound

“What you’re looking for,” he said, “are words to theorize that moment when sound slams into you.”

We were at my dissertation defense, the committee and I sitting around a table situated to ignore the rows of onlookers. One of my committee members was rephrasing what he saw as the core of my theoretical project.

I thought of the sounds in the room at that moment: the shifting in seats, the typing on all the laptops, the echoes of the “Fratelli Chase” theme from The Goonies that had recently played as people entered the room. And I thought of the silences: my wife’s silent, smiling face in the crowd, the committee member’s silent waiting for a confirmation of his summary, and my silent pause before answering.

“Yes,” I said. “That’s exactly it. The subjective, emotion-tinged, situated experience of hearing sound. And on the other end, the craft that goes into designing sound that will be subjectively experienced in such an uncontrolled way.”

(Of course, I don’t really remember what I said, or what was said next, or when in the defense this conversation happened. But in my memory-as-constructed-the-way-it-ought-to-be, my committee member waves away my big words and says:)

“Right, but it’s all about the slam. That slam of sound.”


We know sound affects our emotions in an uncontrollable, knee-jerk way. It’s almost not worth mentioning, it’s so obvious.

In Blade Runner, Deckard finds out who is a replicant and who isn’t by reading aloud scenarios that would lead humans to have an involuntary reaction in their eyes. The sounds of the spoken words lead to immediate emotion. Deckard doesn’t give the suspects a print-out of the questions; he says them out loud. That matters.

Here’s 19th-century music theorist Eduard Hanslick on the effect:

Even if we have to grant to all the arts, without exception, the power to produce effects upon the feelings, yet we do not deny that there is something specific, peculiar only to it, in the way music exercises that power. Music works more rapidly and intensely upon the mind than any other art.
Two things: I would extend his point about music’s “specific, peculiar” power to sound in general. Also, I can’t help but notice how he descends so swiftly, so gently from “the feelings” in the first sentence to “the mind” in the second.
It’s almost as if the slam of sound into our bodies (slam!) works on us in more ways than simply the emotional. It’s as if the very way we make meaning from sounds in our minds is tied to the way we feel about them.

Henry Jenkins (following Bourdieu): “Academics come to distrust their own affective responses, to speak of them apologetically or to deny them outright” (170).

I am thoroughly not disinterested in the music and sounds of Tecmo Super Bowl, an NES game from 1991. Let some of its music play while I tell you why I care.

Tecmo Super Bowl has a cheat built into it (though cheat is clearly the wrong word for such an aesthetically interesting, non-gameplay-related trick): on the intro screen, if you hold B and press left, you’re brought to an interface allowing you to cycle through all the sounds in the game.

I used to play around with this all the time, cycling methodically (frighteningly methodically?) through the sound and music samples, playing some of them over and over. There’s something satisfyingly physical about hearing, say, 5 different electronic sounds meant to reproduce players’ armored bodies slamming into each other. (Slam!) The sounds would grow more meaningful to me recursively, as I would recognize a sound I knew from the game, and then when playing identify a sound I had heard from the sound screen, and then return to the sound screen to listen again with fresh ears, and then later hear something new in the game. . . . (I’m embarrassed to say that I never noticed that Sound 32 isn’t in the game, though.)

I built emotion and meaning into those sounds, and echoes of those meanings are still with me, as corny as it sounds to write. They live in a part of me that I can’t access unless a similar sound draws it out of me, and when it’s drawn out it journeys through my whole gut and throat and head so it’s all my body hears.


Virginia Kuhn: “[A]nyone who has ever edited video clips would likely attest to the fact that one must have passion for the footage; editing demands extensive playing and replaying of clips. Whether this passion issues from a fannish impulse or is born of righteous indignation (or both) matters little. To argue, one must take a stand, not be disinterested” (3.11).


I can’t help but wonder what would evoke emotion and meaning from you. Yes, you: whoever is reading this. If I pulled some of the most commonly heard sounds from sources like Audioboo, SoundCloud, or Freesound.org, sounds like cars crashing or popular song clips or mothers’ heartbeats or ominous footsteps, would you feel something new when the sound slams (slam!) into you?

Or would I have to choose unusual sounds, hoping to catch you off guard and draw up a new emotion you hadn’t expected or remembered, perhaps since you last heard that sound years, or even decades ago? What would my success rate have to be to make that worth it? What does “success” even mean here?

And finally, where does, to use Kuhn’s phrase, “fannish impulse” fit in? Would sounds from Star Trek or Lost or Tecmo Super Bowl “work” on you in ways that the everyday wouldn’t? How would those sounds work on different fans in different and similar ways?

Obviously, the answer to all of those is a simple “I don’t know.” But let me add a: yet. I think I want to make you hear some sounds, and I want you to feel and think because of them.


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Layered Audio, or When Browsers Don’t Behave

I just made a fun discovery: an online article with embedded sound plays perfectly in one browser, but in another it plays all of the sound clips at the same time. To which I say: awesome.

(Brief statement of intent: I in no way want this to be read as an insult to the web programming of an important online journal. Browser weirdness is incredibly difficult to predict, especially in this age of rapid updates from the biggest names. I’m merely exploring a fun point of departure, an intriguing glitch.)

The story: I happily browsed to Thomas Rickert’s “Music@Microsoft.Windows: Composing Ambience” in the most recent issue of The Writing Instructor (a journal subtitled “A networked journal and digital community for writers and teachers of writing”)–and it’s an awesome article. But when I arrived (in Chrome 14.0.835.187 m, Windows version), I heard this:

[audio http://kstedman.myweb.usf.edu/Rickert-article-misfire.mp3]

Which is, my friends, the sound of Rickert’s four audio samples playing at the same time.

It also looks funny: notice the (wrong) placement of the (not functional) media player in the upper left of the screen, and the black box where the media player ought to be:

Screenshot from article being discussed

And it’s just a Chrome issue; in Firefox 6, the clips play perfectly, and the page loads just fine:

Screenshot from article being discussed

I’m not sure why it happens, since I have only the most rudimentary knowledge of web design–and the why isn’t really my point anyway. I can see in the page source that the article uses the HTML 5 tag, but beyond that I’m not sure. (I’ve been having trouble with Chrome’s auto-update feature, so it’s possible that this is a bug that’s fixed in the most recent version.)

Here’s what I keep thinking about: my glee at discovering what was happening. I kept reloading and reloading the page just to hear that crazy sound again, the odd echo of two of the nearly identical clips playing just barely out of sync, Steve Reich-style. My emotional response is part of what I’m trying to figure out here. Why is this glitch so exciting to me?

There’s the nostalgic element, which I’m always a sucker for–the memories this glitch brings up. I remember the sounds that my friend Matt and I made with a two-cassette karaoke machine, a bizarre TV/shortwave radio combo set, and my brother’s Talkboy, which would slow down the speed of tapes.

Here’s one bizarre example, which layers the bonus track from a Better Than Ezra album, some random talking we found on the shortwave radio, a clip of a preacher on one of my parents’ tapes of sermons (which we were recording over), and Matt saying “I don’t want you to blow on my candle,” slowed down over and over again with the Talkboy by playing the slowed-down version into a microphone, then playing that slowed-down version at a slower speed, and then playing that slowed-down version at a slower speed. . . .

[audio http://kstedman.myweb.usf.edu/I%20Don’t%20Want%20You%20to%20Blow%20on%20My%20Candle-%2011th%20Grade%20-%20Matt%20and%20Kyle.mp3]

There’s also the “stick it to the man” aspect of my glee. For these aren’t just random sounds layered on top of each other, but sounds that were carefully crafted (as Rickert so eloquently explains) by Microsoft to convey a specific mood surrounding the release of subsequent Windows releases. It’s fun to hear those careful desires so thoroughly thwarted, and all through an accidental glitch. Perhaps the more you dislike Microsoft, the more poetic justice you hear in these layered sounds.

And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit some degree of “I found it!” emotions, too. I mean, here I am writing a blog post about a glitch that I doubt anyone else has written about (though maybe they have!). It’s something like people must have felt when they found that they could walk through that wall in Super Mario Bros. World 1-2: “Hey, look what I found! Something that doesn’t work the way you’d expect it to!” Of course, things work inexactly for us all the time; we’re excited only when something doesn’t work how we expected but then is still found to have new value. That value might be a simple as an aesthetic slickness, like seeing Mario slide through that wall, or hearing these sounds make some sort of coherent sense even when layered on each other, but it still makes it feel more value.

But I’m also intrigued by the Rickert article’s misfire from a scholarly perspective. I’m reminded of a paper from Martin Schlesinger I was paired with at the Remake | Remodel conference: Martin shared all kinds of glitchy screens from videogames, theorizing about the effect of these misfires as accidental art that defies the designs of creators. And in Cracked Media: The Sound of Malfunction, Caleb Kelly describes a number of musicians who take a similar approach, exploiting glitches and clicks and misfires. He writes, “Experimentation with readily available tools and resources is central to contemporary artistic practice and is at the heart of the crack” (6)–and I’m especially interested these days in questions of what concerns those involved in “contemporary artistic practice.”

From a rhetorical perspective, the glitch takes the focus away from the composer, who has little or no control over the effect the audience hears. How does that change how the audience hears the sounds? Would the same meaning be read into sounds that were purposefully composed as glitches–if, say, Rickert had purposefully layered all these sounds onto each other and explained why he did so?

I guess that’s the closest I have to a “point”: I’d like to think more about accidental composition and its place in rhetorical communication.


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Dr. Mario, Play, and Composition

I’ve always been better at Dr. Mario than Tetris. You remember Dr. Mario? In a Tetris-like environment, you control a colored pill falling down the screen, trying to align 4 blocks of color in a row to make them disappear:

Here’s the core of the game’s brilliance: there are only 3 colors in the game, so there are only 6 possible pills (red/red, blue/blue, yellow/yellow, and then red/blue, red/yellow, and blue/yellow). In practical terms, that means that things rarely go so wrong that you can’t get out, because one of the colors you need is likely to come up soon.

That’s got me thinking about the role of play when composing. The game’s limited color possibilities encourage you to play around, to take risks. I can set up all kinds of crazy combos (where an unused, falling piece will complete a 4-row set somewhere else) knowing that the combo might not work out the way I expect it to, but that some kind of awesome combo will pull together. All I have to do is set things up with that potentiality in mind, ready to do something awesome with anything that comes my way. In practice, I slam the pieces down in a rough order, like a restaurant cook tending 4 different pots, adding something here, something there, rushing around and loving it.

To me, Tetris feels different. In a Tetris game, I tense up, feeling that there is often no good place to put a piece, making me choose between multiple crappy placements. And that single bad move can ruin an entire game. But in Dr. Mario I feel loose, flexible, able to lay down viruses quickly based on my knowledge of what might come from that placement, while confident that if I’m wrong, something else will serendipitously arise.

So why go into all this? It reminds me of the conversations I’ve had with music composers for my dissertation, how so many describe just sitting down at the keyboard, picking some constraints (d minor and piano and oboe; or in Dr. Mario, two player, medium speed, level 5), and playing around until something emerges. That emergence happens because of practice: I can play around in Dr. Mario because I’ve spent so many hours playing it over the last 20 years, so the potentialities just kind of appear, as a jazz soloist can solo because of his or her familiarity with the scales and with that tune.

But I think for lots of composers–and I’m including writers here, especially unpracticed, student writers–the act of composition feels more like Tetris feels to me. That is, it’s tense, and it feels like everything has to be right the first time, and there’s abso-freaking-lutely no hope that mistakes can be easily fixed up by playfully diving into the future.

This is nothing new, of course. Folks have been encouraging teachers to build on students’ existing literacies as a pathway into learning new literacies for years. This one example makes me wonder what my students can do as well as I can play Dr. Mario, and how/if that metaphor can inspire/teach/guide them to a similar approach to their school compositions.

And deep down, perhaps this is really why I wrote this post: to share my moment of glory, the one time my name was featured in Nintendo Power magazine (issue 24, May 1991). (It’s a wonder what’s out there on this inter-net thing!) I had to take a picture of my achievement (and develop the film, of course) and send it in (through the mail) to prove it.

Scan from Nintendo Power Magazine

Not the best, not the worst--just right


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Grading and Voting

This morning, I’m listening to OverClocked ReMix radio over at Rainwave. I enjoy the complex interactivity of the voting system, which allows me both to rate songs I’ve heard and vote on which of 3 upcoming songs I want to hear.

A few minutes ago, though, I had a new thought: as someone who regularly grades student work, including short, informal, online work, do I vote differently than someone else who doesn’t have those judging/scoring/grading habits as deeply ingrained? Or, more perversely, is my grading behavior affected by my habits voting on music on this site?

Here’s an annotated screenshot of what the voting area of the screen looks like:

Annotated screenshot of ocr.rainwave.cc

With videogame remix music (or ReMix music, they would say), there’s a fun interplay of influences guiding my voting. I might choose a given song because:

  • I know the game and love its music
  • I know the original game’s composer and love his/her music
  • I know the ReMixer and love his/her ReMixes
  • I’ve previously rated how much I like the other 2 tunes on the docket, so I want to hear one I’ve never rated before
  • The average rating for a tune is higher than the others
  • The average rating for tunes from a given game is higher than the others

There’s something satisfying about quickly (almost instantly, sometimes) skimming the list of upcoming tracks, voting on which should come next, and then rating the currently playing track. It’s intuitive, sometimes hard to describe, and felt, as opposed to a solidly logical choice based on definable traits of the upcoming tracks. I could have a rubric to try to make my choices make more sense to outsiders, but that rubric would only go so far.

I hope my grading is more consistent and outcomes-driven than that, but especially on small assignments that earn a check, check plus, or check minus, there’s still an intuitive, emotion-tinged, bodily aspect to the decision that can never be wholly explained to another person. And right now, I’m not sure what I think about that. Thoughts? Resources I should read?

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Three Musical Thoughts

I’ve been better lately about keeping my Google Reader clean (especially since I learned all the keyboard shortcuts!), which means that I keep finding more and more that I want to write about for hours. Instead, here are three goodies I’ve been saving up, all posts elsewhere that touch on music:

1) Greg Sandow’s post “Wrong Family” has been haunting me since I read it: it’s a response to the Philadelphia Orchestra’s upcoming free concert, labeled “An evening of favorite classics for the whole family!” Greg astutely wonders “what kind of family they had in mind,” which cuts right to the throat of the classical/popular music split–at least the one in my psyche.

I mean, Finlandia is on the bill, which I tend to think of as mystical and revolutionary, political and beautiful, etc. etc. “But,” I’m now telling myself, “that’s how it was heard in, like, 1910. A hundred. Years. Ago.” There is groundbreaking stuff out there that today’s families would rather hear–but they’re not hearing it. I’m not hearing it.

(And I know what my arts management wife would say: we’re not hearing it because programming contemporary music is wildly expensive, both for the music rental and for the number of players often required.)

2) Speaking of music that today’s families would want to hear, there’s a short post over at Zelda Informer on “What Makes Game Theme Songs Memorable?” It’s a response to a video (that I admittedly didn’t watch entirely) that deals in part with the comparative worth of 8-bit, NES-style game music and contemporary stuff. But the most interesting line in this post refers to Zelda fans’ hope that the upcoming Zelda title on the Wii will have orchestrated music on par with what’s been done in the beautiful scores for the Super Mario Galaxy titles. The post author, Nathanial Rumphol-Janc, writes, “Also, if Nintendo doesn’t give Skyward Sword orchestrated music, I’ll be the guy heading the lynch mob outside of Nintendo’s headquarters in Japan.”

It’s interesting to see how music that’s actually been recorded from real, live orchestral instruments, as opposed to fancy computerized fakeries, holds such a cultural status for game music fans. Like, if it were 1989 and I were writing a science fiction story about video game music in 2010, I would describe the music as a complex utilization of everything that highly evolved computers could do. As it is, there seems to be a sense of, “Whew! Finally game music can sound like typical film music–you know, Braveheart and all that!”

Which I love and am unsatisfied with, all at the same time.

3) Some quotes are worth reading from an intriguing piece by Jesse Willis at one of my favorite audiobook sites, SFFaudio, called “I Hate Music.” These are especially interesting given my thinking on the rhetoric of music lately, given his claim that . . . well, you can just read it:

If it isn’t funny, isn’t literary, if it isn’t connected to some emotional or visual memory already in me, I just refuse . . . .

Even though I don’t “hate music,” I absolutely see his point here: we respond to things when they pique some sort of existing interest/memory/experience in us. That changes the nature of the communication event (yes, I just used a noun as an adjective–and liked it!) and suggests a rhetorical technique for music composers: to purposefully refer to the old (which we all know is done in pretty much all music anyway). Jesse just seems more aware of this natural occurrence than many of us would.

He ends with, “This is probably one of the reasons I’m so passionate about audiobooks.” Intriguing to me because of a personal experience: I’ve been listening my way through all of Orson Scott Card’s Ender and Bean books. I just finished Shadow of the Hegemon, which had the most elevator-ishly bad “between sections” music I’ve ever heard–so when a post on an audiobook blog mentioned hating music, I expected that he would write about hating audiobook filler music. That’s not what he discussed–*but* it still touched on my listening, because Card ends each of these books with friendly, exclusive-feeling afterwards in his own voice. And in these audio-only afterwards (afterwords?) he often says that hearing his books read aloud is the ideal way to experience them.

So: a composer of words who prefers aural delivery of those words, but whose work is also associated (in my mind) with lousy music delivery. Huh.

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The Rhetoric of 8-Bit Music

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the different ways music can be described as “rhetorical,” even (especially?) when it’s instrumental.

(Ooh, instrumental is a cool word. Need to look up the origins of its different meanings one day.)

One example: I’m listening to Sabrepulse right now, one of many artists creating new music from 8-bit technology. (As far as I understand it, he performs with computers that are actually hooked up to modded Gameboys, actually using their original music hardware.) (Check out the 8bitcollective for more amazing artists.)

And as I listen to the bleeps and boops, I’m trying to figure out why I like it so much. There’s the purely musical angle–the fact that I love the tight rhythms and syncopation and inspiring little melodies. (Preferences which, I suppose, aren’t really “purely musical,” since those preferences are direct products of my years of wading through popular music.)

But then there’s the nostalgic angle–the fact that I’m reminded of years of playing Mega Man games and soaking in the music. So Sabrepulse’s stuff has a sort of rhetorical “message” for me, I think. It carries a meta-meaning beyond the purely musical that says something like, “This music has added value because of what it makes you remember.” Its shape has a particular effect on me, which affects how I understand its meanings and purposes, regardless of whether Sabrepulse had those meanings in mind when he composed this stuff.

I’m also a few chapters into Alex Ross’s exploration of 20th-Century classical music, The Rest is Noise, which makes me wonder if there are parallels between my experiences with 8-bit music and, say, Germans in the 1920s who heard the occasional new composition that was surprisingly tonal, nostalgic, un-modern. Thoughts?

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When Fans Love Too Much

Jim Sterling has an intriguing post over at Destructoid called, expressively, “Videogame ‘Fans’ Need to Shut Up About Everything.” It’s written in reaction to Sonic 4 fans who are extremely distressed about what they see as their fandom being royally twisted up. There’s also some summaries of similar fan frustrations over new Fallout and Diablo games, alternately sad and hilarious.

My favorite lines from the article, with brief commentary:

Instead of fans, I declare that they should be known as people who need to shut the f*ck up about everything.

After the scare-quotes in the article title, this is the second place where these over-zealous critics have the label of fan taken away from them–even though they would probably call themselves the most fannish of them all. Interesting how labels operate differently for different groups, and how they function rhetorically.

One of the main problems with these so-called fans is the fact that they never want things to change.

I have to agree here; I remember when the fourth Smashing Pumpkins album (Adore) was released and it drove fans completely bonkers because it sounded different (!) than previous albums. I wanted everyone to chill out a little and trust the band to give us quality stuff, since they had followed through so superiorly in the past.

But the more I think about Sterling’s comment, the more it makes me wonder: to what extent do certain fandoms have a mean streak of conservatism in them? In other words, is there something inherent in a fan (or fandoms) that rewards leaning on the past and feels threatened by change? Certainly not always; I see lots of fan fiction as the complete opposite, with people seeing things they want to improve on in the original and stepping up to make those changes themselves. Somewhat on the same topic:

This situation, again, stems from the self-important assumption that fans are the be-all and end-all of videogame knowledge. . . .

Blizzard, for its part, mocked the sniveling of the self-professed fans, who had become so obsessed that they doctored images to make them darker in a bid to “help” Blizzard understand what its own game should look like. Once again, the sheer arrogance of that is astounding. . . .

We tend to hurt things we love more than things we hate.

Again, here’s the vision of the fans who hold on too tight, along with frustration at the “arrogance” that fans would know more than the content producer. That’s such a tricky tightrope to find an opinion on, at least for me. I find my gut reaction is with this article, with the Sonic 4 producers, with The Smashing Pumpkins: make an awesome product however you like, and I’ll try to judge it on its own merit, not on my perceptions of what it ought to have been.

But on the other hand, I want these frustrated fans to have space to make their own worlds too that fit their vision, you know? I love that people are so passionate about the stuff they love that they want it to be excellent and awesome, and I don’t want them to simply shut up when their hopes aren’t met. I want them to go out and do something creative on their own that tweaks the official product in awesome, folk-culture ways.

But obviously, that’s where fans of different types of media differ and where genre becomes important. A fan can be dissatisfied with the narrative of a show, movie, book, or even videogame, and rewrite that narrative in fan fiction. But it’s a lot harder for a fan to be dissatisfied with, say, Sonic 4, and then go out and make his own Sonic 4. (Though the startlingly amazing stuff over at Zelda Classic isn’t too far away from that….)

It’s the sheer selfishness of these so-called “fans” that really irritates me. They don’t care about other fans, or even the developers. They don’t give a shit that if a developer catered exactly to them, that they could risk making a game with limited appeal and lose money. You’d think a fan would be happy to see a game in their favorite series make some money, but apparently not.

Ah yes, money always comes into the picture. Sterling is quite right here, methinks. ‘Nuff said?


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Remix Literacies Project

I’ve been working a lot these days on 2 main things: 1) getting syllabi in order (for my professional writing class and for the FYC program’s online curriculum), and 2) getting my survey/interview project together for my remix literacies project. And after typing all kinds of stuff on it, I thought, “Wait, why not just post this language on the blog? That shows I’m not dead, and it’s actually pretty interesting.”

So, here are two bits of language from my main project site: the introduction text and the FAQ text.


This site’s primary purpose is to house four surveys I’m conducting about the ways that fans creatively remix culture. I’ve picked four fan communities that I love (see main survey page to see which), chosen especially because I know that people there engage in some variety of fan remixing. Members of those communities are invited to respond to the surveys, and some will follow up the survey with an informal interview.

You can read more about why I’m doing this on my FAQ page, but the basic idea is this: I’m a PhD student in rhetoric and composition at the University of South Florida, and I’m a fan. I want to learn more about the opinions of people who participate in fan communities that i admire, so I decided to ask them about what they do. I’ll benefit by presenting this work at academic conferences and perhaps by publishing the results–but I’ll also benefit personally through the enjoyment that comes from respectfully participating in the cool things that people are doing in fandoms that I admire. And hopefully, the fans I talk to will feel that they will benefit as well: by having a space to explain their remixing to themselves and to the outside world.

To access the surveys, you can use the links in the left menu bar or head to the main survey page.

FAQ page

What do you mean by “Remix Literacies”?
Well, when we talk about literacy, we often mean “the ability to read and write words on a page.” If you are holding a magazine and I ask you to read an article but you are unable to do so, you could be called “illiterate.”

But a number of people apply the word literacy to other contexts as well. If I show you a visual advertisement and you’re unable to “read” and understand the different strategies that the advertisers used to try to grab your attention, we could say that you’re lacking in “visual literacy.” If politics confuses you and you don’t really have any idea how it works, you’re lacking “political literacy.” You can’t read what’s going on.

Remix literacy is a term that I and lots of other people made up (just try Googling it) to describe the ability to understand and create effective remixes. (Of course, “effective” varies depending on your setting, audience, and purpose.) People are creating amazing compositions all the time that grow out of found material; these people are extremely literate in the world of remixing one object into something new. I happen to think that fans are some of the best people at these remixing activities, since they are often so well versed in the worlds of their fandom. That’s why this project is called “Fan Culture” and remix literacies.

And literacies is plural to emphasize that there’s no single kind of remix literacy–everyone does it differently, using different kinds of material and creating different kinds of compositions. And I think that’s cool.

What do you mean by remix? Wouldn’t another word be better?
Yeah, I see your point. People are right when they point out that the specific activities that make up remixing a song are different than those when, say, covering a song or altering it in other ways. But I wanted a single catch-all term that in some way encompasses the wide variety of activities that I’m surveying people about. What I’m really interested in could be called “composing from found material,” as long as you think of “composing” in a really wide sense and “found” as a metaphor for “existing in some way before you got to it to do your own thing.” But remix is shorter, catchier, etc.

Who are you?

I’m Kyle Stedman, a PhD student in rhetoric composition, focusing especially on intellectual property, fan studies, digital rhetoric, and teaching writing. I’m findable on my blog, Twitter, Delicious, and Facebook, and I occasionally go by BasementWall (because I was staring at a basement wall trying to come up with a name). I’m a fan of (in order of most well-versed to least) Lost, Star Trek, Star Wars, the various Zelda games, and various video game soundtracks.

How can I contact you?
Email is best: kstedman [at] mail [dot] usf [dot] edu.

Why are you doing this?

The idea of surveying and interviewing fan remixers was germinated by an inspiring article in the online academic journal Kairos by Jim Ridolfo and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss called “Composing for Recomposition: Rhetorical Velocity and Delivery.” Ridolfo and DeVoss describe the concept of a writer who knows that his or her work will be remixed in some way by someone else. Their example is a press release: the writer knows that journalists will take phrases and sentences from the press release and use them verbatim, mixed all around, added to and deleted from, in the eventual news story. I started to wonder how this applied to the creative work of fans, who “remix” ideas and images and sounds from their various fandoms all the time. What happens when fans create new work that they know other fans will take and remix again in a new way? What’s going on in these artists’ minds as they create?

Why don’t scholars stay out of my business?

I definitely recognize that scholars of fans have traditionally taken an us vs. them, anthropological role. (“Ooh, look over here and see what all the funny people are doing! How strange! I will now theorize about why they are so bizarre.”) But I also know that there’s a stellar tradition of scholars who are also fans stepping in to talk about themselves, represented most famously in Henry Jenkins‘ work, but also in the amazing collection Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet and in the work of the Organization for Transformative Works and its journal, Transformative Works and Cultures.

As much as possible, I’m trying to purposefully situate my work within the camp of the latter group by highlighting my own status as a fan and treating my survey respondents and interviewees as experts who are honoring me by sharing their perspectives with me, not as objects of my distant observation. In that, I’m trying to follow the position statement, “Fan Privacy and TWC’s Editorial Philosophy,” which describes its four “central ideas” as follows:

  • Fandom is getting mainstreamed, and there is no way to avoid that mainstreaming.
  • As fans, we prefer to control and possibly direct this mainstreaming, as well as the messages that circulate about us.
  • Academic work on fandom can be part of the explication and contextualization of fandom. In fact, that’s why the journal was created.
  • We think that fans can do a better job of writing academic works about fandom than nonfans can.

With that said, I admit that my role as fan could be seen as problematic by some, in that my fandom hasn’t led me to be an active participant in any of the communities from which I’m surveying and interviewing members. In other words, I listen to lots of music on OverClocked ReMix and I vote when streaming its music at Rainwave, but I don’t read the forums. Similarly, I love Zelda games and I’ve been working my way through one of the quests at Zelda Classic for a while now, but I don’t use the forums or create my own quests. I watch Lost rather more fanatically than anyone I know personally, but that only has led me to read lots of articles and blogs and occasionally update minor details on Lostpedia; I’ve never made a fan video. And I like a lot of the fic I’ve read, but I haven’t read much. (See my main survey page for links to all of these sites.)

So there’s a degree to which I could fall into the danger of becoming too academic and not fannish enough as I do this work. But at least I can say I’m aware of the dangers and am doing my best to keep my head above water.

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First Day of Sharing

The folks over at Share This Course have challenged participants to share something every day from now until Christmas Eve. I accept. Here’s the big picture:

The goal of ‘Assignment: Share’ is to become more conscious of all the ways we use digital media to share our experiences. We share links, we share documents, we share photos, we share videos, we share music, we share movies, we share just about anything that can be digitized, stuck on a server somewhere, and presented via the Web. . . . This sharing of culture is the foundation of Share This Book, so we must grasp it ourselves before we can explain it to others. Don’t be afraid, don’t be shy.  Everything is interesting.  Everything deserves to be shared. (Via)

I’ll be cross-posting my sharing on this blog and on the Share This Course site. I see this as a helpful kick in the pants to keep up my blogging and as an interesting experiment in pushing the content of this blog a bit more beyond the academic. I mean, I talk about all kinds of stuff on here, but almost always with the thought in the back of my mind that it’s stuff I might want to think about in an academic context. On and off I’ve wondered how much I want to push that boundary, and this challenge should help me think that through by practicing. Sweet!

Today I’m going to share by celebrating (belatedly) the 10th anniversary of Overclocked Remix, the benchmark site for videogame music remixes and rearrangements. Their press release from December 11, the actual birthday, describes the site thusly:

Founded in 1999, OverClocked ReMix is an organization dedicated to the appreciation, preservation, and interpretation of video game music. Its primary focus is www.ocremix.org, a website featuring hundreds of free fan arrangements, information on game music and composers, resources for aspiring artists, and a thriving community of video game music fans.

My favorite mix on the site is SGX‘s “Save Me,” a remix of a tune from the Playstation 2 game Ico (which I’ve never played but long to). Part of my love for this piece is the way it shows the serendipitous nature of sharing: I came across OCRemix years ago and randomly played this song, which led me to learn more about the game Ico, which led me to buy Shadow of the Colossus, a game made by the same folks, which led me to get the soundtracks to both games, which are now a regular part of my background music while working at home. So cool!


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