Monday, December 17, 2012

Update on my goal progress...

The semester has finally ended and I have time to work on my music again. Between work and visiting with family for the holidays, I'm not going to have quite as much time as I had hoped to have, but I'm still making progress towards releasing a few electronica songs in the near future. I'm working on a short teaser video for those songs as well, so keep an eye on my YouTube channel for that. These songs will likely not be released as a full-fledged EP (like I had originally intended), but they will instead be released as free digital downloads.

In addition to the electronica songs, I'm re-recording and re-imagining all of the songs that I've written up to this point, and they will be the songs that comprise my first full-length album effort. This will hopefully be out by the end of Summer 2013.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Contextual Analysis of RATM’s “Testify” Music Video

I wrote this paper for a writing class I took my freshman year (almost 3 years ago). Thought some of you might find it interesting.

Some musicians use music as a means to gain fame. Others seemingly make music simply because they are artists and wish to express their creativity through that medium. Still yet, there are a select few musicians that use their music to convey a meaningful message. They use it as an incredibly powerful form of both communication and persuasion. For example, suppose someone has a favorite band. If that band were to write a politically-charged song, set with lyrics of some particular point of view, would the fan not feel a bit more inclined to favor that view? It is almost unfair how instances like this can have an effect on the average human psyche. Furthermore, it is a very intriguing form of communication due to the sheer power it possesses in such a simplified form. Too few of us understand (or even care to look at) what makes the music we enjoy entertaining. Many people that are not musicians tend to overlook the depth and actual art of the music they listen to. Under all of the tailored layers that make up whatever sound is most suited to the individual, there are always the same driving principles lying beneath. Although this sounds oversimplified and almost generic, it all starts with a rhythm, and (especially in modern music) this often is directly related to lyrical substance. Rage Against the Machine is a band that seemed to grasp this concept of using music as a conveyor of thought. Their music video for the song “Testify” is an example of one of these unashamedly obvious messages and is one of the most memorable music videos to be released in recent history.

To set the tone for the whole video, it begins by depicting both George W. Bush and Al Gore meshed together as a single alien. They then split into their two separate forms that we are all familiar with and then the video proceeds to show clips from speeches during their campaigns. These clips show the two (at the time) presidential candidates supporting several of the same political positions. The song then progresses into the first verse and continues to show clips, this time mostly of the politicians dancing and having a good time. As the song moves into its chorus, the video changes pace and shows different public figures holding their right hand up as if to testify in a court of law. People that were largely known to be in the middle of massive scandals, such as Monica Lewinsky, appear in the midst of seemingly wholesome figures, like the Pope, with every single one in stance to testify. Whether they’ve actually done anything wrong is up for debate, but the video still manages to provoke thoughts here and question whether those in power really deserve that which is bestowed upon them.

The video takes yet another route and depicts rising gas prices, stock values, and social injustice throughout the second verse of the song. This most certainly exists to arouse suspicion around the actual motives of both Bush and Gore. As the song moves into its bridge, again, clips flash of speeches from Bush and Gore, where the two candidates support several of the same ideals. They then merge back into their single alien-esque being and take off in a UFO. The song begins its outro, and Ralph Nader comes onto the screen and delivers possibly his most famous phrase, “If you’re not turned on to politics, politics will turn on you.” This sounds a little bit more harsh than it actually is, but the director of this music video most definitely used this to convey a strong message. It basically boils down to meaning we need to be engaged in politics ourselves; otherwise we’re bound to be disappointed with what is going on around us.

There are two silent slides with one short message to end the video. These two slides do more to clarify what the video is about than any other single part of it. They state that, during that particular election year, “it is estimated that the majority of Americans – nearly one hundred million people – will not vote simply for lack of a real choice on the ballot.” This summarizes the thought process behind the writing of the song and the video in one simple line. Zack de la Rocha (the lead singer and lyricist for Rage Against the Machine) was obviously disgruntled with both presidential candidates and their lack of individuality. It is worth noting that de la Rocha has a long history of writing politically-charged songs, and often ones that blatantly oppose those currently in power.

It is essential to also look at the actual lyrics of the song in order to further understand what de la Rocha wanted to say. The first verse seems almost sarcastic, but in a convincing fashion. It reads, “… Mister anchor assure me that Baghdad is burning. Your voice, it is so soothing, that cunning mantra of killing. I need you, my witness, to dress this up so bloodless, to numb me and purge me now of thoughts of blaming you…” There is slightly more to it, but these are the most definitive lines. This demonstrates a common act of the media, which seemingly covers up bad happenings and displays a biased report for the public to see. De la Rocha was obviously displeased with the coverage of the Desert Storm operations in the early 1990s, but these same lyrics have a meaning that can also apply to virtually any political activities just as easily. The second verse calls out a slightly different set of problems. “… My slaving, sweating, the skin right off my bones, on a bed of fire I’m choking on the smoke that fills my home. The wrecking ball is rushing, witness your blushing. The pipeline is gushing, while here we lie in tombs…” This seems to refer to the soldiers who died during the war that was apparently fought to gain oil reserves, all while we (as Americans) work hard day-in and day-out only to have (gas) prices inflate to the point that it is “choking” us. This point is furthered in the bridge of the song with the lyrics “Mass graves for the pump and the price is set” which is, in a way, chanted several times over. There is still one other section of lyrics worth mentioning. Towards the end of the song, there is a break of sorts that really emphasizes the lyrical substance during this part. The lyrics read, “Who controls the past now controls the future. Who controls the present now controls the past. Who controls the past now controls the future. Who controls the present now?”. This is perhaps the most philosophical part of any of Rage Against the Machine’s songs, as it presents the listener with a thought-provoking dilemma that is applicable not only at the time it was written, but in practically any point in history and even the future. There is no real way to simplify it, and it does not really need to be. After reading or listening through it several times, it clearly becomes a powerful object of rhetoric.

Do the lyrics of the song relate to what is happening in the video? It doesn’t entirely seem that way. While the video mainly focuses on the upcoming presidential election in 2000, the actual song centers itself around the media coverage of the Persian Gulf War. The American government steadily supplied a stream of propaganda to the media, influencing it however it deemed fit. The government also embraced comparisons of Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler. This comparison also led to the creation and spread of several horrific war stories, including the infamous Kuwaiti baby-killing story. The government in Kuwait, in turn, noticed the influence that the American media had and joined forces with a reputable public relations firm, which hired a young girl to testify before Congress and confirm the truth of the baby story. This may very well be the situation de la Rocha had in mind when he wrote the lyrics to the chorus of the song.

“…Historical analysis shows the corruption and duplicity of the government’s media campaign in support of the war, and the dismissal of the actual human and fiscal costs of the conflict." Writer Stacy Coyne looked through several popular magazines from the war period such as Time and Newsweek. The only stories she was able to find about the war were descriptions of new military technology, the villainy of Saddam, stories of families who had lost a loved one in the war, and criticism on how the American media itself was depicting the war. Although it did take this look at itself, Coyne states that the press continued to be “blinded by national imperatives and did not allow for unbiased reporting whatsoever.” It continued to focus on the loss of single families, rather than actually show how many soldiers had lost their lives in total, and pictures of death and violence were almost non-existent for the public to see. There is a clear reference to this within the song with the words “dress this up so bloodless.” “Testify” was released in 1999, so de la Rocha had plenty of time to see just how corrupt the media coverage was after the war. When learning of this substantial falsity, the concept for this song must have been triggered in his head. It is easy to see the relationship between this situation and the lyrics.

As we move closer towards the conclusion of this analysis, perhaps a quick discussion of the types of appeals made throughout the song and video would be fitting. The video itself was largely logos-driven. It depicted factual representations of candidates and, overall, seemed to be based on reason. The song, however, made more use of ethos and pathos appeals. Zack de la Rocha’s conviction in both songwriting and deliverance give power to the message he speaks of. It is almost fair to say that one can feel the passion in his voice. It is easy to hear emotions such as anger and distrust coming from the vocals. His conviction is what makes this song stand out as one of the most powerful politically-charged songs in modern music.

Rage Against the Machine defined what it meant to produce music on an intellectual level as well as an emotional one. De la Rocha did not write of love, heartbreak, or brushing his teeth with a bottle of “Jack.” He wrote things relevant to society. He wrote things that had deep meaning on a broad spectrum, and he wrote to try to change the world for the better. Lack of that in today’s society is a sad thing. Music is often overlooked as an influential form of communication. Sure, people do recognize it as a means of conveyance, but the majority does not realize the extent and power it has due to the lack of substance in the mainstream. It will be interesting to see how the industry changes over the years, as it is an ever-evolving one, but for now, we’ll just have to be content with what bands like Rage Against the Machine left us with.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Education versus Creativity

Don't get me wrong; education is a beautiful thing. It provides artists with the knowledge of new subjects to draw inspiration from, but it's also a double edged sword: I often find myself thinking about how much it stifles my creativity. The more I learn, The more I want to incorporate all these different things into one. I get to the point where I can't focus on anything but one verse or guitar riff, and then when I'm finally happy with that, I can't expand these things out into full songs. Not only do I have to deal with this dilemma of information overload, but the time constraints placed on me by the demands of college are the most damaging source of hindrances to my artistry.

I have no time to write full songs, let alone record them. I have no time to paint, sketch, and I rarely even have time to update my blog or upload videos to YouTube anymore. The things I love to do are all put on hold during the semester so that I have time to study and maintain my GPA.

I know there are plenty of people out there who have found a good balance between their hobbies and school, and I applaud them for that. But, for me, it's been impossible up to this point, and it's frustrating.

When I entered college, I had the hopes of having a decent body of work completed by the time I graduated: I wanted at least one CD released, a regularly updated blog, and a YouTube channel followed by thousands of people who loved my music. Here I am, in my Junior year, and I'm just now getting close to finishing up 5 songs for a release that I'm hoping will be available in late December/early January.

I will admit, college has done much good for me: I've matured quite a bit over the last 3 years, I met my fiancee, and I've learned quite a bit more about the business world than I ever would have otherwise. I just wish it didn't take up so damn much time.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Creative Tips - Timing is Everything

Ok, so I've been on a bit of a creative hiatus for the past 6 months... and a musical hiatus for much the past year. I just haven't had it in me with everything else that's been going on and changing in my life. But I can feel all that creativity returning to me, and it feels good. I've missed it. But I think that all creative minds have their droughts: times when, no matter how hard you  try or even want to try, you just can't bring yourself to come up with new material for whatever medium you're trying to express yourself through. It's rough, but I've come to find that sometimes it takes just a small reminder of those goals that you set for yourself to get you back on track and get your mind racing with new ideas.

For me, it took a few things. Last weekend, I was watching several of my Incubus concert footage DVDs. As I listened to my favorite band play through all of my favorite songs at these awesome venues in front of all their adoring fans, I kind of realized how far behind I was getting on the goals I set for myself a couple of years ago. The members of Incubus were all in their early-to-mid 20s when they had produced a multi-platinum selling album in Make Yourself. Here I am at 20 years old and I've barely even recorded enough material or worked with the software and equipment that I've stockpiled to come up with one solid EP. It was a huge reality check, and one that I'm thankful for, because it flicked a switch in my mind that turned on both some creative and determined thoughts.

The other thing that's really been inspiring me is a business novel, oddly enough. It's required reading for one of the business classes that I'm taking, and it's one of the best books I've read so far in college. It's called The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement. It made me realize how much I've lost focus on all the goals that I set, and helped me regain that focus. Without goals, we become really mindless, uninspired machines set in routines that lead us in a circular path to nowhere.

I've broken off of that path, and already I have several things that I'm working on. First, I'm working on getting my home recording studio set up completely at my new abode. I hope to have that finished by the end of August. All it will take is setting up the software on my new desktop and learning the basics of some new recording software that I recently purchased (Acoustica Mixcraft and Beatcraft). After that, I want to have 5 solid, professional sounding songs written and recorded by the end of the year. I'll probably spend much of this semester writing as much as possible and then select my 5 best to record during winter break (I already have 2 songs in the works just within this first week, so I'm feeling pretty good about that). More long-term goals are an EP release in the spring-summer of 2013 and maybe by the end of 2013 I'll have had enough time to complete a book that I've been working on... that last one might be a stretch and a bit of a teaser, but hey, it could happen!

But to get back on the topic of timing being everything, the main advice I have to people in one of those creative "funks" is to think about your goals that you've set for yourself and maybe lost focus on, and if you get any kind of even slight inspiration from that, push yourself just a little and act on that feeling. It could open up some very wide doors to dream realization and happiness.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Creative Tips - Where to Find Inspiration

Inspiration can be one of the easiest things to come across and also one of the most difficult. To me, it seems more like a matter of timing than anything else: I've kinda gotta be in a creative mood before anything really strikes me as inspiration. Despite all this, I've found a few ways to foster creativity that just might help a few people out there.

1. Listen to music.
Ok, so this kinda seems like an obvious choice, but it's still worth mentioning because it's the most effective thing for me. If you're looking for inspiration for your own music, play along with some of your favorite songs or try to imitate a technique that you hear and like in a song. Ripping off a riff that you really like isn't necessarily a bad thing as long as you make it your own in some way.

As for all you painters, sketchers, and writers out there, think about what a song makes you feel or envision and try to replicate that in your chosen medium.

Remember: Music exists to inspire. Don't ever look past this resource when looking for a spark.

2, Check out some artwork.
Go to a local museum and get inspired by the works there, or maybe even just search for some random art online. Good painters and the like always provoke thought with their work, in my opinion.

Again, Art exists to inspire.

This was my first painting. I sometimes look back at old material to see what I can draw from it for new ideas.

3. Read poetry.
Just search for some poetry online until you find a poet you can relate to and actually understand. If you want to immerse yourself even further in this idea, listen to some recordings of poets reading their poems, or maybe even attend a live poetry reading at a local college. They're usually free and open to the public, so why not give it a shot?

I could keep adding notes like this, but I think you get the point. =)

4. Work with friends.
Working with friends on creative projects has its ups and downs, but for the most part, they're ups. Generally speaking, more people equals more conflicting ideas and perspectives. This tends to be a good thing, as it is a real eye opener and could really help kick-start more of your own creative ideas.

Jamming around a campfire during the summer is really fun, I must say.

5. Go sightseeing.
Even if you're just in your hometown, chances are there is at least one place nearby that tourists visit that you haven't. Take a little time to go check it out, learn about its history, or just appreciate its architecture. Don't take any sights or sounds for granted; take note of all the little details and focus on something that interests you. You'll be glad you did at the end of the day.

Hopefully at least one of these tips helps you in some way. Even if you're not looking for a creative spark, try out some of these ideas to broaden your palette and your grasp of your local culture. There's much more to the world around us than what we encounter on a daily basis. Sometimes you need to let your adventurous side indulge itself, and you just might learn something in the process.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

My Top 10 Favorite Albums of All Time (Part 5 of 5)

Here's a recap of everything up to this point::

#10. ...And Miles to Go Before We Sleep - Vertigo
#9. Nirvana - Nirvana
#8. By the Way - Red Hot Chili Peppers
#7. Seasons - Sevendust
#6. This is the Warning - Dead Letter Circus
#5. Themata - Karnivool
#4. We Cracked the Sky - Sugar Glyder
#3. Hybrid Theory - Linkin Park
#2. Start Something - Lostprophets

#1. Make Yourself - Incubus
First off, I think it's kind of interesting that both of my favorite albums (Make Yourself and Start Something) have titles that are two-word, inspiring commands. But anyway, Incubus is by far my favorite band of all time, and in my mind, none of their albums exemplifies what they stand for more than Make Yourself. It was their breakout album, and for good reason. Hits like "Stellar," "Drive," "Pardon Me," and "I Miss You" drove this album to be one of the most successful albums at the close of the last millennium. I literally love every song. It just has to be heard in full to be truly appreciated. If you've never heard of this CD before, you absolutely must check it out. There's a song on there for lovers of all types of music.

"Drive" is without a doubt my favorite song of all time. It's probably mostly due to the nostalgia factor of it for me, but it's just like no matter how many times I listen to this song, it never gets old.

"Pardon Me" is another personal favorite. It's a lot more typical of the nu-metal tendencies of the time period.

"The Warmth" is a track that most people probably haven't heard of though, so I thought I'd mention it since it's one of my favorites, too. It's just a really good song to listen to when you need a lift or some reassurance.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

My Top 10 Favorite Albums of All Time (Part 4 of 5)

Here's a recap of parts 1, 2, and 3:

#10. ...And Miles to Go Before We Sleep - Vertigo
#9. Nirvana - Nirvana
#8. By the Way - Red Hot Chili Peppers
#7. Seasons - Sevendust
#6. This is the Warning - Dead Letter Circus
#5. Themata - Karnivool
#4. We Cracked the Sky - Sugar Glyder

#3. Hybrid Theory - Linkin Park
Linkin Park is just amazing. The fact that they were able to make themselves stand out among all the rest of that massive wave of nu-metal bands in the 90s is a respectable feat in itself, and even today they remain a powerhouse in the music industry. Hybrid Theory just kind of speaks for itself. It's angry, it's brash, and it's awesome.  Combining the hip-hop style of Mike Shinoda with Chester's aggressive vocals gives this band the ability to transcend genres and reach out to a really wide range of people. In addition to all this, the lyrical substance in the majority of their songs is compelling, with "A Place for My Head" being the track in my mind as I type this.

#2. Start Something - Lostprophets
I love every single one of Lostprophets' albums, but Start Something always has and always will blow my mind listening through it. I first heard "To Hell We Ride" on Need for Speed: Underground for the Gamecube way back in the day, so I have that game to thank for that at least. Lostprophets frontman Ian Watkins is an incredibly talented individual, yet he sings in a way that is still very accessible and easy to sing along to. This whole album is just genius and it's hard for me to pick a favorite track on it. "Last Train Home" is one that most people have heard of, but "I Don't Know," "We Still Kill the Old Way," and "Last Summer" are all incredible, too. If I absolutely had to pick a favorite from this album though, it'd have to be the title track, "Start Something."