Wednesday Writing Tip: The Best Genre is the Genre Mashup

This video, brought to us by the fine – and brilliant – folks at Postmodern Jukebox – is a stunning example of what I like to call a genre mashup.

Assuming you have any perspective on 20th century music and 21st century TV, it’ll be easy for you to get most of the references above. For those who need an education, here’s a brief breakdown. Continue reading → Wednesday Writing Tip: The Best Genre is the Genre Mashup

Funky Friday: Finding the Funk in Surprising Places

Anyone who’s spent more than 10 minutes reading past posts from this blog know that I’m a fan of fusion – both literary and musical. Some of the best examples of both come when someone known for one genre or style tries something new, or just decides to incorporate elements of the “other” into their own work.

Musically, Prince is one of my favorite examples, since his funk credentials are extensive, but the Little Purple One also has an incredible talent for penning an infectious pop song when he feels the urge. Continue reading → Funky Friday: Finding the Funk in Surprising Places

Funky Friday: Lyle Lovett Proves Genre Only Means Something If You Let It

Ladies and gentlemen, I give to you “Penguins,” one of out-and-out funkiest songs ever laid down by someone generally classified as a country artist.

But if you took a country music fan – the Coors Light-drinking, NASCAR-watching, truck-driving, ATV riding type of country music fan – and asked him about Lyle Lovett, chances are he’d look at you like my dog does when he’s confused about what I’m asking him to do.

That’s because on the radar screen of your average “hot” country radio listener, Lovett isn’t even a blip. He’s too funny looking (real country stars are pretty-boy handsome with a rustic edge), he’s too bluesy (real country stars have twang galore and don’t use all those annoying horns and … what the hell is that – a cello?) and he sings about the wrong stuff (no songs about getting wasted on cheap beer from a Solo cup while partying in a field), etc.

Add to that the fact that some of his songs are actually funny, obviously taking an opportunity to tweak the country music stereotypes that remain so pervasive, and he seems tailor made to piss off typical country fans. Continue reading → Funky Friday: Lyle Lovett Proves Genre Only Means Something If You Let It

Today’s Funky Friday Brought to You by The Roots and … Elvis Costello? (A Rumination on Genre Busting)

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OK, lemme ‘splain.

Anyone who’s read this blog … you know – ever – has a pretty good idea that I’m an Elvis Costello fan from way back, and there’s a good reason: I consider my discovery of Costello on par with my initiation into a musical world that included the Beatles as its foundation.

But I’ve never really explained why.

Better than why, I’ll explain when. It was 1983, and I was 15, riding with my dad in his tiny Chevy pickup truck to help him out with a rehearsal for a play he was directing at the Chapel Street Playhouse, a tiny but very active community theater in Newark, Del. As we got closer to the theater, this song came on the radio – likely longstanding Wilmington, Del., Top 40 station WSTW. Something about the opening piano chords with the bass guitar right up front grabbed me, then the singer’s falsetto kicked in, followed by a more normal register, and the sound of the female background singers.

That’s about 20 seconds into the song. And man, I was hooked. I did something I rarely did. I asked my dad to just sit there in the parking lot and leave the radio on while I listened to the rest of the song, which turned out to be about a lovelorn writer using literary imagery to explain the ups and downs of a romantic relationship.

OK, I thought. You got me. I’m done. Who is this guy?

But the DJ didn’t say. Because this was the Stone Ages, when there was no handy digital display to tell you the artist if the DJ neglected to, I was in the dark. When I got home, I was doubly in the dark, because my family had no cable TV, and thus no MTV. That might have been the last time I heard it on the radio.

Sadly, even though the song was on the 1983 album Punch the Clock, it took me until 1985 to actually own the song with the release of Elvis_costello_best_1985The Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions in 1985. It contained the single I had heard – “Every Day I Write the Book” – as well as enough cuts from his back catalog to make me want to investigate further.

What I found was not a gold mine but a friggin’ platinum mine. Here’s this skinny dork (hello, 115-pound theater nerd 11th-grader) who not only rocks with this weird amalgam of new wave pop and pissed-off punk, but who is obviously literate. His songs, dense with words and metaphor and cross references, were like novellas in themselves.

Since then I’ve been a permanent fan, and pretty much anyone who knows me well is aware of this. Example: When I met up for lunch with a former college girlfriend a few years after graduation, one of her first questions as we made awkward smalltalk was, “Still like Elvis Costello?”

I wanted to say, “Yes, because he A) Didn’t break up with me, and B) Writes great brokenhearted nerd songs that helped me get over you.”

But it was more than that. I admired not only the literary quality of the songs, but the fact that his style was all over the map. One minute he was channeling pop-punk rage, while the other he was crooning a country song or paying homage to the sweet harmonies of Motown.

It was that ability to adapt and cross genres that, in the end, kept me as a fan. And, as it turns out, those same qualities are frequently what I look for in the authors I read and the ones I try to apply to my own writing.

As much as I love science fiction in books, film and TV, it’s the work that is able to admit that it’s other things that really grabs me. For instance, one of my favorite authors is Christopher Moore. If you’ve ever read his work, you know he’s hard to pin down as far as genre. Does he write humorous fantasy? Fantastic humor? Is it horror? Scifi? Occult? Why does he say the F-word so much?

Exactly! You never really know where he’s going – only that along the way you will be taken on an absurd and ultimately sweet adventure. Whether it’s a Pacific Island cargo cult, a pesky Native American trickster spirit or a rumination on what happened during the “lost” years in the life of Jesus, you will laugh and you will encounter elements of the weird, fantastic, science-fictional and – occasionally – the kinky and naughty.

Another example: I just watched the movie Safety Not Guaranteed, about a team of magazine writers pursuing a story about the guy behind a classified ad seeking a time travel companion.

Is it science fiction because there’s the prospect – real or imagined – of time travel? I say yes. But what makes it great is that around that conceit is a deep story of real people trying to recapture lost time or bygone days. The emotions are true and the situations believable, even if, at the center of things, is a concept that goes back to the earliest science fiction novels. The same could be said for films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.

So, how does this all relate back to the funk mentioned in this post’s title?

In his latest collaboration, Elvis Costello has teamed with perhaps The Best Band in the World, The Roots (hailing from my adopted metro area of Philadelphia), working together to fuse The Roots’ particular brand of neo-soul, funk, hip hop and R&B to Costello’s dense storytelling. It’s what makes me love Costello still, repackaged and re-purposed with a funky back beat, a driving horn section and a noir feel that he hasn’t inhabited in years.

There’s no fear as both he and The Roots venture into uncharted waters of creativity, and the result, as it frequently is when fear is cast aside and new frontiers are explored, are extraordinary.

 

The Story On Toy Story

With the Thanksgiving holiday and school out for a long weekend, there’s been lots of kid TV on around the house. And with all the junk that’s out there, I’ve been reminded of what gems the movies of the Toy Story trilogy are.

Such gems, in fact, that when Toy Story 2 came out, it was cited as one of the few films that represent the “golden ratio” of film – that combination of factors that make for a perfectly balanced screenplay.

Another great thing that the Toy Story movies did was free animated film – and specifically Disney-produced and distributed animation – from the bonds of musical featuring princesses and rehashed fairy tale stories. Nothing against musicals – they certainly have their place in the world, and even in genre film.

This happened once before, if you remember, in the 1950s when Walt Disney (the man) got consumed with creating his eponymous theme parks and left the studio animation division to others. It’s funny how you can tell exactly when that happens – it’s when stories based Grimm brothers tales diminish and the number of plot contingent musical numbers decline or are replaced by those that swing rather than soar.

Eventually – whether because of laziness or because of perceived saleability – the Mouse decided to go back to fairy tale musicals and began following a pretty strict formula that Pixar animator and director Andrew Stanton details in this TED video.

Pretty soon, you could recite in your sleep what each new Disney animated feature would entail – a trite retelling of a tried-and-true childhood story that would be girl-centric without abandoning the Mouse’s ever-present princess fantasy of a happy ending married to a handsome prince. For a while there, Disney just gave up.

What Pixar chose to do, Stanton explains, is to take that formula and throw it in the trash. They created original stories that, while appropriate for children almost from the moment they can understand that they’re watching a movie, are universal in their appeal and cut no corners in the level of their quality or storytelling. They were built from the ground up – no source material from the 18th century or designed to appeal to a particular demographic.

So what does this have to do with your writing in novel or short story form? It’s a great example of how you as a writer aren’t bound in any way by what people (or your genre) might expect or suggest you should create your work.

In this day of entire bookstore sections devoted exclusively to subgenres like “Teen Paranormal Romance” – also known as the “sexy teenage vampires in love” genre – it’s easy to think that the best way to have success is to write something that fits into a specific box. You can even see it in book titles, particularly among the indie e-book market, where nearly ever title seems to contain either “shades” or “grey” – or some combination thereof – to in an attempt to somehow capitalize on the success of the ubiquitous erotica phenomenon Fifity Shades of Grey and its sequels.

If all you want to do is sell some books, it’s easy to ride another’s coattails or cram yourself into a pre-existing pattern that someone else has created and others have replicated.

But keep in mind that he most renowned writers are the ones unafraid to toy existing structure or form. Some of the most popular are the ones who decide to willingly cross boundaries of style or genre to create something truly amazing.

In other words, don’t try to fit into a box for which someone else has already set the dimensions. Instead, create your own box, work within the parameters you create and don’t worry about the hot genre of the moment.