Friday, March 18, 2016

March Sadness and the Collaborative Essay

So this March I've been running this project called March Sadness. Well, I'm already oversimplifying: we have been running the project, my wife and I. Actually, still oversimplifying: we're running it with a bunch of writers and musicians and listeners and voters and friends. It's a bracket that we made of the saddest songs of the college rock era (think MTV's 120 Minutes and the world it inherited and built and the world it collapsed under after, thanks to Napster and so forth), roughly 1980-2001. We (The Selection Committee) selected and seeded the songs with some rules: no more than one song per band, those dates are strict, and we tried to select for some different sorts of sadnesses, which meant that we didn't necessarily choose the absolute saddest song by every band represented on there (like I know that there are sadder songs by Low and Slowdive and Indigo Girls...probably). Feel free to naysay in the comments or suggest oversights as you like.

Crucially, though, we're now playing the games off, and are in the Sweet Sixteen beginning today, Friday, March 18th. Matchups are live for 24 hours for commenting and voting, and the song with the most votes advances. No need to register: you can just click on the game and vote. Like today we have two games: (3) Tori Amos vs (1) The Cure's "Pictures of You" and (2) Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees" vs (6) This Mortal Coil's "Song to the Siren." Listen, read, comment, and vote! Or you can click on my twitter feed which has polls on it too (you may have to scroll down a touch) so you can vote that way.

From pretty early on, I've not thought of this as just a fun exercise (though it began as that) but as a monthlong collaborative crowdsourced essay on sad songs and sadness in music, what makes for a great sad song, and how sadness or sad songs work on us. I'd like to make the argument here for more collaborative essays.

If you were at the NonfictioNow conference last October, my co-keynote with Michael Martone made this case there: we each wrote mini-essays about keys (hence the keynote, ha ha, got subverted into a keychain, or that was our initial metaphor) independently and delivered them in a random order generated by a member of the audience. Maybe you were there. Maybe you thought it was cool or confusing or pointless. I tried to make the argument in my half of the keys we offered for a collaborative essay. The essay seems to me very, very closely tied to the singular I (or the apparent singular I). I've written about this before, how the essay's the ideal simulation (and I do mean simulation with all the implications of the technological metaphor) of the individual mind churning—ruminating, in the way of the cow's digestion.

I still believe that, but I also feel like it's limiting. And it seems particularly limiting in the era of the Internet, which as we all know also seems to coincide with the Age of the Essay: why does the essay seem to flourish in the networked environment? It's not just because, as David Shields, says that Facebook is a personal essay machine (though there's that). And it's not just because of the ascendancy of the essay in the academy (in comp programs as the primary tool and in the ascendancy of creative writing programs themselves).

I remember having a conversation with Stephen Elliott—this was a few years ago now—maybe in Portland at a book festival there, I don't remember exactly—where we were riffing on the possibilities of electronic media, which for me then had primarily to do with multimedia and branching possibilities, interconnectivity, really. But his thought was that electronic media needed to take advantage of social interconnectivity. That thought stuck with me, because I've become increasingly convinced that our relationship with our media has been changing: now we expect to be able to download and snip apart and remix and remake it, whether it's via fan edits on youtube or slash fiction.

The cagey essayist here may note that essayists (and artists of all stripes, particularly collagists) have been doing this since forever. I don't mean explicitly, like going all Girl Talk on a Virginia Woolf essay and just adding beats and more raps (though I would totally listen to that). But aren't essays always patchworks of others' ideas, responding and responding and incorporating quotations and bending around our impressions of how others have always walked these roads before us? I mean, the phenomenon of commonplace books (which I have my cnf students do) has been around for centuries, and in a way that's not all that far from what tumblr does. I'd venture a guess that the essay has always been the most rhizomatic of the literary genres (or non-genres as the essayists have always complained, a problem that John D'Agata's epic anthologies have been trying to solve (see this space for a conversation with him on the eve of the final volume dropping in a couple weeks).

But why not, given that we seem to be communicating ever more quickly with each other (hence I ping Nicole Walker in an essay and boom, her Google Alert all of a sudden picks it up in a day before I've even got my head around the idea that it made it to Nicole almost instantaneously: hi Nicole), consider other ways in which we might interact?

I modeled one in my NonfictioNow keynote: Michael Martone and I were riffing back and forth, but I was also advocating in that keynote for the collaborative (as in collaboratively-written) essay, and I incorporated big chunks of bits that my students wrote in that presentation. I'd given them some prompts, including some of my early thinking, and asked them to write back in whatever way they liked, and I used some of their material in my part of the collaborative essay.

What I read there was only a small portion of the much bigger project, which is presently looking for a home (have ideas? drop me a line), but that seemed like one way to go about it.

March Sadness is another. For starters, though I've written about 80% of the content on the site (until today), my collaborator did the others, and it's a much richer conversation, I find (as you'd expect) when it's not just me in the echo chamber trying to make some magic. Her takes on the songs have affected mine and my thoughts about what kinds of sadnesses they articulate or create or describe. So there's that.

But tomorrow, starting with the Sweet Sixteen, we're also running short essays by writers and friends including Brian Blanchfield, Katie Jean Shinkle, Kate Bernheimer, Juan Diaz, Danielle Cadena Deulen, Kathleen Rooney, T Clutch Fleischmann, Elena Passarello, Matt Vadnais, Manuel Munoz, Alison Stine, Megan Campbell, Nicole Walker, and a couple more peeps yet to be announced. We asked them to introduce the sixteen songs and essay about them in whatever way they want.

I'm particularly excited about this because I'm interested in hearing what people have to say about This Mortal Coil's "Song to the Siren," for instance, in my view a colossal song and a dark horse to win the whole thing, if also something of a niche one. I found, in exulting about it with Brian, that yes, indeed there's something we share, and so why not explore that? You've done that, I'm sure, in talking about music or films or whatever, and the online discussion is a familiar enough form by now for most of us. So making a bracket's allows me (us) to do it in a more concentrated or slightly formal way.

We started with 64 writeups, each of one song, and because we began it in a bit of a half-assed way it just didn't seem possible to find people to do all those and manage all that. So we just did it ourselves for the first weeks: my collaborator and I  wrote almost all the mini-essays in the first two rounds. But the fun thing is of course that since the games are decided by popular vote (and the votes are affected by the commenting and conversation), the results have often been surprising. Like who knew that Mazzy Star had enough to get "Fade Into You" by REM's "South Central Rain"? Or that they would take (1) seed Joy Division's "Atmosphere" down to the very last minute of voting and lose with almost the very last shot (if you don't mind me extending my basketball metaphor), as they did yesterday? What was I missing about Mazzy Star?

Even when I consulted Ben Ratliff, music critic for the New York Times and author of a new book just out called Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty, he picked Mazzy to win it all. Really? Well, that turned out to be (barely) wrong, but his book's great. I'll probably talk about it shortly on the March Sadness site, particularly his useful chapter on sad music (and Nick Drake's Pink Moon).

So the voting—and the commenting—and the talking amongst ourselves has been for me very useful in trying to figure out just what I think about how we should disambiguate strands of sadness, so all of this suggests another model of a curated conversation-essay. I don't know: maybe I'm just trying to justify all this work I've put into a super music nerdy project, but I don't think so. I believe the collaborative idea here is legit, but we'll have to see. Some of you have found us there, or will find us there, and think: oh shit, this is a good idea. I seem to care about this. What I want to know then is not just who you'll vote for (and do vote!) but what those votes tell you about yourself—about ourselves and what we want from sad songs.

And what I hope is that this can become bigger and stranger and more surprising than any essay I'd be able to write about sad songs myself will be. And we need y'all to help us get there. Which is what you're doing already by reading this and participating in this blog, of course, another model of collaborative essay...


  1. Oh, I wish I had found your site before this morning! Perhaps my one measly vote for Song to the Siren would have kept it in. I feel even warmer towards that song than usual because I just rediscovered it two days ago, watching Rage, a music program here in Aus. It's always surprising to me how many songs that have seared themselves in can still be lost in the digital fog. If it didn't feel so criminal, the forgetting would almost be worth it for the pleasure of the reunion.

    1. Thanks, Sue. Yes, it's about the voting, but it's also about the thinking and how the songs and thinking about the songs make us feel. So while you're too late to vote, you're not too late to vote on the other matchups and to read the essays that are up there all this week. Lovely last words here too.