Not Cool

Caught Red-HandedCaught Red-Handed!
Warning! The Offhand Band usually strives to write satisfying songs that are cool for kids, fun for families and great for the grown on their own. In part or whole, we believe this song doesn’t fit that description. Proceed at your own risk! Learn more.
Play the song here!

Play the video here!

Lyrics
Intro:

I’m a player; piano, that is; my apparatus
My forte, fo’ sho’; play for pay and also gratis
There’s haters, not well-tempered, elevator relegaters
So raters, debaters, let’s talk Joanna status

Verse 1:

Keyboard so versatile, play almost any style
Clavier smart as Xavier with Cerebro guile
Far more than a C chord, still people be bored
Players deplored, ignored until we’re Eeyored

Waller would knock your socks; Jerry Lee genuinely rocked
Now it’s often mocked and even on the chopping block
Not a classical piano man? You’re pushing Tin Pan
In cool music country, you’re at sea instead of inland

Yellow Brick Road or 52nd Street
Have to face to face it, haters feel no heat; aces beat
Fiona, disown her; Rufus, doofus; no-one jealous
Of Hornsby or Amos or the famous Bareilles

Wonder, blunder; Newman, subhuman; Connick, bubonic
Carole King and Cullum, just the cancer kind of chronic
Benny was Bjorn to play, but people hate A-B-B-A
And Jims Webb and Steinman? Too passe, way

Now The Fray and Coldplay don’t get such profuse abuse
Nor do Queen or keen Keane or Radiohead or Muse
The eighty-eight’s not all they bait; they get fewer glares
But Ben and Nellie? Only swell ta fella piano players

Kanye’s are major, but as players, we minor
Said you want us fled? Fine, yer the headliner
To your eye, you see Marvin Hamlisch, Burt Bacharach
Wanting fly? You’ll be starvin’, famished, skirting snack attack

Chorus 1:

Not cool
Just like 7-Up, un-cool-a
Does it make you dozy?
Not cool
Not hot, but cool as Cholula
Nothing ever froze me
Like Popeye and Albin
Said, “I am what I am”
Never had it, can’t lose it; could “Woe’s me,”
But that’d be fool
I didn’t choose it, it chose me
I’m not cool

Verse 2:

Even less top for you than piano pop?
An album’s not the only flop some ivory-ticklers drop
Burt, Marvin, Elton, Billy, ABBA and more
Got cred for another bore: a musical score

Musical theayter, where they burst into song
And so say every hater, “It’s the worst, bang the gong”
But almost every art form needs disbelief suspension
Stand by and let me try some apprehension contravention

Andrew Lloyd Dubya, does he rub ya all wrong?
Post-“Phantom” fate, a bit bantamweight, but cat can comp a song
With Tim Rice, words splice and knit to nice writ benefit
A Brit wit who’ll make it fit and sometimes even land a hit

Do you know how fond I’m of Sondheim?
Like language was made for him, he goes beyond rhyme
Blazingly on-time with phrasing and scansion
When this Pieta of theatah’s in the house, it’s a mansion

Want cool? Cole, the top; which school? Ol’
And Loesser is more, even co-wrote “Heart and Soul”
Bawd to awed to guffawed you gotta applaud the Broadway songwriter
Roast-and-toasting most from coast to coast and boasting that they’re brighter

Not all cheesy junk, “Bring in da’ funk” had rap, and “In the Heights”
Even The Who, Green Day, Bono and the Edge have tripped the lights
I’d hope that you’re hip now that I’ve performed this patter
But I sense no evidence will dispense this anti-matter

Chorus 2:

Not cool
So square, unlike a hoop hula
Make you want to mozy?
Not cool
Anyone, anyone? Bueller? Bueller?
Try but I can’t pose me
Like Popeye and Albin
Said, “I am what I am”
Never had it, can’t lose it; could “Woe’s me,”
But that’d be fool
I didn’t choose it, it chose me
I’m not cool

Bridge:

In the world today, no-one’d choose to be gay
With musical taste, I daresay, you also can’t self-betray
Pray and downplay as you may, try to spay, stray and sway
Say you want it nee? It won’t obey; here to stay
Like piano prodigy Gaga, me, I was born this way

First LP I ever bought: “Hooked on Classics”
Leave you sour as Vlasics? Get me ass kicks?
Sensibility Jurassic? So do you deem it daft?
You see a load of crap? To me, a lode of craft

On troubled waters, need a bridge away from “Ishtar”
In dire straits, I shoulda learned to play the guitar
Then, I bet, instead of fretting, I’d be getting it far
More portable, affordable, still chordable
Compared to a keyboard, a bull; unchortable

Then there’s the vocal: not my focal, I’m no singer
When I croon, don’t bring a socle, you’ll see soon I’m second-stringer
My Cletus voice a yokel, it’s my fingers do the zingers
Can’t I simply say the words, no-one run through the ringer,
With only short notes and no pitch on which to linger?

Verse 3:

But those who stir my slumber most, down to the apple core
You know their name and number, yeah, yeah, yeah, the Fab Four
So much to say, and I don’t have all day
But cross the nations and generations no-one cuts like they

Broke the rule then built the school, always so eclectic
Acoustic and electric, the keyboard and the plec trick
Want to hear the case they found the place where magic lives?
Not every act gives the language whole new adjectives

Arrangements and references show Beatlesque preferences
Distinctive details a disciple deploys
XTC, TMBG and ELO show deferences
The list is long, and some are strong, still they’re decoys

No-one can rule like the lads from Liverpool
For the masses, yet passes as full-of-joys geek noise
Realized what they prized, careless of cool
Yeah, wouldn’t it be nice? Wait, that’s the Beach Boys

Choruses 3 & 4:

Not cool
Just like 7-Up, un-cool-a
Does it make you dozy?
Not cool
Not hot, but cool as Cholula
Nothing ever froze me
Like Popeye and Albin
Said, “I am what I am”
Never had it, can’t lose it; could “Woe’s me,”
But that’d be fool
I didn’t choose it, it chose me

Not cool
So square, unlike a hoop hula
Make you want to mozy?
Not cool
Anyone, anyone? Bueller? Bueller?
Try but I can’t pose me
Like Popeye and Albin
Said, “I am what I am”
Never had it, can’t lose it; could “Woe’s me,”
But that’d be fool
I didn’t choose it, it chose me
I’m not cool

Story

The Nutshell

The challenge: a melody-free song when I thrive on music, an ultra-cool genre when plenty of what I listen to, play and write is often thought uncool. My solution: flip rap’s braggadocio into self-effacement, wearing musical uncoolness as a badge of pride, while also realizing I should be grateful for a chance to not worry about my singing voice.

The Challenge

I was one of 26 contestants moved into Round 2 of the SpinTunes #3 online songwriting competition. Only 21 completed Round 2 entries on time. On July 10, SpinTunes announced that six contestants were eliminated, leaving only 15 to move onto Round 3. My entry, Program aids food stamp users, tied for 4th, so I was really pleased.

I was feeling like I was, in a way, a round ahead of myself compared to SpinTunes #1. In Round 1, last year’s Step Back Swooperman was derivative and squeaked by, just like this year’s All Over. Then, Another Universe also more or less squeaked by Round 2, its solo piano and unspecific story not so well-received. But in Round 3, I found my footing with Will it, placing third with a well arranged pop song with a specific story fairly well told, a description which can also apply to my current Round 2 entry. Last year, pretty much everyone involved, including myself, though that my Round 4 shadow Ballroom Dance, involving a genre-based challenge, was my best work of the competition. Did I have that to look forward to now in this year’s Round 3, and then who knows what in a possible Round 4 if I made it through?

The challenge for Round 3 was, indeed, and coincidentally, genre-based: “Top That – Write a rap. For anyone who has any experience rapping, you get the added challenge of making your rap about a work romance. That added challenge doesn’t apply to those who have never rapped up until this point.”

My immediate thought was that I was sunk.

I don’t listen to much hip-hop and even less rap, and the hip-hop I do listen to is eclectic crossover stuff like Outkast, Gnarls Barkley, N.E.R.D.,, with lots of songs that have no rap at all. Outkast even once said of themselves that if they were white and did the exact same music, people would compare them to Beck instead of considering them to be hip-hop artists. I’d never even considered writing a rap before. I like lots of music, but my tastes, or at least my abilities, as a writer tend toward the traditional, sometimes stylistically, but almost always in terms of the foundations of song craft. And melody is usually a part of that. All too often, what I write ends up pretty uncool. And rap demands cool.

I quickly thought twice about hoping for my best work in the competition so far. But by the time the song was done, at least in my opinion, it would turn out that I’d made good after all.

The Concept

For these challenges, I usually like to try to come up with a song that has two reasons for being. The first, that it meet the challenge in a meaningful way, and second, that it end up as much as possible a song I might have written on my own independent of the contest and challenge. I find this approach especially necessary with the technical/formal challenges where the lyrics could be about just about anything.

For me, then, the content had to go with the form, with rap. A song with no music, written by someone who prizes musicianship and song craft? Instead of that being a disadvantage, I decided that the rap could itself be about music and musicians that I like.

I recalled some notions I’d jotted down in the past about how I’m not a cool songwriter, the issues I just mentioned about song craft. This also seemed a nice form/content match, since self-aggrandizement is a common element in rap music, so here would be a twist: self-effacement.

This led quickly to a number of ideas. Piano pop as uncool. The piano as particularly less cool than the guitar. Musical theater, kids’ music, and classical music, all of which I like and inform my creative output, but all of which are often thought uncool. Shout-outs are common in rap and hip-hop, and I’d have plenty of opportunity for that.

While I was thinking about all these ways my work and my tastes could be looked down on by others, it seemed only natural for me to also ponder the many reactions I’ve gotten through SpinTunes about my voice. I know it’s not great, and that’s a big issue for me with these challenges, because I really consider myself a writer and not a performer, or at least not an entertainer, and in any case certainly not a vocalist. Now here was a rap, an opportunity to not have to worry about my singing voice. One more thing to bring up in the rap itself.

There seemed the obvious possibility of drifting into parody and irony here, but that’s not what I felt I wanted to do. Surely a lot of the content would come across with humor, but I intended to take things somewhat seriously, since I’d essentially be defending myself in various ways, at times uncertain, at times stand-offish, at times more confident. Given this tone I was planning for the words, it seemed clear that the music would also have to take itself fairly seriously. Minor chords and an overall menacing sound.

With rap and hip-hop often sampling other music, I thought I’d look for some of the more famous, older, public domain piano pieces to use as the basis for a fair amount of the music, twisting them into a serious rap underscore. Ironic that I said just last round how I shouldn’t do anything derivative ever again unless it was explicitly asked for in a challenge. It may not have been directly asked for here, but it’s certainly appropriate to the genre.

The Song

I often write a lot about the song itself, parsing the lyrics. If I were to start that, though, I feel like I could go on forever, annotating every little reference, every pun, every rhyme both end and inner, alliteration, wordplay, etc. Instead, I’ll talk mainly about what’s not there, and then just a few other things, and that’ll be plenty to say anyway.

Lots of ideas were adding up, yet I also had too many different angles, and too much detail in every angle I went with. As lengthy as the final lyric is, there’s lots that just never found its way in.

I would love to have talked about Schoolhouse Rock, the Sherman brothers, Menken and Ashman, and other Disney music, how Warner Brothers cartoons introduced me to so much music, including classical music. A number of the artists I did include have written family-friendly musicals and songs, but I didn’t mention any of that. In the end, only the Popeye reference has anything to do directly with entertainment I remember from my own childhood, and that only coincidentally for the appropriate quote, since I never considered his cartoons to be among my favorites as a kid.

You can imagine that I had lots of other artists in mind for the things I did talk about. More piano-based musicians, some obviously uncool and others with a more cool reputation. Some outside of rock/pop altogether like Joplin and Mancini. Gershwin, who I love, would have been an obvious mention, but for all his reputation, he’s not enough of a legend in musical theater per se for me to have mentioned him in the limited space I had, and I didn’t mention anyone specific in the classical world, so off he went. There were more Beatlesque bands, and also a number of songs I had in mind that were from more guitar-based rock bands but that famously use piano.

Each of these areas could have had a whole song devoted to it, and then there would have been more space to explore. But not for this song. All these things ended up going away.

With music, I’d thought initially of having each verse based on different music in addition to the bridge having a unique basis itself. I considered Listz’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.” Beehoven’s “Fur Elise.” Some Gilbert & Sullivan for the verse on musical theater. Joplin’s “The Entertainer” to underscore the Beatles verse, since I was talking about them being such groundbreaking entertainers. I quickly realized how scattered the song would sound, not to mention how too much melody would detract from the words — not a problem in non-rap songs, but obviously a problem here. On top of all this, I also wanted the song to sound serious, and I wasn’t going to get that so easily with the G&S and Joplin tunes. Trying them in minor keys, they came across as Halloween parody material. Trying to reharmonize them, they’d just seem odd.

So in the end I went with just one very famous piano piece for the verses, “The Celebrated Chop Waltz, ” by Arthur de Lulli. Don’t recognize it? It probably won’t help for me to tell you the composer name is an alias for a woman, Euphemia Allen. But it will help to tell you that the piece is better known by its own alias: “Chopsticks.” It’s there, under each of the three verses, the only difference being it moves up an octave with each verse, so it becomes more and more noticeable. The alteration of its waltz rhythm to a song in four helped give it a cool (if common) groove, and I drastically reharmonized it to give it a quality that’s both effective enough for R&B music and generally serious.

With the bridge talking about classical music, I felt it was a perfect opportunity for a separate musical reference. Looking for a similarly well-known piano piece that I could also move from waltz time into four, one was already there on my list of famous candidates: the Piano Sonata No. 14 in C? minor “Quasi una fantasia”, Op. 27, No. 2, by Ludwig van Beethoven, better known as the “Moonlight Sonata.” The consistent groove across verse and bridge felt great. Harmonically, I didn’t really change anything, since the piece had such a great, serious quality already, making it an ideal break for the bridge. I simply took stylistic liberties to make it fit with the overall song.

I knew I wanted a four-stanza bridge. The sonata starts with three relatively short, and familiar,”stanzas” before moving onto some longer ones that I think only those more familiar with the piece would tend to recognize. My solution was to start the bridge with the third “stanza” as an introduction, and then backtrack to the beginning and do the first, second and then repeat the third. The arrangement would make it all feel like natural development, with the first iteration of that third stanza a bit underplayed.

One ultimately popular piano piece I didn’t even allow on my to-be-considered list because it wasn’t in the public domain, but I was glad to have an opportunity to reference it in the lyrics: “Heart and Soul,” which though not from a musical itself had its lyrics written by one of the greats of musical theater, Frank Loesser.

Structure/development: The first verse starts off talking about how the piano, and well known piano players, can be looked down upon. The chorus stresses the uncoolness while also introducing the idea that for some it can’t be helped and may as well be embraced. Next verse segues with some of the piano players having done musicals, and there’s a conscious redirection to try to defend this art form which is even more widely considered uncool. There’s more confidence and optimism, but the verse ends with a suspicion that nobody’s convinced. The bridge gets more personal, highlighting the notions from the chorus about owning up to who you are, and also bringing in some of the tangential thoughts about classical music, guitar and singing. In the final verse, there’s much more confidence, since The Beatles’ status is certain, and based in great part on how they pursued what was meaningful to them regardless of what would be considered cool. And yet even that verse ends with the Beach Boys reference, which is at once maybe a bit funny but also reiterates the self-questioning that’s gone on throughout. So the song grows in optimism and confidence as it develops, yet with self-acceptance always being darkened by persistent self-questioning. Yeah, that feels like me, all right.

Arrangement: Appropriately, there’s no piano. Appropriately, with the song mentioning gong and guitar as foils, both appear in the song. In addition to some more obvious hits, all the cymbal-like noises in the bridge are actually gong sounds. The synth pad changes from section to section, and I particularly like the last two. I found one with a curious “backwards” sound that reminded me of some techniques associated with the Beatles, so that worked for their verse. In the final chorus, the first chorus to even have a pad, there’s a pipe-organ-like synth, which in addition to just having a great dramatic feel also echoes, with the i to Flat VII chords changes, the main theme from Phantom of the Opera. That musical is not only itself mentioned in the song but is, underneath it all, a story about a misunderstood composer who just wants to be accepted, and so also thematically appropriate for the song. Vocally, all that supplements the first-person rap is a little bit of singing in the chorus. The bass makes the title accusation, while the pair of harmonizing tenor voices add further criticisms. The rap narrator is sandwiched between the lower and higher pitches, defending himself from attacks on all sides.

Bridge: First, Hooked on Classics really was the first album I ever bought myself. Now I want to talk about the gay thing. Like Jerry Seinfeld said, “I’m not gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” But this is a theme I’m fond of and actually wrote a song about before: Come Out. I think we could all stand to learn a thing or two from people who come out of the closet because they feel it’s important to acknowledge, rather than deny, who they really are, for better or worse, even if the world around them won’t think it’s “cool.”

Final verse: It’s shorter than the first two verses. There’s obviously plenty else I could have said about the Beatles, but I just didn’t think anything else necessary to say. After the long bridge, with the song already being pretty long, I also liked the idea of simply accelerating toward the end. One other thing that highlights the completion is the change in the end rhyme scheme for the final half of that last verse. For the first time in the song, instead of couplets (or related patterns of consecutive lines with the same end rhyme), there’s now an alternation, ABAB, and the B is even carried over across the two stanzas. Both of these things, especially the B rhyme — deploys, decoys, geek noise, Beach Boys — seem to help drive the song to completion.

There are probably a lot of objections and questions that the lyrics bring up. As just a few examples: Don’t people other than piano players like Ben Folds and Nellie McKay? Isn’t ABBA not a very heavily piano-based band? Who really lumps Stevie Wonder in the piano pop category? Plenty more. I made conscious choices, simplifications for sake of drama and color. Chalk it up to what I said in the song: art needs suspension of disbelief.

The song ends by talking about the Beatles not caring whether they were cool and how that would be nice. One of the thoughts I had throughout the writing process was that that kind of not caring about cool, that knowing others may think something uncool and you do it anyway and are fully okay it, that not needing others to think you cool, actually makes you as cool as it’s possible to be. Though I didn’t end up saying that directly in the song, hopefully that’s what comes across.

In the end, I have to say that writing a rap was a revelation. I enjoy composing so much, and really do enjoy and appreciate traditional song craft so much, that I automatically gravitate toward marrying music and lyrics fully. And rap is such a performance-based form, while I’m such a writer-not-performer. With all this, I just never really thought about rap. But as I dug in, I realized that I could still be very creative with music, had free reign to go crazy with lots of what I enjoy most about lyric-writing, and that I could deliver a song without any concern about my sub-par singing voice. “Can’t I simply say the words, no-one run through the ringer, / With only short notes and no pitch on which to linger?” Yeah, I can, with rap.

I don’t imagine this could possibly become an exclusive direction for me, but it’s great to know that it’s something I can pull off while having an absolute blast with every aspect. And I do think it’s my best work so far in at least SpinTunes #3. How glad am I that this challenge didn’t appear in SpinTunes #2, which I missed? Extremely.

And I’m proud to say that the entire rap vocal track in the recording was done in one take. Not the first take, but one continuous take. What you hear, though, isn’t exactly that full, uninterrupted take, but that’s only because a handful of small rewrites occurred to me only very late in the game, after I’d truly thought the writing was all done. “Compromising” that single full take was worth a few overdubs for the wordplay.

Listen

You can check out the Round 3 songs at SpinTunes, or more permanently at BandCamp, and you can get directly to Not Cool at Bandcamp — but you can listen and download for free from BandCamp right from the player at the top of this post.

Video
I figured that a video would be a good way to help the song get some exposure, while also just being kind of amusing in itself. So I made one. You can play it at the top of this page right below the audio player.

At first, my attitude was to help clarify the lyrics as much as possible. But since I was essentially limiting myself to a slideshow, and since I was limiting my slide photos to whatever I could find through Google’s image search, it wasn’t always so easy to clarify everything. In the end, the video now has a bunch of its own references and visual puns beyond the lyrics. So be it, it’s fun.

In the YouTube video description, I added formal writing credits and a list of name checks and references just in case they might help the video be found a bit more often through people’s searches. Here’s all that below, since it might as well be here instead of only at YouTube, both for posterity and also to help along figuring out the lyrics.

“Not Cool” by The Offhand Band; Music & Lyrics by Mark S. Meritt; parts based on “The Celebrated Chop Waltz” (a.k.a. “Chopsticks”), by Arthur de Lulli (a.k.a. Euphemia Allen), and Piano Sonata No. 14 in C# minor “Quasi una fantasia”, Op. 27, No. 2 (a.k.a. “Moonlight Sonata”), by Ludwig van Beethoven

Name checks and references:

Pianoforte
Johann Sebastian Bach / Well-Tempered Clavier
Elevator music
X-Men / Professor Charles Francis Xavier, a.k.a. Professor X / Cerebro
Winnie-the-Pooh / Eeyore
Fats Waller
Jerry Lee Lewis
Billy Joel / Piano Man / 52nd Street
Tin Pan Alley
Elton John / Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Face 2 Face
Fiona Apple
Rufus Wainright
Bruce Hornsby
Tori Amos
Sara Bareilles
Stevie Wonder
Randy Newman
Harry Connick
Carole King
Jamie Cullum
Benny Andersson
Bjorn Ulvaeus
ABBA
Jimmy Webb
Jim Steinman
The Fray
Coldplay
Queen
Keane
Radiohead
Muse
Ben Folds
Nellie McKay
Kanye West / We Major
Marvin Hamlisch
Burt Bacharach
7-Up / Uncola
Cholula
Popeye
Jerry Herman / La Cage Aux Folles / Albin / I Am What I Am
The Gong Show
Willing suspension of disbelief
Andrew Lloyd Webber / The Phantom of the Opera / Cats
Tim Rice
Stephen Sondheim
Michelangelo Buonarroti / The Pieta
Cole Porter / You’re the Top
Frank Loesser / Heart and Soul
Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk
In the Heights
The Who / Tommy
Green Day / American Idiot
Bono and The Edge / Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark
Patter song
Hula Hoop
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Lady Gaga / Born This Way
Hooked On Classics
Vlasic Pickles
Simon and Garfunkel / Bridge Over Troubled Water
Dire Straits / Money for Nothing (“I shoulda learned to play the guitar”)
The Simpsons / Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel
The Beatles / Golden Slumbers / You Know My Name (Look Up the Number) / She Loves You (“Yeah, yeah, yeah”)
Apple Corps
XTC
They Might Be Giants (TMBG)
Electric Light Orchestra (ELO)
Joyful noise
The Beach Boys / Wouldn’t It Be Nice

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2 comments for “Not Cool

  1. Joel Rogers
    July 20, 2011 at 11:45 am

    It disturbs me how good this song is.

  2. July 27, 2011 at 9:31 am

    Love it, love all the pop culture drops, love the concept, and you did well with it considering your newness to the genre. Would be amazing to hear this done by an experienced MC.

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