Do It (Duet)

Play the song here!

Player: The board games are out, the markers and paints
The buildings, cars and animals, too
I’ve run outta room, so off I will go
To someplace where there’s more I can do

Worker: Just wait, not so fast, we’ve got to clean up
Player: Not now, I’m in the mood to keep playin’
Worker: That’s always your mood, to put the work off
Player: You know I just don’t care what you’re sayin’

Player: Don’t do it
Worker: When do I get my turn?
Player: Don’t do it
Worker: When will we ever learn?
Too many people don’t clean up after themselves
Don’t want to be afraid of our closets and shelves

Worker: Just do it
Player: Worried ’bout what gets done
Worker: Just do it
Player: I’d much rather have fun
Both: There’s something that I really wanna do, so let’s just hop to it
Player: Don’t
Worker: Just
Both: Do it

Worker: When we leave a mess, bad things can occur
A trip could mean a hospital stay
And even if not, it might break our stuff
Thus leaving us with nothing to play

Player: You worry too much, you just need a rest
Worker: From what, when you just string me along?
Player: I’ve got just the thing, now, where did it go?
Worker: If we’d cleaned up, it wouldn’t be gone!

Worker: Don’t do it
Player: Worried ’bout what gets done
Worker: Don’t do it
Player: I’d much rather have fun
Too many people living too bored and too sad
Don’t wanna be like them, I just wanna be glad

Player: Just do it
Worker: When do I get my turn?
Player: Just do it
Worker: When will we ever learn?
Both: There’s something that I really wanna do, so let’s just hop to it
Worker: Don’t
Player: Just
Both: Do it

Both: I want one thing, you want another
But perhaps we two can find common ground
What if both things could help each other?
Could some sugar help the medicine go down?

Player: Hey, board game, watch out, right there in your box
Worker: A black hole sucks your pieces right in
Player: And here’s a T-Rex who eats art supplies
Worker: And looks just like an art supply bin

Player: There’s still so much left, all over the place
As if hit by ten meteorites
Work: Well, lucky for us, Space Rescue Team’s here
Heroically setting all back to rights

Both: Let’s duet
Worker: We’ll get everything done
Both: Let’s duet
Player: While we have lots of fun
Both: The puzzle’s now complete where before there were pieces
Like peanut butter and chocolate makin’ a Reese’s

Both: Let’s duet
Player: We can both share a turn
Both: Let’s duet
Worker: That’s the best thing to learn
Both: There’s something that we really wanna do so let’s just hop to it
Player: Sure
Worker: Yes
Both: Let’s duet


The Challenge

Edric Haleen, one of the participants in the first SpinTunes songwriting contest, decided to create a project to tide people over during the wait between SpinTunes 1 and SpinTunes 2. A number of participants from SpinTunes 1 and other past songwriting contests he’d done were invited to collaborate on A Songwriting Cycle, in which each participant created a challenge, and challenges were distributed randomly among all the participants. In this way, an album’s worth of songs would be created, with a complete cycle of challenges given and received among the songwriters. Non-competitive, just for fun. Having talked myself about songwriter-generated challenges and non-competitive songwriting collectives, I was pretty interested!

When the challenges were randomly assigned on September 10, 2010, I received Jenny Katz’ challenge: write a duet that’s not a love song. All our songs were due before October arrived.

The Concept

Though we had a leisurely (compared to contests like SpinTunes) three weeks to get the work done, I was fairly busy for about the first half of that period before I could get started in earnest. In the meantime, it had occurred to me that typical love/pop duets usually have both singers expressing a similar perspective, whether it’s love for each other, or regret over love having failed, or whatever else. Pop music generally can’t stand dialogue, which would come across as too much like musical theatre. Since I was barred from writing a love duet, I found myself naturally moving away from all pop duets and toward musical theatre. I could do a sort of mini-musical, with two characters, each with different wants, and the duet being a dialogue between them about the dramatic conflict.

This led me, as I’m sort of generally wont to do, to think about resolving their conflict by having them come together in the end. Somewhere in this, it occurred to me that “do it” and “duet” would be a great and relevant pun for the lyrics, since each of them wanted to do something different at first, and later they’d find that they could work together, i.e., duet together. This duet I was to write would become a duet about duets themselves, a meta-duet.

I started thinking about one person wanting to do something fun, and the other wanting to get some work done — there was a rhyme, fun and done. Another notion that popped into my head was the Reese’s peanut butter cup, whose classic commercials had two people upset that their respective chocolate and peanut butter had gotten mixed together, until they actually tried it and realized it tasted pretty great — an ideal metaphor for conflict giving way to collaboration.

When I finally was freed up to start working on the song, though I had these promising ideas to go on, I went ahead and did an Appreciative Inquiry to help things along. Taking the ideas I had so far and knowing that I wanted to do something all-ages appropriate as I generally prefer to do for The Offhand Band, I defined my main topic as a kid-friendly resolution to work vs. play.

Pondering the idea of turning work into play reminded me of the movie Mary Poppins, in which one of the classic songs is A Spoonful of Sugar, about precisely the idea of making it fun to do the work of cleaning up the children’s nursery. As the song says, “In every job that must be done there is an element of fun. You find the fun, and snap, the job’s a game.” Here, there was something about the work itself that lent itself to being done playfully, since the cleaning up itself involved toys and so could be done as if playing with them again.

Pretend and role-playing had also come up separately as something worth looking into, and I thought about how my daughter had even more fun riding her bike one day when she pretended it was a horse that she was riding. This reinforced the Poppins notion about layering pretend on top of another activity to add extra enjoyment.

The whole idea for the song basically popped out from there. A kid has played with toys, wants to play with something new but doesn’t want to clean everything else up first. Someone does want to clean — could be a parent, another kid, or even just another side of the kid who was playing. They each want to do one thing and have the other go along with it — “Just do it.” And they each want the other to stop trying to do the conflicting thing — “Don’t do it.” At some point, it occurs to them to try to get what they both want, together, at the same time. They realize that clean-up itself still involves the toys and therefore can be done in a playful way, where the fiction of the playing ends up accomplishing the job of cleaning everything up. They realize how well they can work together, and their previous pleas give way to a joint one, “Let’s do it,” instead phrased as “Let’s duet,” reinforcing that they are actually doing things together now as a team.

For a collective songwriting effort based on cooperation as opposed to the competition of a contest, maybe this topic, resolving conflict with a win-win, was something I was subconsciously drawn to.

A Children’s Song?

While I wanted to do something all-ages appropriate, this was starting to feel even more overtly like a kids’ song than most Offhand Band songs. It started with a conflict between fun and drudgery, something everyone can relate to but particularly kids. Then candy bars showed up. Finally a story actually about kids and toys. I was a little reluctant to go too far with the kids’ angle for a few reasons.

First, even as The Offhand Band, I really prefer songs that are genuinely enjoyable for all ages, as opposed to kids’ songs that are done in a way that adults can also enjoy. It’s the difference between The Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun and anything by, say, Justin Roberts or Laurie Berkner, who are both quite good, but unambiguously kids’ artists. It happens sometimes, sure, but more often than not I try not to be a kids’ artist, just particularly all-ages-friendly.

Another reason was that one thing I’m especially not crazy about from generally all-ages-friendly artists is when very traditional and conservative kinds of “directives” for children are incorporated into songs without regard for kids’ actual motivations and feelings. Telling kids to say I’m sorry instead of worrying about whether they’re sorry, instructing them to clean up when they don’t yet see the value of doing so. The kids’ artists I like most take some pride in not doing plunky, tinkly, old-fashioned little kid music, in doing more “real” rock/pop instead, and rock is supposed to be anti-establishment. But there’s little more establishment than telling a kid to say thank you regardless of whether the child feels gratitude, or put away their toys just hoping they’ll develop the habit regardless of whether they value order. And some of these kids’ artists I otherwise like do set just those kind of lyrics to their cool rock music. I never wanted to muddle up messages like that. In fact, one song on the OHB’s debut album, Whaddaya Say? (The Saga of Sam), actually satirizes how parents do this sort of thing to their kids, and it’s no coincidence that it’s got the heaviest rock sound of all the songs on the album.

Finally, a different challenge in the songwriting cycle was, in fact, to “write a children’s song — one that both kids and parents (but particularly kids) will love!” I didn’t want anyone to feel like I was trying to step on anybody else’s toes or somehow show off by doing two challenges at once.

In the end, though, this song wasn’t really about telling kids to clean up toys. It was about the notion of win-win, how two people with seemingly conflicting desires can find a way to both get what they want. Cleaning up toys was just one possible way to tell that bigger story, and it was a way that basically offered itself up to me, that I didn’t at all go out of my way to find. Plus, I was going more musical theatre than rock/pop, so I was somewhat off the hook in terms of any concern over the anti-establishment issue — not to mention that win-win really is a pretty anti-establishment message anyway. Finally, having kids as characters (or at least one kid, the one playing with toys) doesn’t seem to me to require defining a song as a kids’ song, and even if it does, except for that one fact, I approached everything else about the songwriting as if I were writing for a general audience and not just kids. If it comes across as a kids’ song, that’s just because that’s what emerged from the creative process, so I decided to let myself off the hook of any concern about working with two of the cycle’s challenges. Maybe it’s a kids’ song, maybe it’s not, it doesn’t really make much of a difference to me. So there! 🙂

The Lyrics

Lyrically, the song more or less took care of itself. The challenge became about structuring the dialogue so that both characters could equally have their say, and so that the tension could be made clear and then give way to resolution.

In the first verse, the first half is sung by the “Player,” who sets the scene and the playful desire. The second half begins with the “Worker” and is a line-by-line back-and-forth to establish the conflict. The first chorus begins with the Player telling the Worker, “Don’t do it,” don’t start cleaning up, with more back-and-forth and the Worker clarifying the importance of cleaning, getting a chance to counterbalance the Player having had more say in the first verse. The second half of the chorus reverses things, with the Worker beginning with “Just do it,” just clean up, and a parallel back-and-forth, followed by both singing together that they really want to do what they have in mind.

The second verse and chorus are an exact mirror image of the first in terms of who talks when, who gets more or less say at each point, who is imploring who to “Just” or “Don’t” do whatever it is.

The bridge has them singing together, wondering if they can find common ground by accomplishing both their goals at the same time. Rhyming sufficiently with “common ground” and nodding to the Poppins inspiration, the bridge ends with them asking each other, “Could some sugar help the medicine go down?”

The third verse changes things up. The first half is now a back-and-forth exchange, expressing that they are working together now, in contrast to the first two verse’s having each first half as a monologue. In the second half of the verse, the Player expresses concern that there’s still a lot of mess left with two lines of dialogue, almost as if threatening to revert from collaboration to a monologuing, conflicting stance. The Worker, though, uses the same amount of dialogue to respond in a way that keeps them working together — they remain on equal footing, and the collaboration sticks.

This leads to the song’s culmination in the third chorus. Finally, they evolve their imploring to “Let’s duet.” Throughout the chorus, there’s now more of both complementary dialogue as well as lines sung together. One line sung together is the Reese’s reference, which is reinforced by the rhyme depicting how the puzzle of their situation is now complete, integrated, collaborative, “where before there were pieces.” And unlike most lines sung together, these puzzle/Reese’s lines are sung not in harmony but in unison, showing them to be on the same page.

The Music

I wanted music that was playful but not overtly child-like, and I also wanted to convey through the music the separation giving way to collaboration. What came to mind were songs like It’s the Hard Knock Life from Annie, Love Song by Sara Bareilles and I Hope I Get It from A Chorus Line, all of which have rigidly rhythmic and separated chords played over sporadic bass notes. This seemed to convey nicely the separation between the two characters’ initial stances, while also offering an opportunity for a feel that was both cute and appropriate for musical theatre.

Just as Love Song finds a way in its choruses to provide more of a groove, something similar could be done later in the song as the characters come together. The first two verses and choruses are piano solo, with some building rhythmic elements. Once the bridge hits, the piano opens up stylistically, followed by bass guitar coming in, then some light percussion. With the third verse, the bass, drums and subtle aspects of rhythm and harmony increase in color, giving way to the third chorus where everything hits a really big musical groove to show the characters finding their own groove in their activity together.

Another way I wanted to convey the distinction between the characters was through harmony. The Player would be more obviously major/happy to reflect the desire for fun, the Worker more minor/sad for the seriousness of working and cleaning up. Verse 1, beginning with the full stanza for the Player, revolves around the basic chord progression G Am D, with these chords themselves as well as some harmonic variations all being fairly pleasant and innocuous. In verse 2, with the Worker coming to the fore, the first two chords flip their tone, becoming Gm A and then followed by the D, with all the chords having harmonic variations that offer a bit more tension compared to the first verse.

The choruses and bridges would provide, in their own ways, some more color and ambiguity, reflecting the characters coming together whether for better or worse. In the third verse, when the characters are finally getting on the same page, the chords are based around G A D, all major chords. Each character/verse on its own had a bit of happy and a bit of sad, and only together does everything become happy/major. All this reveals play on its own to have a hidden emptiness (the minor chord in verse 1), and work on its own to have a hidden benefit (the major chord in verse 2), despite their initial impressions of, respectively, pure fun and pure dourness.

The basic contrast between G and Gm was also capitalized on in the introduction vamp which is also repeated between the first chorus and the second verse. It’s really a G and a Bb chord, but with G in the bass, Bb comes across as Gm7. So this vamp that appears twice encapsulates the harmonic tension that drives all the verses of the song.

One final way I incorporated the character contrast through composition was in melodic phrasing. Originally, the whole song was written with the bouncy, swingy feel that is most obvious throughout. It occurred to me, though, that the Worker’s character could be enhanced by having a more rigid phrasing. Except for a couple of solo spots and harmonized lines, all of the Worker’s lines in the first two verses and choruses have this rigidity.

In the third verse, the rigidity switches up somewhat. In the first half, the Player has the rigid phrasing while the Worker is more fluid and syncopated, showing them each taking on the other’s perspective. In that second half of the third verse, when tension seems to reappear but is then resolved, each character has a rigid line followed by a fluid line, showing simultaneously that they each have incorporated both sides and that, fundamentally, tension is now resolved from rigidity to their flowing, collaborative groove.

One last aspect of the music that highlights the contrast is the vocals. Since the characters needed to be identifiable and distinguishable, I recorded myself singing both parts, but I used Digital Performer’s “Spectral Effects” to alter the quality of the vocals. I felt it important to alter both parts rather than just one, because I didn’t want either character to be able to “claim” my unaltered voice, as if I saw myself more in one role than the other. With the effects, I was able to make the Player sound higher/younger and the Worker lower/older, without altering either the pitch or the tempo of the recordings.

A last comment about the vocals involves their two-part harmonizing. Most of the time in pop music, when there is vocal harmony, the lower part is usually the melody and the upper one a harmony. This held true throughout the choruses of the song, with the Worker on melody and the Player on harmony. In the bridge, though, it felt right to keep the Worker low and the Player high, but to have the Player singing the melody, both because it just seemed to sound better this way and also because it provides another way that their typical patterns alter over the course of the song as they head toward collaboration. I don’t know if it comes across the way I intended — perhaps people will still hear the Worker’s part as the melody in the bridge. If you can help it, listen for the Player as the melody in the bridge.


You can check out the Songwriting Cycle songs at the Happiness Board, or at BandCamp, and you can get directly to Do It (Duet) at Bandcamp — but you can listen and download for free from BandCamp right from the player at the top of this post.

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4 comments for “Do It (Duet)

  1. You know, until you mentioned it I never thought of this as a children’s song. An in depth and interesting post as always, Mark!

  2. Graham, that’s great, I’m so glad to hear that! I hope it’ll be true of others, too. And I’m really glad you liked the post, too. I feel like I mostly write them for myself, to document and learn from my own creative process, but I really love it when other people dig it, too. Thanks!

  3. […] the end of the song, so the fade suggested its continuation. In my Songwriting Cycle 1 contribution Do It (Duet), the characters had just found a new groove that felt like it would go on and on. Likewise here, […]

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