Jonathan Coulton: Blinded with Aperture Science

Marshall McLuhan was fond of observing that the content of a new medium is always an older medium. He would likely have taken a certain amount of satisfaction out of the notion that the job of popular music in 2008 is largely to serve as the content for cell phones and video game consoles. Legal downloads of digital songs from the iTunes Store alone outsell most traditional record stores. Downloads of ring tones for cellular phones regularly outsell the singles on which they’re based.

Yesterday’s major musical dinosaurs (we’re talking about you, Axl) pin their comeback hopes on the exclusive launch of new singles in video games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero. How will the hordes of bespectacled, androgynous Jesus-looking indie rock boys staring back at us from their MySpace pages cope in such a harsh, unforgiving market-driven digital realm? In the words of Jonathan Coulton, you just keep on trying till you run out of cake.

Last year, Coulton wrote “Still Alive,” sometimes called “The Portal Song,” the near-perfect end credit theme for Valve Corporation’s near-perfect video game Portal. The lyrics are only a fraction of the story, but here they are, as they appear in Portal‘s old-school ASCII credits:

This was a triumph.
I’m making a note here: HUGE SUCCESS.
It’s hard to overstate my satisfaction.
Aperture Science
We do what we must
because we can.
For the good of all of us.
Except the ones who are dead.
But there’s no sense crying over every mistake.
You just keep on trying till you run out of cake.
And the Science gets done.
And you make a neat gun.
For the people who are still alive.
I’m not even angry.
I’m being so sincere right now.
Even though you broke my heart.
And killed me.
And tore me to pieces.
And threw every piece into a fire.
As they burned it hurt because I was so happy for you!
Now these points of data make a beautiful line.
And we’re out of beta.
We’re releasing on time.
So I’m GLaD. I got burned.
Think of all the things we learned
for the people who are still alive.
Go ahead and leave me.
I think I prefer to stay inside.
Maybe you’ll find someone else to help you.
Maybe Black Mesa
Anyway, this cake is great.
It’s so delicious and moist.
Look at me still talking
when there’s Science to do.
When I look out there, it makes me GLaD I’m not you.
I’ve experiments to run.
There is research to be done.
On the people who are still alive.
And believe me I am still alive.
I’m doing Science and I’m still alive.
I feel FANTASTIC and I’m still alive.
While you’re dying I’ll be still alive.
And when you’re dead I will be still alive.

For those who somehow missed the chance to experience Portal, despite its availability for PC, PS3 and XBox 360, this is how it works: you play a cyborg test subject attempting to navigate, and eventually escape from, a series of fiendish puzzle rooms housed in an abandoned scientific complex controlled by (what else?) an insane computer. Your only tool is the Portal Gun, a device which temporarily connects two surfaces via an extra-dimensional tunnel, allowing you to access locations in the complex that would otherwise be inaccessible. Throughout the game, the computer coaxes you onward with the promise of a party at the end of the tests, complete with moist, delicious cake. About the time that you discover the phrase “The cake is a lie” scrawled in blood in one of the darker corners of the complex, you begin to have some serious misgivings about your situation.[/box]

Portal is a sophisticated implementation of gameplay ideas that first appeared in a 2005 video game by Nuclear Monkey Software called Narbacular Drop. Created by students from the DigiPen Institute of Technology, it featured as its central character a princess without any knees who therefore couldn’t jump (I’m not making this up) and thus had to escape her imprisonment in a dungeon by dropping through a series of magical portals. As in Portal itself, gameplay in Narbacular Drop often requires the player to carry a crate along with them through the dungeon. Released as a free download, Narbacular Drop won a slew of industry awards and still has a loyal audience who develop and post custom maps for it. Significantly (if only for the purposes of ending this digression into the ubergeeky subfield of video game history), the success of Narbacular Drop also resulted in its entire development team being hired by Valve.

A former barista and software programmer, Coulton’s music has always skewed significantly toward nerd topics, as song titles like “The Mandelbrot Set,” “Todd the T1000” and “Flickr” make abundantly clear. At one point, Popular Science magazine even made him their Contributing Troubadour. In 2006, Coulton was tapped to write the Portal theme after playing a show in Seattle that had Kim Swift (one of the members of the original Narbacular Drop team) and several other Valve developers in the audience. After sitting down with Erik Wolpaw, who wrote Portal (as well as dialogue for Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and the amazing Psychonauts), Coulton came up with results so impressive that Wolpaw subsequently told a reporter from MTV’s Multiplayer blog that “We had a choice between [Coulton] and Ben Folds and we feel we made the right choice.” A bold assessment, considering Ben Folds made an album with Captain James T. Fucking Kirk himself.

Even separate from he remarkable circumstances of its production and circulation, though, “Still Alive” is a pretty solid pop song. Written from the perspective of the insane computer, then sung by Ellen McLean, the voice actor who plays the character in the game, Still Alive” is pushed into the Uncanny Valley (the nebulous interzone between people pretending to be machines and machines pretending to be people) by just the faintest hint of computer processing. The final version has a foreboding quality similar to the Cardigans’ cover version of “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.” If I had to really pin it down, I’d say it’s a lot like listening to a battery-powered Cabbage Patch Doll singing a little nursery rhyme about how it’s going to kick the shit out of you.

Since its release, “Still Alive” has become the most famous piece of music to emerge from the world of gaming since the Super Mario Bros. theme. As of this writing, the version of the Portal end credit sequence on YouTube has had 2,065,375 viewings. The acoustic version of the song, performed by Coulton himself, boasts over half a million views. YouTube also hosts a slew of cover versions of “Still Alive,” including one sung in Japanese, one played on classical piano, one played on an 8080 computer, and another in Mario Paint Composer, which has received almost as many viewings as Coulton’s own version (remember what I said earlier about ringtones?).

Like any proper postmodern cultural narrative, this one inevitably ends up consuming its own entrails. On April 1, 2008, Harmonix, MTV Games and Valve released “Still Alive” as a free download for Rock Band. If you spend a little time browsing through the YouTube video covers of the song, you’ll eventually find footage of Coulton and his touring band doing “Still Alive” on their XBox as an encore. The bar separating guitar heroes from Guitar Heroes just got a little bit lower. I wonder if Axl will make it over the top?

external links

Portal homepage

Jonathan Coulton homepage

Portal credits with “Still Alive” on YouTube

Originally published as “Alienated 11: Blinded with Aperture Science” in Matrix 81 (fall 2008): 46-47.

Dokaka: Air Guitar Jordan

You’ve all done it, so stop pretending.

Your favourite metal tune starts playing. You make a rock-face. You bend your knees, crook your elbows, tighten the fingers of either hand into a claw-like rictus and start flailing away at the invisible strings of your favourite make of imaginary axe.

If you’re particularly ardent about it, you may even do that rapidfire bobblehead neck-snap thing that, to be perfectly honest, makes you look like the Chicken Lady regardless of whether you’re imitating a traditional longhaired Pantene-Pro-using metal guitarist or one of the 90s-flavoured baldhead-plus-neck-tattoo-and-excessively-pointy-bearded ones. And then, inevitably, from somewhere deep in your throat, the horrible noises begin to emerge: “BWAOOOOOOOM … widdlawiddlawiddlawiddlawiddlawiddla.”

Take note, hipsters: at such a moment, all irony collapses into the thing itself. Whether you really meant it or not, the cold hard truth is that you still did it and will, in all likelihood, do it again, given the opportunity. I used to work in a record store. I’ve seen you. You probably even came up to me at some point and said, “Dude, I totally don’t know the name of the song, but it kind of goes like this: “BWAOOOOOOOM … widdlawiddlawiddlawiddlawiddlawiddla. Can you help me?”

As a matter of fact, yes. Yes, I can help you. Read carefully, for this is the most helpful thing you will learn all day: Dokaka is the Michael Jordan of air guitar, a veritable god, soaring above your puny bobbling head like a great metal condor.

Dokaka became great because of the lameness of others. Others like you. Once, Dokaka had a band. His band members were lame. As each lame band member dropped out of rehearsal in turn, Dokaka began to use his voice to replace the sound of their instruments. Soon, there was only Dokaka. Dokaka, and his greatness.

Using your voice to imitate the sound of a machine is as old as the twentieth century. Even during the heights of the modernist avant-garde, the sound poetry of the Italian Futurists failed to impress Ezra Pound (and, as a fellow Fascist aesthete, he was inclined to be sympathetic). In an essay on the work of his friend George Antheil, Pound ranted as follows:

I am perfectly aware that you can imitate the sound of machinery verbally, you can make new words, you can write ‘pan-pam vlum vlum vlan-ban etc., […] but these are insufficient equipment for the complete man of letters, or even for national minstrelsy. The mechanical man of futurist fiction is false pastoral, he can no more fulfill literature than could the bucolic man.

For Pound, music is nevertheless “the art most fit to express the fine quality of machines,” and “there would be something weak about art if it couldn’t deal with this new content.” Pound was dead wrong about many things, which is why his scrawny, anti-semitic ass eventually was tossed into a tiger cage (sans tigers) in Pisa. But Pound had this much right: the trick would be to complement the human with the mechanical without “humanising” the mechanical by translating it back into words. In the entire history of twentieth-century sound poetry, this happened all too rarely. And, when it did happen, it almost never (maybe ever) rocked like a motherfucker.

Dokaka succeeds where entire generations of barking hippies have failed because he instrumentalizes his voice and structures the results with the aid of the very technology he emulates. Dokaka lays down his vocal analogs for each “instrument” track by track, then layers them together. The result is an amalgam of poetic metal righteousness: human becoming machine, machine becoming human. If the Four Horsemen (the mightiest of twentieth-century sound poetry ensembles) and the Four Horsemen (the ultimately doomed biker-rock supergroup produced by Rick Rubin) banded together to record Metallica’s “Four Horsemen,” it might sound like Dokaka.

Might. Because Dokaka is producing vocal analogues for sounds that, strictly speaking, did not even exist until the late 1980s. Listen to the cover of Slayer’s “Angel of Death” on his website – perhaps Dokaka’s finest moment to date, work on Björk’s Medulla included. Slayer is, by almost all accounts that matter, the heaviest heavy thing ever. When Dokaka does that screaming glissando just before the “vocals” would normally start, if everything he doesn’t wasn’t all vocals anyway, that is the first time a human has ever made that noise.

… outside of the voices of those of you that used to come up to me in the record store and begin “Dude, I totally don’t know the name of the song, but it kind of goes like this,” that is. And, compared to Dokaka, you suck. Which makes Dokaka, by extension, the heaviest sound poet/air guitarist/slightly drunken otaku guy ever (that he may be the only sound poet/air guitarist/slightly drunken otaku guy in history is irrelevant to the crushing power of the logic of this argument).

So then: your path is clear. Study Dokaka. Learn from him. Emulate his moves. His kung-fu style is strong. And, slowly, because of your efforts to improve your own sorry-ass technique, the world will become slightly less lame.

Originally published as “Alienated 8: Dokaka – Air Guitar Jordan.” Matrix 78 (fall 2007): 46-47.

You Whores: Bill Drummond Knows Your Price

We all have our price. What’s yours?

Bill Drummond knows. And he ought to: on August 23, 1994, he burned a million pounds of the hard-earned money that you paid for the albums he produced as one half of the KLF, aka The Jamms, aka The Timelords, aka The Justified Ancients of Muu Muu. It took about an hour, and, by all accounts (okay, only one: that of journalist Jim Reid, the sole witness), it was kind of boring.

Gimpo, a frequent collaborator of the KLF, filmed the entire incident. Only one print of the film exists, and, from time to time, Gimpo will screen it in a gallery somewhere. After the first showing of the film, Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, the other Justified Ancient, asked the audience the following question: “Is It Rock ‘n’ Roll?”

Consensus was that it was not rock and roll.

One of Drummond’s more recent projects, You Whores, is more amusing and less expensive. Launched in 2004, You Whores is Craigslist with a brain, or the infamous eBay auction “I Will Kick Your Ass” with less malice and more density.

You Whores is an exercise in style. It strips the classified advertisement down to its very core, flensing away utility until all that’s left are the obscure objects of desire:

Ill of the Dead
For just £25 per week, I will speak ill of the dead. Let me know which dead person you want badmouthed, and I’ll invent some scurrilous yet believable stories about their sexual deviancy/wife-beating prowess/shoplifting exploits/secret serial-killing sprees (delete as applicable), and relate said stories to at least five people per week until your money runs out. A special cut-price offer is available on Richard Madeley, even though he’s not dead yet. Apply for details.
United Kingdom – 23/08/04


be polite
I will, for no funds, hold open the door for you after I have passed thru it, I will dispose of my litter sensibly and not spit or piss in the street, I will smile nicely at you, I will however, call you a cunt if I think you deserve it.

tim the polite of peckham
United Kingdom – 14/07/04


Imagine if there was a chick out there who lusted after *YOU* every single time she masturbated
Now, here’s your chance.

For a price, I will think of you and only you every time I commit acts of self-love during a time period.

I will picture you in my mind, and pretend that all pleasurable touches come from your hands. I will pretend the rubber manhood thrusting in and out of me belongs to you. I will breathe your name heavily. I will lust after you. I will dream of you. I will long for you. And I will always fully believe that you have a huge cock.

Every orgasm will be with the thought of you in my mind. I will scream your name as I come repeatedly.

Prices in US Funds:
$10 a day
$45 a week
$300 a month

During each time period, I vow to commit acts of self-love to orgasm, at the very least, once per day, no matter what.

For $5 extra per day, per request, I will cater my self-love to your whims. Bondage? Sure. I’ll tie myself up tightly and enjoy it. Anal penetration? Sure, I’ll give that a go. Whatever your fetish, I’ll do my best to do whatever you want me to do, and I will love it.**

For $400 extra, the next time I actually get laid, I will scream your name at the height of passion. I will pretend it is you, and I will think of you the entire time.***

Pictures and self descriptions are optional, but will greatly assist in the full capture of my lust for you.

** I reserve the right to know my limits. Prices may rise depending on how far past my comfort level your requests go.

*** Price rises to $750 if I am serious about the guy I will be screaming your name to, unless you happen to share the same name.

Canada – 20/06/04


Say Nice Things About You At Your Funeral
Worried that the day to mark your passing is going to be an Eleanor Rigby type affair?

Fear not, for 20% of your estate (or £1000, whichever the greater) plus travel and overnight accomodation expenses, I will pretend to have known you, deliver a stirring eulogy, and then get drunk at your wake.

Applicants must supply either an annually updated biography (1 page max) or a link to their blog.

Dave Read
United Kingdom – 19/06/04

… and so on.

The general process behind You Whores is not particularly new. Doulas Huebler’s 1973 conceptual art project Secrets is a direct ancestor. Huebler asked gallery attendees to write a secret anonymously on a slip of paper and to drop it into a collection box, then documented the results in book form. Secrets shares the same unhinged declarative mode ab> better or worse than You Whores, just more poignant in places:

I loathe my husband.

I’m scared of men

I’m happy to be leaving my job of 33 years

I fucked my dead mother on a table in Siberia.

I’m pregnant and I don’t know what to do with the baby

I think I am obsessed by sex

No one knows but I am one of the 40 virtuous people for whom God does not destroy the world.

A girl friend of mine has a case of the clap but I haven’t told her.

I’ve always wanted to be somebody

I am a failure

It’s possible to argue that with You Whores, the use of the Web as a combined collection and publication device makes all the world into an art gallery, but that would be missing the point: a few lines of code obviates the need for either the presence of the gallery system or of a self-identified artist. Not that You Whores renders the world of galleries and blue-chip artists obsolete; big art is a closed, self-sustaining system that doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the whimsies of a former music producer and a handful of antisocial but clever adolescents. Nor does You Whores quite finish the project of democratizing art that conceptualism promised but never delivered. The Web doesn’t turn everyone into an artist; it turns everyone into a nerd.

In the end, it’s a lot like taking a million pounds to the Isle of Jura in the middle of the night and setting fire to them fifty quid at a time: briefly entertaining, but not rock and roll.

Originally published as “Alienated 2: You Whores.” Matrix 72 (fall 2005): 8-9