Monday, January 27, 2020

Behind CSD2's Writing: Leo and Dennis Emails

I've noticed that fans of Cook, Serve, Delicious! 2!! who read the hundreds of in-game emails (written by Nick Kraak and myself) seem especially fond of one of the series of emails involving characters named Leo and Dennis — a pair of coworkers at some unnamed in-game company who make each others' lives miserable. With the release of Cook, Serve, Delicious! 3?! on the horizon, I thought it'd be fun to talk about how I wrote these fan-favorite emails.

How Leo and Dennis Landed in My Lap

When David Galindo first tasked me with writing humorous in-game emails for Cook, Serve, Delicious! 2!!, I didn't get a lot of direction. Having voluntarily written a few emails for the original game that he liked, I was simply tasked with writing even more fictional emails that provided a humorous break from the chaotic gameplay. He didn't even give me a deadline or tell me how many he wanted. I was free to write as few or as many as I wanted, and only through his feedback did I start to understand exactly what ideas he was and wasn't interested in pursuing.

Except he did have one request:
"What I'd like for you to try are the emails about Leo and Dennis, two passive-aggressive people that pretty much hate each other. Those were among my favorites in [CSD1]."
Along with this request I was provided a document of the email code from CSD1 that contained every single email that appeared in that game, including six emails exchanged between characters named Leo H and Dennis M. David couldn't remember who had written the emails, so I only had these six to go on when developing my own plans for the characters in the sequel.

Writing the Leo and Dennis Email Series

To help better understand the characters and what made them David's favorites, I copied the emails into a spreadsheet and broke them down by email sender, email subject, a summary of the action indicated in the body of the email, and what was the motivation for the action. It looked exactly like this:
(click to enlarge)
Through this, the general scenario became clear to me. Leo was a well-meaning idiot who kept getting on Dennis' nerves, and Dennis responded to every dumb or irresponsible thing Leo did by pranking him. Leo would then try to get revenge for these pranks, but never through pranking (aside from one exception). For example, here's an email from Dennis:
Subject Line: That smell
Body: Has anybody else noticed that smell coming from Leo's part of the office? I can't tell where it's coming from, but it smells like rotten eggs.
-Dennis M.
P.S. Leo, please stop eating my egg salad sandwiches. I don't want to have to keep hiding them. Sometimes I forget where I put them."
I'm not sure how intentional this distinction was to the original author, because I don't know who they are and they only wrote three emails for each character (with some inconsistencies, as mentioned), but nonetheless I decided to run with it in my follow-ups.

In the end I wrote 24 emails between the two characters, drawing as much inspiration from the original six emails as I could for how to make them unique from each other. Unlike the first game, however, my series of Leo and Dennis emails responded to one another and eventually told a story of an escalating feud—a byproduct of my affection for fiction story writing—that ultimately ended in tragedy.

Here's the chart for how that played out:

(click to enlarge)
The most difficult part of writing this series was, it should come as no surprise, coming up with so many different problems for Leo to create and pranks for Dennis to respond with. Naturally, I turned to my own office experiences for inspiration. While I haven't been personally wronged in any of the ways mentioned in these emails, I knew the common office annoyances (printer low on paper, lights flickering, etc.) and could work backwards to figure out how those could be intentionally caused by someone and why. I'd also heard of people's lunches disappearing/getting stolen, so naturally I used that as inspiration as well. Little did I know while writing that this seemingly small incident would escalate the way it did in the later emails.

You see, I didn't actually plan any sort of story out when writing this series. It's just that it was only natural when writing for the wrongdoings and subsequent pranks to escalate in order to show any sort of progress. However, while Leo being framed for embezzlement or getting his vehicle's brake lines cut seems like the height of "pranking," it's ultimately the mixing up of lunches that crosses the line into tragedy.

Wait, tragedy?

It turns out that some players had not realized that Dennis' pranks killed Leo in the end. This isn't because I'm a bad writer (I swear!) but because the game was meant to be kid-friendly, so it was intentionally obscure. In case you're one of those players, here's what the ending meant:

Finally fed up with having his lunch eaten by Leo, Dennis puts kale in his own lunch one day. Technically there's nothing wrong with putting kale in your lunch, but Dennis knows that Leo is "fatally allergic" to it. This is revealed in Dennis' last email in the story line:
Subject Line: Beware of Allergies
Body: We may want to beware of each other’s food allergies, if any, in the future. It seems that Leo is fatally allergic to Kale, which was completely unbeknownst to me when I made my lunch this morning and put my name on it. Also, if you’d like to send some well-wishes to his family, please see me to sign a card I’ve picked out for them!
The next (and final) email the player receives from Leo is an automated message that explains that Leo has been harassed by Dennis for quite some time and that the message itself was programmed to only send if Leo didn't return to work for an extended period of time, implying that his allergy was in fact fatal.

The final email in the Leo and Dennis series comes from "upper management" notifying employees of two open positions formerly held by Leo and Dennis, the latter of whom is not mentioned by name because "it is company policy to no longer mention [him] by name since the recent verdict"—implying some sort of legal proceedings that found Dennis guilty of something. Probably murder by kale.

This is the kind of quality storytelling you get from reading the totally optional emails in CSD2.

What's with that email in your chart with the Chinese characters? I don't remember reading anything in Chinese in CSD2.

Oh that? Originally the entire email was going to be written in Chinese characters about how Dennis somehow made it so Leo's computer only wrote in Chinese. Not only does this not make sense (how would he be able to navigate his computer or send the email?) but it wasn't practical, since the game only supported the English alphabet and Google Translate can only get you so far. Instead, the email was rewritten so that Leo was thanking people for the help in getting his computer set back to English from Chinese.

So just for kicks, here's what the original email was going to translate to:
Subject Line: I detest someone in this office
Body: I'm only saying this publicly because it turns out that nobody in the office understands Chinese. Dennis, I hope you lose your job and live a very, very unhappy life.
Regards,
Leo H
So that's it! I hope you've enjoyed this brief peek behind the curtain into how CSD2 became the crazy fun game that it is! Be sure to check out my two previous blog posts about writing for CSD2:
And be sure to check out Cook, Serve, Delicious! 3?! when it releases on Early Access on January 29th!
-Ryan

Friday, November 15, 2019

Like a Virgin: My Journey through Madonna's Discography

Why I'm Listening to Every Single Madonna Album For the First Time

As someone who still uses iTunes and collects MP3s, I've become somewhat obsessed with collecting cherished but forgotten songs from my childhood. I listen and scour through playlists of "the best [genre] songs of [decade]" in search for songs or artists that I enjoyed while growing up but have since forgotten about. Sometimes I'm delighted to find that multiple songs I fondly remember are by the same artist. Usually it's no more than a handful.

Madonna in 1983 during her first tour
So when I realized that Madonna was responsible for multiple songs I cherished from not one, not two, but three decades of music, I took notice. It seemed to me that while many artist's careers span several decades, very few are able to stay relevant to the pop radio stations for as long. This discovery warranted more of my attention. Not only did I want to comb through her hits to find more hidden gems from my childhood, but I felt compelled to listen through all of Madonna's music out of sheer curiosity for how an artist could make such an impact for such an extended period of time.

So began my self-imposed quest to listen through every single Madonna studio album and single in chronological order for the first time in my life. To track my thoughts, I'm going to document here what I thought of each of her albums and pick a single favorite track from each. I'll then recap the experience and my thoughts on Madonna's career as a whole, ending with a declaration of my favorite album and, if possible, favorite track.

But first, for context: I knew very little about Madonna or her music before embarking on this quest. Mostly, I was aware that she was a popular artist and that she made a song that Weird Al parodied and Tarantino was obsessed with dissecting. I had heard plenty of her hits before, but I didn't consciously know that she was the artist responsible for creating all of them.

DISCLAIMER: I am by no measure a music expert, and my thoughts will reflect as such. I just like listening to music, so my apologies if I overlook some brilliant technique or meaning that better-trained and educated ears would pick out.

Madonna (1983)

I'm a fan of 80s pop music, so I was quite excited to listen through this album and I was not disappointed. Madonna's self-titled debut is quite a fun listen, and I had extra fun in comparing it to the debut albums of my favorite female pop stars from today. The album starts off strong with the incredibly danceable "Lucky Star" and this energy is wonderfully sustained throughout the whole album. Even when "I Know It" feels like it falls just short of missing the mark and might indicate the album's second half trending downward, "Holiday" quickly erases all doubt that the second half will be anything less than stellar.

Overall, I love how 80s this album is. The synths and guitars just make me happy.

Favorite Track: "Lucky Star"
While I think "Holiday" is an objectively better and stronger song (and it's very tempting to claim it as my favorite of the album), there's just something incredibly charming about "Lucky Star" that I can't put my finger on. Maybe I'm just a sucker for how 80s it sounds.

Like a Virgin (1984)

Coming out only a year later, this album feels like a natural extension of the previous, albeit there's an added confidence to the music and vocal performance. "Material Girl" is a banger of an opening track, but "Like a Virgin" is the obvious standout here for not only the quality of the music but also the lyrical content. Where "Physical Attraction" on her debut album felt like Madonna somewhat hesitantly dipping her toe into the water of playful sexual content, "Like a Virgin" is her confidently diving all the way in. You can hear just how much fun she's having in recording the vocals, and the music wonderfully matches her energy. This song is especially fun to listen to after learning that it (and her performance of it on the 1984 VMAs) was controversial at the time, because not only is it tame by today's standards but it's evidence of her influence on future female pop stars and music as a whole.

That said, the album doesn't grip me as much as the self-titled debut did, despite the quality being undeniably superior. There's just something special about that debut album that I can't put my finger on. However, the inclusion of "Into the Groove" on the 1985 re-issue definitely helps to boost the album's overall quality.

Favorite Track: "Like a Virgin"
This was another tough choice, with "Material Girl" being a solid contender. But in the end, the enthusiastic vocal performance and thumping beat of "Like a Virgin" won me over.

Movie Singles: "Crazy For You" & "Gambler" (1985)

So the movie these are from (Vision Quest) looks pretty mediocre, but oh man the song "Crazy For You" is anything but. Such a beautiful, emotional romance song. I'd be surprised if this wasn't a popular song at weddings, though I wasn't fortunate enough for it to be played at mine. On the other hand, "Gambler" is a playful dance song that would feel right at home on Madonna's self-titled album, but as a single it just doesn't stand out as much as others in her discography.

Favorite Track: "Crazy For You"
Obviously.

True Blue (1986)

This album feels like a real step forward. It's like Madonna has combined the heart and soul of her debut album with the skill and confidence of her second. As has become the norm, the album starts off very strong with the dance singles "Papa Don't Preach" and "Open Your Heart" before diving into the more diverse pop music sound.

As a bonus, I had to double take for the song "Live to Tell" because it turns out its intro was the source of a slowed-down sample in the opening song of one of my favorite vaporwave albums, and while it was odd to get used to the normal-speed version at first, it was a pleasant surprise to finally hear the sample in its original context.

Overall, unlike her previous two albums, no song really feels like a lull here.

Favorite Track: "Open Your Heart"
While this album is full of great tracks, "Open Your Heart" was the obvious pick for me. Not only was it a childhood favorite so it's got nostalgia points, but it sounds like the type of track you could set a badass montage to—it gets me pumped up!

Movie Singles: Who's That Girl soundtrack (1987)

Wow this movie looks bad. James Foley has had an interesting directing career, from the excellent Glengarry Glen Ross and some solid work on critically-praised modern television shows to the nearly unwatchable Fifty Shades sequels. Anyway, that's irrelevant because I only need to listen to the Madonna songs from the soundtrack.

"Who's That Girl" is a decent enough theme song, but it doesn't really stand up on its own. "Causing a Commotion" fares a bit better as a single. "The Look of Love" is a solid song with a nicely executed ethereal quality. "Can't Stop" is a passable dance pop song.

Favorite Track: "Causing a Commotion"
None of these songs did much for me, but "Causing a Commotion" came the closest.

Like a Prayer (1989)

Coming up on the last Madonna album of the 80s, Like a Prayer starts out strong with the title track followed by "Express Yourself," followed by an assortment of some more experimental tracks. While I'm not really a fan of tracks like "Promise to Try," "Dear Jessie," "Oh Father," or "Spanish Eyes" (so many ballads!) that stand out as experimental for Madonna's style, they're certainly well made and hold artistic value that I'm sure others enjoy very much. For my part, however, "Cherish" comes off as classic Madonna in the best way, while "Keep It Together" comes close to scratching the same itch while also containing qualities that sound distinctly of the 90s pop variety.

Overall, I'm not a huge fan of this album, as it's a bit too ballad-heavy for me and both "Keep It Together" and "Act of Contrition" smell a bit too thick of the 90s pop that I'm not very fond of. Still, the three tracks I do enjoy are very strong additions to Madonna's catalog. I just worry where the 90s will take her music.

As a side note: I had just listened to Tove Lo's album Lady Wood the day before listening to Like a Prayer, and it was interesting to see the similarities in the album art of each, though by Tove Lo's own admission the homage was completely unintentional.

Favorite Track: "Like a Prayer"
Easy pick. This one has gotten stuck in my head several times since I listened to it. The mixture of choir-like verses with a catchy pop chorus is brilliant.

I'm Breathless: Music from and Inspired by the Film Dick Tracy (1990)

I almost overlooked this album completely since it's technically considered a soundtrack album, and actually only discovered it after first moving onward and listening to Madonna's first proper studio album of the 90s: Erotica. That said, I'm very, very glad I went back and found this album. The jazz and swing influences work really well here (or at least really appeal to me) and go a long way toward showing just how versatile Madonna is.

"He's a Man," and "Hanky Panky" are particularly strong tracks in the beginning of the album. "I'm Going Bananas" comes out of nowhere as a salsa song where Madonna puts on a Spanish accent, which may or may not be considered offensive today but it works. "Back in Business" does a great job alternating seamlessly from mysterious dreamlike jazz to upbeat swing. Especially noteworthy is the transition from the classic swing style of "Now I'm Following You (Pt. 1)" to the modern pop aesthetics of "Now I'm Following You (Pt. 2)," which breathes new life into the end of the album — concluding with the amazing classic single "Vogue."

Favorite Track: "Vogue"
I was really tempted to pick one of the jazz or swing songs for their uniqueness, or "Now I'm Following You (Pt. 2)" for basically inventing the electro swing genre, but alas, "Vogue" is just too good. I'd bet almost nobody can think of a fashion runway without thinking of this song.

Erotica (1992)

Wow, talk about a genre shift. This album is pretty much all in the style of trance, though the track "Where Life Begins" gives me trip-hop vibes. Not only is this reassuring that Madonna's music may not have succumbed to the trends of 90s era pop, but as someone nostalgic for 90s trance and trip-hop this album comes off as a pleasant surprise. "Erotica," "Deeper and Deeper," "Where Life Begins," "Bad Girl," "Rain," and "Did You Do It?" are personal favorites.

What's also great about this album is its apparent impact on modern pop music. While there were eight years and several albums between this and her controversial appearance on the VMAs performing "Like a Virgin," this album marks Madonna firmly re-establishing herself as pushing the boundaries about what's appropriate to talk and sing about, with specific emphasis on sexuality and femininity. Some quick research shows that this era in Madonna's career was in fact rife with controversy thanks to this album, a coffee table book with explicit photos of Madonna, and an erotic thriller film starring the singer. Being that this was only 1992, I think it's safe to say she set the stage for the likes of Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus to push boundaries and stir up controversy.

Favorite Track: "Rain"
This track just stands out from the rest. It's beautiful.

Movie Single: "I'll Remember" (1994)

This song is just fantastic, and it was one of my childhood favorites. Words cannot describe how happy I was to rediscover this song and find that it is every bit as beautiful as I remember it being. I love it.

Favorite Track: "I'll Remember"
Well this was an easy pick.

Bedtime Stories (1994)

In yet another genre shift, this album features many R&B inspired tracks. This is also the first Madonna album where the first few songs didn't completely grab me. That isn't to say that these songs are bad, of course, but they just didn't excite me for the album as much as is typical of the first three tracks of any Madonna album up to this point. In fact, this album as a whole is lacking in the energy that I've come to expect and love about Madonna's work, though I suspect that's perhaps due to the R&B influences resulting in a more relaxing sound.

In any case, I'm relieved that this album still manages to steer away from the trends of pop music in the 90s, and there are definitely tracks that stand out to me. Specifically, "Don't Stop," "Forbidden Love," and "Bedtime Story," the latter of which sounds like it could fit at home on a Massive Attack album, which I totally dig.

Favorite Track: "Bedtime Story"
This song reminds me so much of classic Massive Attack that I couldn't even consider anything else on the album being even close to my favorite.

Singles: "You'll See" and "One More Chance" (1995)

Taken from the compilation Something To Remember, "You'll See" is the standout track for me of these two, especially thanks to the growing intensity of the track and the accompanying Spanish-style guitar. "One More Chance" is solid (especially the latter half), but not nearly as strong by comparison.

Favorite Track: "You'll See"
As I said, this one's got a great buildup.

Please note that I'm skipping the Evita singles, since those songs were merely sung/covered by Madonna but were written for a stage play.

Ray of Light (1998)

I think "Drowned World/Substitute for Love" is one of the best opening tracks to any Madonna album so far. Not only was the new style totally unexpected (I should just start expecting the unexpected at this point) but it single-handedly rebuilt my hype for listening through all of Madonna's albums. Once again, Madonna is experimenting with genres here and this time I can confidently say she is totally nailing it.

To further emphasize how hard this album hit me, I should mention that up until this point I was still considering Madonna's first album to be my favorite. After all, I'm a sucker for 80s dance pop. But then, a mere two songs into this album, I began to question if that were still the case.

Continuing through the album, "Ray of Light" had me bobbing my head and tapping my feet at my work desk like nothing that had come before. "Candy Perfume Girl" had me grooving to the beat. "Sky Fits Heaven" pleasantly reminded me of some early BT music. "Frozen" stood out in a way I have no clever words for. Oh, and as a relatively new father I really connected with "Little Star."

Favorite Track: "Candy Perfume Girl"
This was a tough picks given the album has so many fun tracks, but my gut says this song is going to stick with me the longest.

Movie Single: Beautiful Stranger (1999)

Closing out the 90s is this track from the first Austin Powers movie, and while it's not particularly noteworthy, it is a solid track to end Madonna's second decade on.

Favorite Track: "Beautiful Stranger"
Another easy pick!

Music (2000)

What the hell? Just when you think she's done making mainstream hits she comes out with songs like "Music" and "Don't Tell Me," the latter of which was a favorite of mine in the early 00s. It kind of feels like this is the first album since the 1980s where Madonna is making mainstream dance pop rather than experimenting with lesser known genres. Fortunately for me, I'm a sucker for dance pop. The album also does a good job of playing within the genre to find different sounds, but that's pretty typical of Madonna. Overall I'd say this is up there with her best albums so far. "What It Feels Like for a Girl" is a track that especially stood out for me, though there's really nothing on this album that I didn't really enjoy.

Perhaps my biggest takeaway with this album is that you can't judge an album by its cover, or maybe it's that the marketing team should have chosen a cover image that better represented the album's sound? I was worried going in that this would be a country pop album (I'm not a country fan) based on the very obviously country-inspired album cover, but fortunately that wasn't the case at all. I'm convinced that there must be a reason for the country visual aesthetic, but I'm not smart enough to figure out what it might be.

Favorite Track: "Don't Tell Me"
"What It Feels Like for a Girl" is a close second here, but "Don't Tell Me" is just too catchy to deny. That being said, I could see the former track overtaking the latter as my favorite on repeated listens, but that's just speculation.

American Life (2003)

This is the first time that the first track on a Madonna album came off as uneven to me. While "American Life" sounds like a technically well-made song, it also sounded deliberately inaccessible. The album has a rebellious and somewhat somber quality to it, which is highlighted by the album cover's black, white, and red graffiti-style artwork. This change in attitude seemingly comes out of nowhere from an artist who seemed pretty high on life up until this point — until you realize that this is Madonna's first post-9/11 album, and then it all makes sense. That event and the ensuing war had a huge impact on American culture. I saw a similar shift in 2007 with Nine Inch Nails' politically-charged album Year Zero, and of course everyone knows how hugely popular Green Day's rebellious album American Idiot was in 2004.

As for the music itself, there's nothing quite as instantly lovable as the singles on previous albums, but there's still some really good stuff here. "I'm so Stupid." "Love Profusion," and "Nothing Fails" stand out in particular. "Die Another Day" is a decent track for the album but a totally weird addition to the 007 theme song catalog that I always assumed was by Britney Spears. Overall it's a solid if somewhat uneven album.

Favorite Track: "Love Profusion"
Nothing really stood out to me as an obvious pick on this album, but this song came closest.

Confessions on a Dance Floor (2005)

Ah, here we are back in familiar territory. "Hung Up" starts this album off on the right foot, "Future Lovers" stood out as a fun track that I was surprised wasn't a single, and "Jump" is in a great position on the album to help carry the energy through to the end. While it's great to hear Madonna returning to upbeat dance pop here, it's admittedly a bit disappointing that she's experimenting less than I'm used to here, though I'm sure there's plenty more of that to come as well. Overall, this is a solid dance album, though there's not a lot of catchy pop to sink my teeth into, if that makes any sense.

Favorite Track: "Hung Up"
Easy pick. Nothing else on the album really comes close.

Charity Single: Hey You (2007)

Charity songs tend to be weighed down by their obvious preachy message that doesn't allow for much creativity, lyrically, and are typically ballads, regardless of the musical style of the musician(s) involved. That said, this one's at least not totally unoriginal, lyrically, and the ballad style comes off pretty sincere instead of forced and obligatory. I'd take this any day over that appalling "Earth" charity track from Lil Dicky.

Favorite Track: "Hey You"
Is this joke of picking a favorite track from a single song getting old yet? Probably.

Hard Candy (2008)

Ah yes, here's the hip-hop influence of the 00's creeping in. Despite the fact that I don't recall ever hearing "Candy Shop" before, it sounded very familiar to me, likely because I started dating my hip-hop-loving wife around this time so this style makes me nostalgic for those early days of our budding relationship. Speaking of, "4 Minutes" is an absolute banger that really takes me back, since I definitely heard this one several times before thanks to my wife, who was not only into hip-hop but was and remains a huge fan of Justin Timberlake. After these two tracks, the album continues to deliver plenty of fun tunes. "Beat Goes On" was an especially stand-out track for me, thanks in part to the surprise appearance of a wild Kanye West. Overall, this is a very catchy album that I think holds up very well, especially as a snapshot of what style of music was popular at that time.

Favorite Track: "4 Minutes"
Sometimes I wish I  could be more surprising and pick a song other than one of the hit singles, but then I hear songs like this and remember why those were hit singles.

Singles: "Celebration" and "Revolver," (2009)

Closing out the third decade of her career is the compilation album Celebration, featuring two new songs. Unfortunately, neither of them really does much to stand out.

Favorite Track: "Revolver"
"Celebration" just sounds way too forgettable, so "Revolver" wins by default.

A Pause to Reflect on the Pop Industry

I think it's important to note here as we move into the 2010s that it was during this time that Katy Perry and Lady Gaga both exploded onto the pop music scene. I'm no expert in musical trends, but I know that Katy Perry and Lady Gaga were huge in moving the genre forward into the next decade. In fact, both put out their successful debut albums in the same year as Madonna's Hard Candy (One of the Boys and The Fame, respectively), but by the time Madonna released her follow up MDNA, Lady Gaga also released The Fame Monster EP and Born This Way, solidifying her position as a huge presence in the industry (and someone who I now realize clearly drew influence from Madonna), and likewise Katy Perry had also released Teenage Dream, which I'm convinced is one of the best pop albums of the last 20 years. These, along with many other talented artists, emerged as new and exciting voices in the industry (Taylor Swift also notably shifted to pop music in 2012). Although Madonna had impressively managed to stay relevant for three decades, it seems to me that her work going forward would be cut out for her.

MDNA (2012)

Here's where my expectations have once again fooled me. By this point in her career I was expecting the unexpected, which is to say I expected MDNA to be more experimental, but it comes off as yet another mainstream dance pop album similar to Hard Candy, Confessions on a Dance Floor, and Music. Sure, the style itself continues to evolve with the use of harder beats and occasional dubstep production and the like, but it feels like Madonna's magic and charm has been sacrificed in exchange for generic danceable beats. While there was a stretch of albums where I felt consistently surprised and impressed by Madonna's skills and willingness to try new things, this album feels like a low point in her career.

As a point of comparison, while the album Bedtime Stories didn't do much for me, personally, I could still appreciate the quality and effort put into it. MDNA, however, doesn't feel like there's much to truly appreciate in it. There's nothing new and surprising happening. "Gang Bang," "I'm a Sinner," and "Some Girls" might be the only songs I enjoyed on this album. While "Give Me All your Luvin'" has a catchy beat, it comes off as somewhat flat and the addition of Nicki Minaj's vocals doesn't do it any favors. Overall, I got the sense while listening to the album that the tracks were incomplete demos rather than the fully-polished songs I'd come to expect.

Favorite Track: "Gang Bang"
I guess?

Rebel Heart (2015)

My first thoughts when hearing the first song "Living For Love" on this album were "thank goodness she's back with something good." Likewise, "Devil Pray" eased any concerns I had that the opening track would be a one-off in terms of quality, and proved to be an exceptionally good track in its own right (the late great Avicci's influence in this track is obvious). Heck, even Nicki Minaj is utilized well in "Bitch I'm Madonna" such that I wasn't repulsed by her inclusion in the song. The "HeartBreakCity" ballad even sounds like it somehow fits perfectly in the overall sound of the album, despite my prior dislike of Madonna's ballads — and furthermore "Body Shop" (which is almost like a ballad as well) took a surprisingly good turn at about the halfway point.

Other songs I just need to mention because they surprised me with how great they were: "Ghosttown," "Illuminati," and "Holy Water."

Is this Madonna's best album since Music? I think it might be.

Favorite Track: "Body Shop"
This song just grabbed my attention and didn't let go. The first half is already beautiful musically and vocally, and the change in the second half takes it to another level.

Madame X (2019)

Here we are at the end of our journey and the end of yet another decade of Madonna music. After four albums straight (and almost two whole decades) of pretty mainstream dance pop, this album features a welcome return to Madonna's penchant for experimentation that made up the majority of her 90s albums. "Medellin" sets the stage perfectly with Spanish guest vocals by Maluma and a beat to match. "Dark Ballet" continues to surprise with heavy use of a Nutcracker sample and vocoder, and "God Control" mixes it up again with a funk-inspired beat and a groovy 6 minute run time.

Unfortunately, although there's a lot of creativity and talent on display in this album, it's devoid of the type of catchy dance pop songs that draw me in. None of the songs really stood out as must-listen to me on this album. It's hard to describe the disappointment and guilt I feel when I hear music that's obviously very well-made, but just doesn't do anything for me. That disappointment and guilt is greatly multiplied by the fact that this is the last Madonna album in my journey.

Favorite Track: "God Control"
I may not love any songs on this album, but I liked this one the most.

Reflecting on Madonna's Whole Discography

There you have it. I just listened to all of Madonna's discography in chronological order for the first time in my life. I honestly wasn't expecting to enjoy her music as much as I did in the first two decades, and although there's a certain magic missing in the later two decades of her career, I also wasn't expecting to find so many of the memorable songs in that latter half as I did.

Pop is an interesting genre for me. I've never had a favorite pop artist in the way that I have favorite artists of almost every other genre because while I can fall completely in love with a good pop song, there's something about the commercial or superficial quality of it that always fails to make me connect with it on any deeper level. I just don't connect the creators as much as I do with those of other genres. I started to think that was going to change as I listened through Madonna's first handful of albums, but then I got to the 90s albums and the sound that had defined Madonna's personality for me—the thing that I connected with—disappeared completely and was replaced with decade-appropriate genre experimentation. My connection to Madonna faded even more with the onset of the 2000s albums, because while I very much enjoy many of those dance pop songs, they're such a far departure from the sound that I fell in love with that it's hard to make peace with the fact that they're from the same artist.

Madonna in 2019 during her most recent tour
Therein lies the challenge with being a pop star. The trends in the sound of pop music are constantly changing. New, younger artists are innovating all the time. I don't know if Madonna's style changed with the times because she was trying to remain relevant, if she was genuinely moved by the changes in the genre and wished to try her hand at them, or if she just always made exactly what she wanted to despite what was popular at the time, but as a first-time listener it's jarring to hear the changes. While an artist like Nine Inch Nails is constantly experimenting and changing over the course of three decades, it's always within the confines of some larger idea of what that band is meant to sound like so that even something totally new and unique sounds unquestionably like it belongs with something released two decades earlier. I don't know that I could listen to "Lucky Star" next to "God Control" and get the same sensation.

That said, this was quite an enjoyable journey. I've never listened to any artist with so many albums through from beginning to end like that, and the fact that Madonna's style changed so much only made it that much more interesting. I am now a lifelong fan of some of the songs I discovered, and although I can't say I'm a lifelong fan of Madonna as well, I will certainly continue to watch her career and listen to each release with much interest. And so, without further ado:

Favorite Album: Uhhh.....
I really thought I was going to be able to pick a favorite album out of the bunch, but it might still be too soon to determine. Plus some of the albums are so vastly different that it's difficult to compare. How about I pick my favorite album of each decade, instead? Okay, here we go:

Favorite 80s Madonna Album: Like a Virgin
Yeah, I know I said I didn't like it as much as her debut album in this very blog, but that was only my initial reaction. I have since grown to love this album so much more. Not only was my initial reaction of this album based on the original release that didn't include "Into the Groove," and not only do the songs "Like a Virgin" and "Material Girl" hit even harder than the hits from her debut album, but songs like "Shoo-Bee-Doo" that I didn't even make note of above have grown on me immensely since my first listen.

Favorite 90s Madonna Album: Ray of Light
Madonna in 1987, just because it's a nice photo
It was pretty much between this and Erotica, which are similar in as many ways as they are different. In the end, Ray of Light edges forward with a few more songs that stand out well on their own rather than relying on the tone of the rest of the album to hold up.
Really though, the best Madonna album of the 90s is the With Honors soundtrack, because her one and only song on it "I'll Remember" is better than everything else she put out that decade combined, and it might still be my all-time favorite song of hers.

Favorite 2000s Madonna Album: Music
This pick was easy. Tracks like "Don't Tell Me," "What It Feels Like for a Girl," and "Music" are the highlights, but everything on this album is catchy, unique, and fun.

Favorite 2010s Madonna Album: Rebel Heart
While this is the only Madonna album of the 2010s that I actually like, I want to make it clear that I like it very, very much. In fact, not only is it my favorite of the decade, but I think it's in my top five favorite Madonna albums overall as well. This is the album that reassures me that, while she might not always make music that appeals to me and she might even stumble overall from time to time, Madonna's not done making great music.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have so much other music to catch up on.
-Ryan

Thursday, August 1, 2019

The Months Go By Like Weeks


Picture yourself sitting in a pull-along wagon perched atop a hill with a gentle slope. You hold on tight to the upright handle. A light wind inches you forward. The front two wheels reach the decline and gravity pulls the rest of the wagon onto the slope. The wagon crawls down the hill. Its wheels squeak with each rotation. At this snail's pace it's easy to take in the scenery around you, and so you admire and study it all. You're able to see and appreciate all the little things.

Your speed gradually increases as you roll further down the hill. You take the wagon's handle and twist it to one side or another, forcing the wheels to turn. You can veer left or right, but without brakes you're always going down and you're always moving a little faster with each passing moment.

The bottom of hill is nowhere to be seen. You keep going faster and faster. After some time the scenery is passing by so quickly that it becomes harder to appreciate the little things. That's okay though, because with how quickly you're moving you're now able to appreciate the bigger picture. Rather than see the individual leaves on a tree, you can see how the entire forest is shaped by the geography and climate around it.

Your speed increases. You're heading toward the unseen bottom faster than ever...

That hill is your life, where distance equals time.

I remember being young. I remember when days were long, months were packed to the brim, and summer lasted forever. Like I suppose happens to everyone, my perception of time has changed as I've gotten older. Every year comes and goes a bit faster than the one before, forcing me to adapt as I'm no longer able to spend as much focus on things that once ruled my life.

This year, however, it doesn't feel like I'm rolling down the hill a bit faster than before. It feels like the wagon has fallen off a cliff and I'm in free fall.

Days go by so quickly that I have trouble keeping track of which one it is. Weeks come and go with me struggling to remember what even happened. I flip my wall calendar to a new month before I even get a chance to look at the picture. I panic.

There are reasons for this phenomenon, of course. You can learn more about it in articles such as this one, but the gist is that we remember unique experiences more vividly than familiar ones, so the fewer new experiences you have, the faster time will appear to move. How this works with aging is that everything is new to a child, but adults see and do fewer new things every year and are mostly stuck in routines. On top of that, any quantity of time is going to seem smaller to someone who's experienced more of it in the same way that a pond will seem huge to someone who's never see an ocean.

However, these reasons alone don't explain why 2019 seems to be flying by faster than ever. In this case, I believe it has something to do with expectations. You see, as a new father to a beautiful, funny, adorable baby girl, I have less time to spend on activities that I would otherwise measure my year by, such as how many movies I've watched or how many weekend hikes or vacations I've been on. Coincidentally, even my lunch breaks at work—the only times I'm not really responsible for anything but myself—are mostly confined to either doing freelance work or running for exercise this year, where they used to be full of reading for pleasure or walking around to discover new nooks of my city. As a result, the expectations I've always set for myself ("do X amount of Y this year") are proving to be wildly unattainable in this new stage of life, so whenever I look at the date I can't help but feel like time is somehow escaping me.

"It can't be August already! I'm still in the middle of reading the fifth Harry Potter!"

But my life isn't what it used to be, so I need adapt my way of thinking to something like this:
  • I have not been able to write the second draft of my novel this year as I'd hoped. I haven't even started.
  • I still need to write this year's version of The Woods.
  • I have not made the time to write in my blog nearly as much as I used to this year.
  • I'm still not a published author.
But that doesn't mean that I haven't been busy with creative writing.
  • I have not watched as many new movies or re-watched as many favorites as I'd like to.
  • I'm constantly playing catch-up with television shows, both new and old.
  • I have so many video games I've started and not yet beaten.
  • I'm just barely keeping up with my book reading goal rather than outpacing it.
But that doesn't mean that I haven't had fun and spent time relaxing.
  • I don't have time to do all the things I loved to do.
  • I'm struggling to sustain relationships with all of my friends.
  • My life will never be like it was before.
But that doesn't mean my life as it exists now is less wonderful or worth enjoying, or that I'd trade it in for any dose of the past.

I'm an optimist. I believe that it's important to make the best of whatever I've got. While it can be very difficult to adapt to change, there's typically little or nothing to be gained from resisting it.

That's why I'm writing this blog post. I need to put into words this chronic feeling I've been experiencing all year, unpack the meaning underneath it, and learn what to do with it so I can finally move forward. I've been just feeling it for too long to ignore it any longer. I need to make the best of it.

Here is the lesson I am teaching myself:

It's alright to miss the way things were. It's alright to feel like I've lost some part of my life that may never return. It's alright to be scared. To resist that feeling would be to fight my own humanity. But it's important to not let that feeling dictate my life. It's important to keep on living in the present. It's important to enjoy the new things while they last.

As a character named Andy Bernard from The Office once said; "I wish there was a way to know you're in the good old days before you've actually left them."

My lesson to myself is that these are the good old days, because someday everything will change and I'll yearn for this time—right now. You don't know what you have until it's gone.

I hope you're all having a great year so far. Don't let it pass you by.
-Ryan