YouTube is an Amazing Thing, Part III – Still Alive

In the early days of this blog (February of 2009), I did two posts on videos on YouTube (here and here), tracing a few trends or just looking for goofy and cool content.  They were light on heavy academic thought, but in a way I believe them to illustrate just what a diverse and rich source of cultural study YouTube can be for the scholar.  And while I haven’t really been able to come up with a coherent academic thesis for any of this material, I still think it is interesting (re: cool) enough to be brought to the attention of you, oh web community.

For this installment my starting point is the song ‘Still Alive’ from the video game Portal, released by Valve in 2007 (read about it here).  I’ve never played the game myself, but a friend of mine brought this song to my attention a few weeks ago, and it’s haunted me ever since.  The lyrics are tied in quite closely with the game and are supposedly sung by the computer that you defeated to win the game, but just as the player is trapped in an experiment, so does it seem that by playing the game, you yourself were furthering that experiment.  (On a purely music geek level, I love the chord progression to get from the refrain back into verse, modulating from F major to D major.)

Here is the original song as seen and heard in the game.  It’s hard to see, but on the left hand of the screen are the song’s lyrics with the credits in the upper right hand and the lower right hand portion of the screen has different signs and symbols relating to the lyrics.

After being featured in the game, the song has taken on a life of its own on YouTube with dozens if not hundreds of covers being performed by fans of the song and live performances by the song’s writer Jonathan Coulton – more on him in a bit.  What I’m going to use this particular post to do is explore on a very surface level the phenomenon of chiptune music.  I touched on this in my last post when discussing Bear McCreary’s score to Dark Void Zero, and while I am no expert on this subgenre of music, I do find it fascinating (here is the Wikipedia entry on it).  Basically, it is using either an existing program to emulate the sounds of the NES/SNES or other contemporary system when writing music, or actually using the console/computer itself (which is what I think McCreary did).  This can be accomplished by creating an interface device to run the music program through the console or, in some cases, using an existing piece of software like Mario Paint for the SNES.

In terms of classic “8-bit” chiptune versions, there are quite a few floating around on YouTube that used different filters and programs to achieve their sounds.  Here are two that I found that are pretty good.

What I also find interesting about both of these is that they actually took the time to create 8-bit style loading screens.  This next example takes the whole chiptune genre to new extremes by moving out of the video game nostalgia realm and into 1980s computing by using an old synth and Commodore 8080 to create what sounds like at times the score to WarGames.  It is an extraordinary homage inspired by the very look of the original game’s ending screens (as seen in the first video clip).

As far as chiptune versions go, I believe that final example just about makes impossible to go any further, so we shall leave that realm to discuss the composer himself, Jonathan Coulton.  First, a video of him playing the song:

As an artist Coulton has never really broken into the mainstream, but he has built a loyal following amongst geek-dom by penning some songs used in video games and also writing songs on themes near and dear to the hearts of geeks the world over, and like a true geek, he has used the internet to build his fan base.  I first heard of him a few years ago via his rather amusing, folky cover of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s ’90s hit “Baby Got Back.”  In such a context, the sheer absurdity of the lyrics are highlighted.

But showing just how self-aware an artist he is, after the song “Still Alive” was released as a downloadable track for the video game Rock Band, Coulton actually performed the song live at a concert using Rock Band.  There is something post-modern about this and also very coy.  Many people complain about games like Rock Band or Guitar Hero because the player is not actually becoming a musician or really performing, plus that you’re not composing songs but just playing along with another artists’ performance.  But here we have the artist and his band playing the game version of his song.  What’s most amusing is that his band actually fails at many points.

Well, I don’t really have much more, but I’ll leave you with one final version of the song, this one performed at the annual Penny Arcade Expo (or PAX) by Coulton and uber-geek Felicia Day (who has appeared in many a Joss Whedon project, including Dr. Horrible and also has her own webseries The Guild which you should really check out).

Good night and have a pleasant tomorrow.

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