On Prince’s “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker”

Prince died a week ago. I’m really bummed about it. I’ve had some really good friends rave about how life-changing his shows are, and I kept convincing myself that I’d actually go to one. That can’t happen anymore, and it reminds me to take advantage of what exists in the now as much as I can.

What I have now is his entire discography, pulled together from various sources since I started listening to Prince regularly in my adult life.[^1] This past week I’ve been listening almost exclusively to all the Prince music I’ve collected, while also occasionally reading the reflective writing that has been published about the Artist. Much of that writing has been focused around his early-era, groundbreaking synth pop work: Purple Rain, working with The Revolution, the song “1999”. An occasional word about his tenuous relationship Warner Bros. Records. This great piece about the underrated & sometimes bizarre 1981 release Controversy.

I want to talk about one Prince song in particular that fundamentally changed how I think about recorded music: “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.”

I didn’t like Purple Rain the first time I heard it in full. That was back in 2009 or so.[^2] It was so 80s. So many synth sounds. It didn’t really hit me that “When Doves Cry” had no bassline, and what that meant for music at the time, until I read about it in some retrospective a year or two later.

The album that sucked me into the Artist’s oeuvre was instead Sign O’ The Times, which a close friend of mine recommended in 2010 or so. It’s also considered one of his classics, but it’s a weird one: it’s a double album, and while all of Prince’s albums meld all sorts of genres together, this one frequently put wildly contrasting material against itself, back-to-back, almost forcing the listener to fundamentally change listening habits every few minutes. Take “Slow Love” and “Hot Thing,” both on disc 1 – the former is a great albeit typical sexy Prince slow jam, the latter almost a new standard for extreme pop minimalism. The entire first two minutes of “Hot Thing” pretty much center around F# and a drum machine and don’t change until a bizarre (for Prince) sax solo and frenetic scat-like vocals dominate the mix.

“The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” sits at the end of the first side of disc 1 of Sign O’ The Times, as sort of an ominous closer to a side full of likely hits. The title track was an actual hit; “Play In The Sunshine” is one of the most uplifting and energetic songs released in the 80s; “Housequake” is, despite its strange pitch-shifted lead vocal, an undeniably funky party jam. “Dorothy Parker” almost serves as the hangover after the housequake – it’s barely a ballad, with its frenetic beats and brisk tempo, but it paints a hazy, bleak picture of Prince’s after-party vulnerability.

Susan Rogers, Prince’s sound engineer during this period, recalled in a wonderfully detailed interview that a new recording console at Paisley Park (Prince’s recording studio complex) was not wired up properly when he impulsively decided to begin recording “Dorothy Parker”, and noticed that everything he recorded was coming out dull – no high end, no typical sheen. Prince noticed instantly, but decided he loved it given the fact that he conceived the whole song in a dream, and the dull sound complemented that dream-like quality of the lyrics he wrote.

How does the dream begin? Fuzzy and abruptly, as many do. “Dorothy Parker,” the recording, kicks off instantly with a sped-up drum fill, then silence, then an ambiguous 7th chord that takes a few seconds to resolve to E minor. In fact, every section of the song begins in suspension – when it’s not pivoting to a different tonal space entirely, Prince relies on A7s and F9s to leave you needing resolution, which doe

What I love about the “Dorothy Parker” recording is how dirty it sounds throughout. Not dirty in the typically-sexy way that Prince usually injects into all his work – but tarnished, ugly, weak in repair. The 3 drum machine rhythms that drive the song forward constantly interrupt each other; the bass is hard to identify as synthesized or performed; the chords performed through a weak-sounding tremolo. Every element of the music sounds like it’s falling apart, pushing up against each other, fucking up left and right, and Prince is trying to corral all the pieces together via his story to tell.

The story, by the way, is also brilliantly ugly in its detail: Dorothy was a waitress on the promenade, working the night shift for a lotta tips. She hooks up with Prince in the form of a shared bath after ordering a fruit cocktail (who does that?) because he ain’t too hungry. There are numerous references to clothes being wet (which is uncomfortable for anyone), keeping his pants on (almost a first for Prince), a violent room. In the climax Dorothy comforts the Artist with Joni Mitchell so he can return to said room. It’s a song about vulnerability in every respect: being uncomfortable, revealing yourself, letting someone in. That’s all a stumbling mess most of the time in reality – not unlike this song’s rhythm section – it takes a lot to say “cool” to a new face, and it’s weirdly specific to ask to keep your pants on in a presumably sexual encounter. Perhaps this was Prince telling us that he wasn’t this perfect sexual being he portrayed in the rest of his material. Who knows.

Prince apparently didn’t know at the time he wrote “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” that she was also a writer; to me, that discrepancy only adds to the confusing dream the song puts forth. Are these the same women? Is Dorothy a waitress who moonlights as a writer? Does she become a writer after being inspired by the Artist’s violent room experience? Who is this girl, really? In the way that Breaking Bad fans clamored to learn more about the ugly, tragic story of Walter White, I get wrapped up in the story of Prince and Dorothy every time I play this track. If this song taught me anything, it’s that a song does not need to sound polished in order to be great.[^3]

The production value (or lack thereof?) gives the song its identity, no doubt. Of course, however, it’s not as easy to replicate that sound in a live setting – while I hadn’t seen Prince perform live during his life, I’ve seen only one video of him performing “Dorothy Parker” with his band. I think it was on the Arsenio Hall show. In the live setting, the song transforms into a Latin-infused mid-tempo R&B jam; a salsa-esque saxophone hook brings a sense of direction more than anything in the recording. As great as this live performance is, the emotional center of the song is fundamentally different than its recorded counterpart. Dorothy is still a waitress, but Prince talks to her with a more confident strut.

Perhaps my own social awkwardness is why I identify with the recorded “Dorothy Parker” so much; I would never approach someone with that confidence in public. The bleakness of the recording resembles the murky reality of meeting new people: everyone has their baggage, and it’s really uncomfortable and sometimes requires a vulnerability you’re not used to bearing. That vulnerability is lost in most popular music; some artists might explore it in their lyrics, but there are few examples where the music and its production take the listener to a place beyond the words themselves. Few examples in pop this ugly.

Let’s hope for more songs like “Dorothy Parker.”

[^1]: Hopefully his estate will start to release more archived material and live footage so the world can experience more of his purple majesty, but considering he apparently never had a will, who knows what will happen.

[^2]: Yeah, I’m late to the game. Sorry, super fans.

[^3]: This is probably the same underlying reason for my affinity for punk music, which I think lines up with my love for Prince.

iOS experiment 1: changing and tinkering with a WordPress site theme

As I mentioned last week, I’m trying to make my iPad Air 2 actually useful in my life. Currently, it’s a rarely used content portal despite being almost as powerful as my MacBook Pro and having a fantastic app ecosystem.

Plenty of folks have talked about the beauty of being able to code on an iPad – there’s apps like Coda and Textastic that have been germinating for years in the App Store – but there’s so much more to web & software development than just writing code. You need a local development environment. You need to be able to manage changes to your code via Git or Subversion. You need to be able to show people real changes before pushing those changes to your live site or app. You need to be able to read and manipulate data. There’s plenty more I can’t even think of, since – hey now – I’m not actually a full-time developer.

That said, I manage a few sites built in self-hosted WordPress, one of which is this site. I got tired of having to find and fix bugs with the old theme, so I wanted to see if I could simply change a theme and hack it to my liking, all via my iPad.

Why is this not so intuitive to the untrained eye?

WordPress has an amazing theme directory of its own, which allows for direct installs to your website; plus there are thousands of premium theme repositories across the Internet which package beautiful themes in nice .zip packages, which can be extracted easily within your hosting environment for use. I’ve been doing this for years and it’s second nature at this point to launch a WordPress site and tinker with countless themes. However, this is a bit harder to do on iOS:

  • WordPress’ iOS app has no awareness of its own theme directory;
  • There’s no true in-house file management solution in iOS;
  • iOS’ handling of .zip files in itself is murky at best;
  • There’s no obvious way to set up a local environment of your WordPress site on iOS to tinker with the theme before pushing it live

So, how should we deal with this?

Finding and getting a new theme

As I mentioned before, it’s really easy to find WordPress themes on the Internet – just Google it. When I find a theme I like, I need to download the .zip file containing its assets and somehow get it onto my hosting platform.

I’ve come to really appreciate Readdle’s Documents app for all my file downloads and management. It has its own built-in browser, which handles file downloads much more seamlessly than Safari’s stock file handling. I’ve found that some WordPress theme providers require a login to access a theme’s files (ThemeForest, for example), so having Documents for both the logged-in experience on one of these sites and the downloads I need to perform is really helpful. I can then open up and look at the files within Documents, and upload them straight to my FTP server provided by my hosting provider – all within Documents.

Testing the theme out

Web & software developers commonly refer to a ‘local’ environment for making changes to their code & testing those changes. I haven’t yet found a good way to do this all directly on my iOS device; however, with websites, it’s pretty easy to set up a private sandbox to test out new themes before pushing them to my live site.

I use Namecheap for both my domains and shared hosting; they give me a pretty robust SFTP server to host all my files for my websites. I’ve set up my 3 main websites to point to this server, as well as 3 “sandboxed” versions of those websites in a subdirectory – /sandbox/brandonlucasgreen/, for example. In that folder is another WordPress install which is private to the world and only accessible to me, which I set up simply through the cPanel interface. Setting up a new WordPress install in iOS Safari isn’t quite as speedy as it is on my MacBook Pro, but it’s not terribly hard to get done.

What doesn’t work well on a 9.7″ screen is WordPress.com’s stock post editor.

Thank goodness for Ulysses, which is so much more pleasant to look at, extremely good at organizing my writing (both long- and extremely short-form), and can get my posts to WordPress via a simple Workflow.[^1]

Having a sandbox to break things within is great, but I also wanted to try some sort of revision management on the iPad. Turns out there’s a great app for that in Working Copy. I love this thing – I can make simple code changes right inside the app, push them to the sandbox git repo I created, see the changes instantly, and then push them to Github and production once I’m satisfied.


Split-screen-working-copy.jpeg

Messing with data

Occasionally I need to hack together posts and other WordPress settings in various states, and sometimes it’s easier to do that directly in the database WordPress uses, rather than in WordPress’ (admittedly slow) admin interface. WordPress operates on MySQL, and I’ve found that Navicat’s MySQL client for iOS is a solid app for dealing with this.

This is just a start, but after messing around with a few apps and getting comfortable with a smaller screen, I’m reasonably confident that I can manage my website entirely from an iPad. Next up: working with audio on an ipad.

[^1]: They’re even adding native WordPress support in Ulysses 2.6 coming soon!

Tracking technology and the vote

I originally wrote this for the Mathys+Potestio blog, this really cool employment agency based in Portland, Oregon. Here’s the link to the original post.

I’ve noticed that, for the first time in my life, I’m overwhelmed by politics. In high school, it was just a topic that sometimes came up among my debate-team friends. In college and my early years of employment it was a side conversation.

Now I can’t go a day without someone mentioning a candidate at least 3 times, and my Facebook news feed is covered almost exclusively in images, GIFs and video clips lampooning or praising candidates. Maybe I’m just at that age now when we begin to center conversations around politics unlike when we were young. Maybe it’s all media buzz. Maybe, even if it’s overwhelming, it’s actually a good thing: voter turnout since 2008 is up from where it was in the 90s.

Regardless, I find myself asking the question more frequently: why are so many of my friends and colleagues suddenly in tune with the election? What changed to make this a central part of our lives again?

You could easily argue that the trying times we live in begets political action in itself – but during every time of significant political activity in American history, technology seemed to come along for the ride. Think about the 1960 Presidential debates, during which technology (that is, television) presented candidates in a wholly new light: everyday people could truly see the candidates in person for the first time. This almost single-handedly swung the election in favor of the younger, more energized JFK – it gave apathetic or indecisive voters a new context in which they could base a political stance.

After the major TV broadcast networks got stale in terms of their political coverage, other players started to get involved. During the 80s we saw niche Cable television networks spring up everywhere covering virtually every popular interest. MTV found an opportunity to politically engage its audience in the early 2000s with Vote or Die, a campaign run by Puff Daddy aimed at young popular music fans to get out the vote. Had cable television never come to be, enabling specialty networks like MTV, that would never have happened.

Of course, Vote or Die is basically dead and gone at this point, but that’s only because the idea also went stale. In a blog post written before the 2014 midterm elections, Benjamin Studebaker suggested that “when P-Diddy tells young people to vote or die, he can give all sorts of reasons why millions of young people should vote, but no reason why any given person should vote.” People were able to easily ignore the message on an individual level – while strong in tone, it falls flat. However, “there are many ways to get the influence you need to make a difference” – Studebaker doesn’t necessarily fault the program or any candidate tactic, per se – but perhaps a more intimate connection with voters to clearly understand and respond to concerns was the next place to go.

While Vote or Die was briefly capturing the attention of America’s youth, Facebook was plotting its eventual cultural takeover. Facebook feels like it’s been around forever at this point, but its influence on social behavior and pop culture is obvious; just 8 years later, it hosted its first Town Hall meeting. This was yet another way for disengaged citizens (specifically, younger, tech-savvy ones) to engage with politics and find reasons to vote. The rapid expansion of the social media space has introduced yet more interactive solutions for candidates to interact with potential or apathetic voters – for example, every candidate in the 2016 election has Instagram, Periscope and Snapchat accounts, and their marketing teams are finding new ways to leverage these platforms to interact with young voters.

Technological and cultural innovation has, quite literally, given apathetic citizens new reasons to vote by presenting new contexts on which to base voting decisions.

If social tech is hugely influencing my network to get out and vote, is it affecting the same change in other demographics throughout the country? Are fervent Trump supporters in the Midwest endlessly posting about their fervent Trump support to their friends, like how my friends are nonstop blabbing about their liberalism? Software is eating the world, and the world has a smartphone and a Facebook account, so why don’t I see this?

Much of it has to do with context-setting, and much of that can be done by friends and family. In 2010, a single Facebook message got over 300,000 people to vote because that message got stuck in a viral loop – the original writer shared the message to his closest friends, who then shared the message with their own friends, and so on. In the past 2 years, various people have speculated on Facebook’s massive direct impact on voter turnout. Facebook’s audience tends to skew younger and female, so the impact on voter turnout is naturally felt most in these demographics. There are also plenty of businesses out there whose sole purpose is to thrive on “viral” content – and some of them, like Upworthy, focus on the most viral content with a meaningful underlying message. These topics also generally skew more liberal – perfect for the young, predominantly female audience on Facebook and other networks on which this content is shared.

But it’s fairly obvious that social networks have also had their negative effects on the political process – namely, they’ve encouraged polarization and filtered confirmation bias.

That begs two questions:

  1. As social media hype starts to lose its luster in the face of content overload and social upheaval, what is the next technological advance that affects the political participation?
  2. How does technology encourage voter turnout within those who are generally more resistant to technological change?

I certainly can’t answer either of these questions today – but some startups are exploring them now. Startups like Agora and Civis Analyics are working to bring better opportunities for voters to engage with their candidates, and better data to those candidates such that they can reach out to untapped audiences. Perhaps that’s the next major area of innovation that will affect the vote – rather than presenting the candidates in different ways to the voter, reconfigure how the voter and candidate interact. Elsa Sze, founder of Agora, positions the platform as a means to a voice every day: live streaming town hall meetings that anyone can set up at any time, publicly-accessible Q&As, detailed insights for officials. It makes sense, given our current sociocultural landscape, driven by interactivity and choice and media over-saturation; what’s better than being able to easily target your perfect voter and engage in a wholly two-sided, honest dialogue with him or her?

Only time will tell how these advances affect how citizens engage (or not) in our political process. The challenge (as many have mentioned when attempting to disrupt the political process) is adoption – how do you engage reluctant citizens while also providing new value to candidates and their supporters? How do you provide meaningful connections that influence positive social and political change while still capturing an increasingly distracted public’s attention?

Questions aside, it’s hard to deny that, regardless how directly technology is aiming to disrupt the vote, changes in each go hand in hand. I’m curious to see how, in the modern political landscape, how new advances in app development, virtual/augmented reality, hyper-local social networking, and political science bring voter turnout to its next natural progression.

Moving to iOS: an experiment in creative restraint

On Monday I’m receiving a company laptop. I have mixed feelings about this – it inevitably and subliminally will have me working more on trains and on weekends, but I’ll be able to do so much faster than I currently do via Microsoft Remote Desktop.

Why do I bring this up? I bring this up because I have a beautiful, expensive Retina MacBook Pro that I’ve been using for the bulk of all my work for almost 3 years. It’s my indispensable sidekick for recording music, writing, (attempts at) coding, managing my finances, pretty much everything. Since starting my current job, though, I’ve started to spend less and less time with it – occasionally pulling it out on crowded trains, opportunistically pushing it to its limits by recording for hours at a time on weekends, painstakingly RDP-ing into my work machine just to run a few SQL queries. Sometimes it sits on a desk for days at a time, neglected.

Now that I’m getting this other laptop, I have even less use for the thing.

I have an iPad Air 2 – this thing is also generally neglected in my household. Alicia will occasionally use it to watch TV in bed, and I’ll occasionally check Twitter or read some blogs with it, but that’s about it. I had downloaded Ulysses for iOS a few months back thinking I could use this iPad as a blogging machine, but even that felt redundant with the MacBook Pro.

I realized, however, that the work laptop has given me an opportunity to change the way I work outside of my day job a bit. After reading about the amazing power in the new iPads and the app potential brought by iOS 9, I’ve decided to run some day-to-day experiments using the iPad Air 2 in attempting to make it my primary computer.

The iPad does not replace coffee.

There’s already been a ton of writing on this – I’m really happy to have dug into the writings on iPad on MacStories, Daring Fireball, the Music App Blog and other sites, so I have plenty of foundational ideas to work with. I’m interested in seeing how I can leverage my iPad for my personal use cases:

  • rapid blogging in Ulysses,
  • music recording in Auria Pro with a plethora of synth/sampler/effects apps wired together via Audiobus,
  • pseudo-local website development with Working Copy, Coda and Transmit,
  • managing my music, technical and personal projects with Trello and various stock iOS apps

…and I’m sure many more along the way. I’m mainly interested in testing just how portable my tech can be and moving to a single operating system (that is, iOS), but I’m also curious as to what new possibilities there are brought by the iOS framework and app ecosystem.

More to come. I should probably start getting used to this tiny keyboard…

Google sometimes drops the ball because Google is a massive company

The other day I finally subscribed to Connected, a great consumer tech podcast, and in their most recent episode, Federico rants about the inconsistent feature support across Google’s iOS apps. (He ranted about it 2 months prior, and the rant still stands.) They’ve failed to provide consistent support for now-core iPad features, including support for the iPad Pro’s bigger screen and Split View. How can you write in Google Docs and do research simultaneously without split view?

Not even being sarcastic. I have to imagine it’s really annoying and hard. If I had an iPad Pro, I’d probably agree with him; in fact I’d probably stop using those apps altogether until Google made them work for me. It sucks even more to notice that Google has updated some of their apps with support for these features. But why not the others, arguably the ones that are the most widely used purely in a productivity context?

I was listening to his rant on my way into work – a place of work where I am one of over 4,000 employees. I started thinking about the different projects that are in flight at any given time within my company and reminded myself: I have no idea who is held accountable for some of those projects. Who knows if they have the same priorities that I do? In just nine months at my current company, I’ve had to deal with multiple fits and starts around projects that involved multiple key teams, only to find out that those teams suddenly had to prioritize these same projects completely differently than mine, due to other external factors beyond my control.

Google is an even more massive organization. It has over 10,000 employees working on any number of products or initiatives. There are teams of hundreds dedicated to Google Docs, Google Sheets, Google Drive, even just the different iterations of messaging (Hangouts & Voice & Chat across all platforms). Each of those teams contain different people, each with strengths and weaknesses and a certain propensity to work harder or less hard than others, or even make occasional mistakes. They also may have different priorities, backlogs and possibly even internal politics.

We have to remind ourselves that each of these factors may translate into different results per product. I would bet that Drive (which coincidentally I think is one of the best Google apps on iOS) has a lot more of its core functionality together and had the capacity to fit split-view support into its roadmap shortly after it was announced. Docs (or more specifically, Docs for iOS) is probably run by a different team that still hasn’t been able to prioritize one of these features. Or perhaps they have it built and in a testing phase, but some QA analyst ran into a massive, crippling bug that Spilt View caused in Docs for iOS but was not a problem in the other iOS apps. Maybe there’s another feature they’ve been pushing for that took precedence over Split View or caused a UX problem when rendering on the larger iPad Pro screen.

Remember when Google+ finally got its Material Design update for iOS almost a year after it did for Android, even after people declared it dead? Why does the Google Analytics, one of the most widely used Google business tools, have a terrible iOS app with an outdated icon and no 6+ screen support? When was the last time anyone tried out Google Earth for iOS? Did you even know that Google has a dedicated Street View app separate from Google Maps? Who decided to make that?

These apps are different priorities for different teams under the same friendly Google brand, so we can’t be surprised when their adoption of features or design principles aren’t totally consistent.

Managing a product roadmap is hard. Managing a roadmap for a single product that plays nice with the roadmaps of other products under a single company is exponentially harder. As frustrating as it can be to see individual products under a brand fall behind others, it’s worth reminding ourselves about these difficulties – especially with amazing new features on which we rely in some contexts of our daily lives.