In Defense of Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz

Music that challenged me in 2015, part one

I haven’t written a “favorite albums” list in a few years, mostly because I realized that mine were virtually identical to most of those my friends would write up. That’s one of the unfortunate downsides of having friends in the music industry: if a band gets enough hype to be in a Top 10 list, everyone’s talking about that band.

2015 was one of the first years in a while, though, in which a lot of the buzzed-about music was downright ambitious: while there was plenty of crap for the masses to party/drone to, there were also plenty of musicians who stopped giving a fuck about playing nice and made cool, interesting, challenging music. Cases in point: Kendrick Lamar, Bjork’s Vulnicura, “Hotline Bling” and Titus Andronicus’ 90-minute manic depression rock opera, just to start.

I felt inspired by all this and had one of the more prolific years of writing music I’ve ever had. Some of the music I found most challenging and inspiring, though, was reviled, dismissed, or missed entirely by mainstream music journalism. I’d like to spend some time reflecting on the hidden genius of those songs and albums.

Let’s start with a doozy: Miley Cyrus and her Dead Petz, released via SoundCloud & VMA surprise in August.

I don’t dance much, but two songs this year made me start dancing more than any other: “King Kunta,” for obvious reasons, and Miley Cyrus’ “Slab of Butter (Scorpion).”

Don’t ask me why. I can’t explain it. But that damn bouncy synth texture paired with a fuzz bass made for my downtempo jam of 2015, and I’m not mad about it. I’m only mad when it ends, and then after 45 seconds of Miley talking about how drunk she is, the beat comes back in the form of a fun diss track called “I Forgive Yiew” (sic, but who cares? Miley sure doesn’t). The slow bounce continues for another 3 minutes, and it’s kind of glorious.

The next song, “I Get So Scared,” haunted the shit out of me when I first heard it. It still does, which is a weird thing to digest given that this is BASICALLY HANNAH MONTANA telling me that “they say love grows / but I’ve only seen it die.” After that happens, I find mellow euphoria in “Lighter,” a highly underrated 80s throwback.

People HATED this album. I don’t. It’s weird and sprawling and usually inappropriate, but every time I come back to it, I find another nugget of something charming, dark or downright beautiful. “I Get So Scared” is one of those nuggets.

Sure, it starts with the silly “Dooo It!”, but immediately after you get 2 solid ballads in “Karen Don’t Be Sad” and “The Floyd Song.” For every stupid track on this album, you get multiple gems. Sure, “Milky Milky Milk” is probably a song about lactating, but it has one of the coolest beats of the year. Sure, Miley cries when singing about Pablow her dead blowfish, but you can’t fault her for expressing some real emotion in a song. The 6-song run of “Cyrus Skies” to “Lighter” is pretty fantastic, and could make for an excellent psych-pop EP in itself.

I do think Miley brought some of the bad rap and flat-out dismissal upon herself – the “complete, full-metal DGAF” approach to album structure and focus, plus the fact that she made this album outside of her recording contract, lends the album to be taken both less seriously and more like it’s trying be taken seriously. Most of the negative or apathetic critical reaction has been based on the assumption that this album should be interpreted as higher-concept than it probably should be. And to those critics, it disappoints as a high-concept pet project.

But why should we treat Dead Petz as anything beyond what it is at face value? It’s a long, sprawling collection of songs covering several topics, some of which are very silly. Nobody gave Prince any flack about that when 1999 came out and contained a song about vinegar strokes and another one with 2 uncomfortable minutes of orgasm sounds. Why should Miley Cyrus be dismissed for calling a song “Bang Me Box” when Nicki Minaj can release a song glorifying her own ass, or a song about a girl who makes crack cocaine became one of the top hits of the year? (Oh and remember when a song about shooting up a school became a pop hit? Great job, music industry.) Dead Petz doesn’t need to be anything more than it is, and critics shouldn’t dismiss it because it doesn’t reach their impossibly high standards of long, ambitious works that break political or spiritual ground. It’s as if critics are no longer willing to let their subjects just unwind and not be taken too seriously.

If anything, this album disappoints me because it makes me wonder how it would have been accepted if a few throwaway tracks were removed and it was a bit more polished. If “Fuckin’ Fucked Up” (which should not be treated as anything more than an interlude) was removed from the track listing and was attached to “BB Talk” as a prelude, would people use it as an excuse to dismiss the album? “Something About Space Dude” is effectively a coda to “The Floyd Song” – what if Miley positioned these two separate tracks as a single 8-minute space rock epic, like what JT did with some of his solo material?

For those who want to give this album a second chance but can’t deal with the full 23 tracks, I propose a revised Dead Petz track listing, which is only an hour long:

  1. Dooo It! <— only because nothing else really works as an opener
  2. Karen, Don’t Be Sad
  3. The Floyd Song (Sunrise) w/ optional coda: Something About Space Dude
  4. Space Boots
  5. BB Talk
  6. Milky Milky Milk
  7. Cyrus Skies
  8. Slab of Butter (Scorpion) w/ optional coda: I’m So Drunk
  9. Lighter
  10. I Get So Scared
  11. I Forgive Yiew
  12. 1 Sun
  13. Pablow The Blowfish
  14. Miley Tibetan Bowlzzz (bonus track)

It’s really hard to take Miley Cyrus seriously, and that’s okay. Bizarrely enough, the thing that convinced me to have respect for her is the album in which she takes herself the least seriously. You should give this album a chance if you didn’t yet this year.

—-

Oh, and lastly, I put out an EP too, but it’s probably not on anyone’s best-of lists because I barely promoted it. Check it out, though! It’s fun.

Apple Music Connect, the experiment

Federico Viticci of MacStories wrote this yesterday and it got me thinking about Apple Music Connect, which I’ve started to check daily:

The responses to this tweet are varied, but they generally echo the sentiment that I've been seeing in music industry writing: it's largely doomed to fail. The UX is somewhat crap (not denying this) and the positioning is unclear (also not denying this). I'm sure Apple will work on this over time, but it's hard to convert users if they start off with a bad first impression (hey, iTunes Ping / Tidal / any other music network that fails to catch on).

But we shouldn't be surprised that Apple Music Connect is adopting slowly. For major artists, their labels (or the artists themselves) have already bought into another streaming service – most of the majors into Spotify, and the dozen-or-so upper-echelon folks who co-sponsored Tidal – so why should we expect them to suddenly release a single on Apple Music Connect for the sake of their fans? Fans by nature are rabid, so they’ll follow you to whichever network you choose (this is why Tidal didn’t die on arrival). What’s the incentive for Kanye West to post his new stuff on Apple Music?

SoundCloud is in a weird spot in that it has the adoption of millions (including Europe and Asia, perhaps most importantly), but isn't necessarily tied directly to labels. In other words, there’s no incentive for Kanye West to NOT post new music on SoundCloud – no conflict of interest, no problem. That said, the network's moves to partner with brands is probably causing other strings to pull artists toward it. The general public will probably never know the full scope of it, but it’s worth assuming that major artists are probably picking their music networks of choice very strategically.

But Apple Music (and more specifically, Connect) is not going to pick up like this, with the exception of a few possible artists with existing partnerships with Apple (read: Trent Reznor, Dr. Dre, Adele & Coldplay)1. And I’m fine with that: it’s not done. Apple admitted that they still have work to do. Anyone who’s tried to build or work at a startup knows the difficulty in launching a good MVP quickly. While we instinctively seem to hold Apple to a higher standard given their massive stack of cash, you can’t blame them for putting out a brand-new streaming music service and wanting to iterate & experiment. I’ll be a contrarian: I love the idea of integrating streaming & social music discovery within the existing music player. Why not talk about music in the same app that you listen to music? Sure, it may look cluttered due to “bad UX” and purposeless due to low adoption, but it’s an interesting approach at trying to bring the relationship between artist and listener closer to the music itself that establishes that relationship in the first place. That’s a pretty massive and difficult concept to get right, so I can’t be surprised that it’s a little messy the first go-around.

Any new, minimum-viable product requires iteration and experimentation. No matter what they say in PR announcements, Apple has to be trying to experiment with Connect. You can’t write a music product off immediately when artists don’t flock to it immediately; great things take time to get right.

  1. Woah, rhymes. ↩︎

The problem of task managers

Wunderlist, Trello, Todoist, OmniFocus. 2do. Things. I have to imagine that most smartphone users haven’t even heard of these apps. That's probably why there's such an apparent subculture around each one. The average person will never break into the most beloved apps, and those who do will defend it to no end.

So why don’t so many people, who presumably have things they need to do in their lives, use one of these tools? For all the people that do try a project management tool, why do so many underutilize them?

Everyone has a smartphone, and most of them probably use stock functionality (read: Reminders & Calendar) to keep track of their daily lives on that smartphone. However, Reminders rarely has accountability – what if you forget to set a reminder time? What if you miss the location-specific notification by the time you’ve left? What if some to-dos are dependent on others and you can’t check them off the list until some other thing you neglected gets done?

Are the to-dos I’m getting reminded about even a good use of my time right now?

What about the big important complicated things I want to do?

How do I even break those things down into the little to-dos to put in my list?

What does that mean to me in the big picture?

The average person doesn’t want to (and almost certainly can’t) think through all that stuff, even though they potentially have implications on their daily lives.

This conundrum, in the workplace, is basically why project and product managers exist. Product managers help to figure out the right things to focus on and why; project managers make sure they happen so you, Mr. Stakeholder Guy don’t have to worry about all the little details.

Personal assistant apps exist, even virtual ones, to remind you of upcoming meetings and tasks – so why haven’t we developed a “personal product manager” that takes your big goals in life and helps you break them down and focus on the most achievable pieces of said goal?

I think about the big things that I want to eventually do in my life – get married, build a company, buy a house, be a notable musician, other things – there’s a ton of knowledge of what to do to make those things happen on the Internet. But parsing all that information is a nightmare – you’re basically relegated to Google searching or starting with blogs/resources you trust and vetting the content endlessly until you end up with a series of tasks, which may or may not be in order, prioritized or even possible. Then, you have friends and/or family as a resource, which may contradict your online findings (or even each other). I don’t even want to think about the difference between my dad’s opinion on starting a business compared to my previous employer.

Productivity apps can’t do this thinking; it’s not what they’re designed to do. 2do, one of my favorites, requires a whole lot of task creation and organization in order to be truly useful. and People have said that about Evernote, too. Trello is great for visualizing projects in a board format, but it doesn't tell you what should populate that board and what of that stuff needs to get done in order to make BIG AMAZING GOAL X happen. (That's probably why they've started collecting and sharing sample boards for various use cases.) The thought process around focusing the idea into discrete pieces hasn't been productized for personal lives.

I wonder if this is why productivity apps aren't ubiquitous – because they exist to humor the details of lives instead of boiling them down to what’s important.

Share that you’re still learning (because everyone else is, too)

The Internet is amazing, and Twitter is amazing. I know someone just wrote a post about how Twitter is dying, but the communities of people who are using it in the correct, intended way are great.

I bring this up because earlier today, for the first time, I tweeted something that sort of went viral. It didn’t actually go viral (the numbers were clearly not large enough to be considered viral), but for the first time:

  • I shared something I thought could be valuable to others
  • it got picked up by an influencer (thanks, folks at Product Hunt!) who similarly thought it was valuable
  • it then got picked up by several dozen others (58 favorites and 13 retweets, to be specific)
  • I was thanked by many people for sharing, despite not knowing these people at all

Again: chump change in the world of Twitter, but it still made me happy. Happy that I got some attention, but even happier because I provided value to some people I don’t even know. This all happened because I shared the fact that I’m still learning.

It’s been written ad nauseum that startup/tech journalism has a tendency to focus on successes. I had assumed that tech thought leaders and sites like Product Hunt only cared about actual products and results; I figured I’d learn to code so that I could eventually build products that changed people’s lives and brought me financial stability and fulfillment on my own terms. The reality is that I’m probably years (at best) away from pulling this off.

But starting somewhere is important, and sharing this (even if you’re still at the bottom of the proverbial totem pole) is worth doing. There’s millions of people trying to build their own products and know as little or less than you do, so why not make it known? You may be able to help each other out, bounce good ideas, test each other’s works in progress or even make some friends in the process. Now that I’m public about my learning how to make iOS apps, I’ve got a little more community around me, and while the path forward still isn’t totally clear, it feels a little clearer now.

Thanks Product Hunt and everyone who liked what I had to share!

It’s not obsessive-compulsive

Every day when I get home from work, I walk in the door, kiss my girlfriend Alicia and start organizing things. If it’s Monday, I take the trash and recycling out to the street and line up all our bins neatly in a row. Otherwise I put my keys on the hook, my wallet & sunglasses in a tray next to said hook, pick up the small pile of bags, jackets and/or shoes that Alicia leaves by the door and put each item in its respective closet or corner; then as she starts cooking I tidy up the non-junk mail we received that day, throw the rest into recycling, wash my coffee mug out in the sink, wash her mug out, review the state of the dishwasher. Next I'm washing dishes as she uses them to cook our dinner; it looks like a Charlie Chaplin assembly line if we have the right background music playing.

We eat. Sometimes in front of the TV, sometimes at our brand-new first-owned dining table. I compulsively pick up the dishes to go wash them, sometimes regrettably before she's even done eating her dinner. The dishwasher is full, so I might as well run it. The laundry hamper is full, and I'm getting low on t-shirts to wear to work – should probably do a load.

By the time I start relaxing, it’s either too late to play any music (might wake up the neighbors) or I burnt myself out just tidying up the place. But for me, having control over my house grants me the calm I need to relax & think creatively. It’s not obsessive-compulsive (maybe it is? Who knows/cares); but it’s a mental exercise that keeps me proud of what I’ve got around me. Most of us go through days (even weekends) without thinking much at all – at work, at social events (which take less thought than the decision whether to even go), even when trying to write something (yeah, that's a stab at lazy blogging conventions, so what?).

For a long time I tried to force creativity, dedicating whole evenings in front of a MIDI keyboard trying to compose – but instead of writing any great melodies, I ended up lazily repeating the same riff I’d written years prior over and over for 3 hours with nothing new or different. My head was in the wrong space during those forced moments; obsessively organizing my home life seems to correct that. I’ve learned to love the process, even though it's sort of compulsive by now.

Also, Alicia loves not having to do dishes or laundry, so win-win.

Many voices, but only me in the room

There’s an interview with Annie Clark and David Byrne in which they describe their working relationship for Love This Giant:

DB: This was a more intertwined collaboration than most I’ve done. In many ways it was more democratic — we were constantly bouncing what we were doing off one another. Which is creatively great, but also slow — democracy is slow. [laughs]

AC: The tech-y stuff was a headache, honestly. We’d send files back and forth in [music program] Logic, and because I had an older version of the software, I would have to reassign a bunch of David’s tracks that he had painstakingly assigned, and then send it back to him with an apology….One of the earliest songs we worked on was called “The Forest Awakes” and it started as this 6/8, hockety horn thing that I sent to David. I had been kicking that idea around for a while, but I could never figure out how to sing over it. What melody would even fit over this that wouldn’t feel like a distraction? David sent it back with a melody, and I was like, “Yes! Thank god!” It was a puzzle I couldn’t finish, and he put the right piece in.

DB: Most of the excitement for me is when I could see things getting to a point where I’d go, “This is nothing like anything I would’ve come up with alone.” It’s the whole point of collaboration.

This challenge has stayed with me for some reason. Making music with others is incredibly satisfying, but not only is it hard by default — it’s even harder trying to wrangle people who aren’t nearby. When we moved to Salem, I knew this was going to be a challenge — I had made a bunch of friends & connections down in New York but only knew a few people on the quiet North Shore of MA that played music. You can obviously connect with these people, but I wanted to maintain creative relationships with people I knew I could work well with:

James, a sound engineer and friend from high school who has been mixing/mastering Sophomores tracks with me for the past two years; and

Mary, a singer I met in 2014 at a house music showcase and I’ve been writing dark bluesy rock music with for a few months

One lives in Bushwick Brooklyn, the other lives in Astoria Queens. It was convenient to play and record with them in NYC, but the new distance presented its challenges. Mary and I had discussed traveling to record and perform but that requires weeks of notice and planning. So, I had to figure out my own working system for remote collaboration.

Managing the work

Since I’m a project management nut, this was naturally the first thing that I worried about. Fortunately, I had already found a love in Trello that led to project planning issues being resolved quickly.

I created a Sophomores organization in Trello that contains all my projects. Each project (an album, EP or collaborative project) gets its own board — for instance, I have a board for sessions with Mary, another for my current album in progress, and another collecting ideas for a music video I’ll eventually have made.

For a given project, each song has 3 cards representing it (songwriting, my own mix, James’ mix). There are also supplementary cards for other related tasks — transition notes, metadata, file structure, etc.

All official progress updates are made as comments via Trello. Whenever James has a new mix of one of my songs, he posts the URL to listen on his S3 server, and we can easily do rudimentary version tracking via the comments on a particular card.

We use checklists to collect and respond to feedback. Sometimes James and I will get a little carried away and add silly comments here and there, but it’s for fun.

Making the music

Now to the actual music making. I’ve been using Logic Pro X and Reason primarily to make music for a while now with some great results; James works on a PC and Mary doesn’t have a recording rig at all. So we needed a way to easily send each other ideas, bounced mixes and sometimes full sessions.

Amazon S3 largely solves James’ and my issues for file sharing. I can upload an entire Reason file and bounced tracks in a few minutes, and he can pull this into his own rig easily. We both use Presonus’ Studio One for mastering and metadata, and sharing full sessions via an S3 bucket is easy. On the list: start versioning these things.

Sending audio to/from Mary is a bit trickier since she doesn’t have a recording rig of her own. Thanks to iOS and GarageBand, however, this is starting to become easier. I can record basic guitar, piano and scratch vocal tracks via my iPad and Apogee Duet, and send them to her to review — she can even do the same on her phone. Then I can import these into Logic for more nuanced work. Vocals are a bit tricky still — I have a decent space for recording (to be detailed in a future blog post) but Mary and I are working to figure out a working setup for her to record her own vocals. Fortunately, Mary’s got a voice that sounds great via even a basic dynamic mic — so an SM58 should work fine for her.

This is all a work in progress, but I’ve enjoyed being able to make music in such a modular manner while still collaborating with some of my close friends. I’ll continue to post updates on my recording projects both here and on my own site — those who are interested, please share your own ideas on this stuff.

NYC, then back (for good)

I maintain a theory that the happiest people in New York City are bartenders. They are decently paid, have flexible hours, can usually find work right near home, and pride themselves on being a friendly savior to those who so desperately need their service at the end of another punishing day. Those people, pretty much every other resident of NYC, is either miserable, tired or both. Even the rich ones.

NYC is great if you can embrace chaos, the kind of chaos where as soon as you leave your house you’re wondering how long it’ll take before you get hit in the face by something or someone, metaphorically or physically. It’s terrifyingly unpredictable and we found it difficult (at best) to enjoy much of anything, let alone exercising any free will or creativity. We went to dance parties because peer pressure. We went to dinner because we needed to get out of our (admittedly well-decorated) railroad car of an apartment. I performed in NYC…playing bass behind a house DJ (my friend Rich, he’s actually a really good house producer) shoved into a corner because the club needed to make room for more people to dance — far from my ideal gig.

Sometime in April Alicia was really worked up about some job prospect and I told her:

“You know, you don’t NEED to look for jobs in New York, in case something cool comes up somewhere else.”

The joy on her face when she looked up was something I hadn’t seen in months. We started rattling off companies, positions, cities…suddenly MA was back in the cards.

She started tearing up. For me, being close to family was nice but not a priority; for her, it was the reassurance that everything could turn out OK. If we found a place just north of Boston, we could work in and outside the city and be 30 minutes or less from parents, siblings, best friends. A work opportunity came up. Then 2 friends got engaged, another pregnant — Alicia suddenly had photography gigs. Only 1 of those, as a glorified intern shooter, actually panned out.

In June I got a job offer through some weird circumstances, with the caveat that I’d have to work on-site in Boston. The timing worked, and we were out by July. We looked around for a place for a bit; with very little effort we found a HUGE duplex right near Salem Common. 2 minutes to walk to a huge park; walk 2 minutes in the other direction and you’re at a cute little beach. It’s not even far from the city compared to how far away everything is from Ridgewood, Queens.

So we came here, and we’re both happy again.

IMG_0096

So what’s Salem like for a bunch of young creative professionals?

I never thought it would affect me that much, but the prevalence of nature has really started to inspire both of us. We both love going outside again — I’ve got my Zoom H4 unpacked and for the first time in almost 2 years I’m excited to record the sounds around me. Alicia’s started to take pictures just for the sake of taking pictures. We’re eating healthy. (We can afford to again, thanks Market Basket.) We have space in our apartment to fully realize our creative ideas without stepping all over each other.

How is it in town? You know how everyone says that Bostonians are mean, sort of like New Yorkers but with a harsher accent and a perverse love of their sports team? Salem residents couldn’t be further from that stereotype — everyone is amazingly nice, humble, inviting. I really think that part of the inspiration of all Brooklyn musicians is their interactions with the city’s chaotic meanness (which coincidentally is what’s causing the homogenization of Brooklyn music, since the chaos is becoming so materialistic and almost predictable); in Salem, we’re being inspired by the town’s whimsy and warmth.

So instead of starting a blog and not touching it for months, I’ll write more.

Misanthropy in product management

When I started product managing, I quickly came across and fell in love with the Cranky Product Manager blog. It was everything that I had just started to experience as a new PM — the constant fight for attention in the roadmap, the terribly-defined feature requests, the working ridiculously late for reasons I couldn’t really justify for myself. That blog is no longer active, but the feelings are still alive in many of the PMs I talk to around Boston and NYC — and they haven’t really gone away for the most part.

In my five years managing products I’ve learned to separate my work frustrations from my personal life, not burn myself out and communicate better — yet I’m still at the mercy of external forces: stakeholders not being honest about their requirements, teams not communicating with each other, salespeople overpromising to clients, founders falling back to buzzwords, people being lazy.

And you’re ultimately accountable to deal with all that as the product owner.

This photo intentionally left blurry to signify my hand-shaking frustration.

With all the hyper-positive blogging out there about exciting new products, startups and giant companies doing great things (which I love, don’t get me wrong), it’s worth remembering that in many cases, Product Management is largely a tough, punishing, thankless job, and I’ve found that it’s a little more manageable when you reduce your trust in people just a little bit. This isn’t a bad thing, really — we’re reminded as product builders to test out others’ hypotheses, second-guess user feedback, question assumptions and your options are to blindly follow or question. Both of which lead to a frustrating and/or misanthropic end.

Don’t get me wrong — I love building and managing products, solving challenging problems, and creating awesome user experiences. But I have a little less faith in people as a result of that passion.

(That’s probably why so many PMs end up trying to build their own products instead of building for others. Maybe I should finally try that.)

Want to learn more about who I am and what I do? Go to my website or tweet at me and we’ll hang out.