Thursday, November 1, 2018

I Choose You - the perfect murder/suicide jam for your Halloween party!

This year’s Halloween Hit was inspired by my favorite episode of the FX show, Atlanta: “Teddy Perkins” (Season 2 Episode 6). You can stream it on FX, Amazon, iTunes, Hulu and others. Though consistent with the season’s “Robbin' season” theme, this episode (written by Donald Glover, Ibra Are and Taofik Kolade; directed by Hiro Murai) is an anomaly in that it was horror themed and aired without commercials. The episode was critically acclaimed and fairly controversial due to its bizarre antagonist and cryptic ending. 
I consumed and contemplated every theory I could find online, read all published interviews and analysis (here's a fascinating scene-by-scene with the brilliant director that offered a few insights). I could find very little insight provided anywhere by any of the writers. There remains much conjecture over Teddy's identity, nearly all of which fits into one of these scenarios:
  1. Teddy is Benny’s brother and caretaker/tormentor.
  2. Teddy is a deranged fan/caretaker who wants to assume Benny’s identity.
  3. "Teddy" is Benny and Benny's dad is in the wheelchair.
  4. "Teddy" is Benny and the real Teddy, his brother, is in the wheelchair.
  5. "Teddy" is Benny’s dad and Benny is in the wheelchair.
  6. Teddy and Benny are the same person.
I watched the episode 13 times in total: five during my initial research, six in which I viewed through the lens of each of the various scenarios, then two more focused through the lens of scenario 6, my favorite. With each viewing my appreciation grew, as the episode seemed meticulously designed to accommodate multiple identities and thematic layers.
I chose to believe that Teddy and Benny are two sides (or "eras" might be more appropriate) of one person. I think Glover is borrowing from David Lynch's playbook here (he did at one point state that he wanted Atlanta to be "Twin Peaks with rappers"), blending literal and metaphorical imagery. They seem to represent opposing methods (or stages?) of coping with abuse and fame; one becomes a recluse and hides from the world while the other wears a mask and glorifies the abuser, perpetuating the cycle of abuse. Those two manifestations are cloistered in a soon-to-be-historical site, gnawing at each other (a situation borrowed from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane). Teddy is trying to capitalize on their pain while also silencing Benny and giving away his beloved piano. Putting them in the same room in the episode's climax is a perfect twist that both surprises and confuses the audience (and seemingly, Teddy himself).

Some observations that support this theory:
  • Teddy is not visible in any of the photos or film footage.
  • Teddy does not appear to have his own music career, despite claiming that their father made them both practice "3 hours a day, twice a day."
  • The two are wearing nearly identical clothes and have the same James Brown helmet hair.
  • Teddy claims Benny has developed a skin condition, even while he himself looks like he be bleachin.
  • When Teddy confronts Darius with the shotgun, there is a very intentional shot of Teddy's profile silhouetted opposite the young Benny.
  • Teddy aiming the gun at Darius: “I want it to look real… The home invasion. You killed Benny because you were obsessed.” Darius: “There is no fucking Benny, all right?” Teddy: "Exactly! Exactly!"
Once I determined how I wanted to portray the protagonist(s), I identified the themes I wanted to incorporate:
  • Some fathers sacrifice their children 
  • Great things come from great pain 
  • The whitewashing of a painful heritage
  • Perpetuating the cycle of abuse 
  • Our culture forgives and ignores abuse that results in great art 
  • Our culture criticizes and ridicules celebrities that fall from grace
  • The trauma and aftermath of celebrity
I also made a list of the musical elements that might comprise something Teddy/Benny would create:
  • The jazz piano of Ahmad Jamal
  • The ragtime melodies and passing tones of Scott Joplin
  • The childlike soulful vocals of Michael Jackson
  • The 70's and 80s synths of Stevie Wonder
  • The rhythm and bass syncopation of James Brown
Over two weeks I made four iterations; each new sketch was more somber and downtempo than the last, and contained less and less of the musical elements I'd planned for. I was about halfway done with a version that I quite liked when I abandoned it for the final version. Musically I liked it but lyrically it wasn't working for me; it read like a monologue by Teddy, revering his father and hinting at abuse. The more I thought about the duality I wanted to depict, the more I wanted the song to feature two perspectives at war over one body and one version of its history. The final version used fairly minimal instrumentation and featured two mutations of my voice trading verses (mid-range register for Benny and disconcerting falsetto for Teddy) and eventually harmonizing. I intended the "conversation" of this song to take place before Teddy decides to silence Benny by giving away his piano.
Here are some snippets of those unused iterations:
  • Iteration 1 - combining a chop of Ahmad Jamal's "Piano Solo 11" (heard playing from Benny's room in the episode) with some James Brown rhythm.
  • Iteration 2 - combining a chop of only the passing tones in Scott Joplin's "Solace" (played by Benny in the old footage scene) with a slowed down James Brown rhythm.
  • Iteration 3 - combining a Curtis Mayfield/Marvin Gaye vocal approach with some Motown elements, a 6/8 shuffle often employed by Stevie Wonder and James Brown, and (eventually) a modern-ish hook with Stevie synths.
I tried a few things on this production that I'd never attempted:
  • I recorded the instruments tuned to 432hz (rumored to have been used by Prince, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, and others) because there's a mysticism surrounding that tuning that I could see Teddy buying into, and also I wanted to see if listening to it affected my brain state. I don't know if it did but I did find it slightly easier to sing in key, which made me wonder if my voice has some sort of natural tuning that I've been unwittingly raging against my whole life.
  • I recorded the vocals at different speeds and pitches so they would sound a bit odd once played at normal speed—Teddy's vocal (the falsetto) to a version of the instrumental that was pitched/slowed down about 6 bpm, and Benny's vocal to a version sped/pitched up by 6 bpm. To make things weirder (and considerably harder to sing in tune), I automated a gradual 6 bpm tempo/pitch shift for each (in opposite directions) throughout the last verse so that the vocals, played back at normal speed, would evolve back into my natural timbre . 
  • I automated the panning of the vocals to start pretty far apart and end up centered when the last word is sung.
  • I used a very cool Roland Space Echo simulator by Audiothing to make the Maestro Rhythm King drum machine sound more Phil Collins.
  • I used a very cool Vintage Reverb plugin by Valhalla (and some research on to model a reverb often heard on old Marvin Gaye records. 
  • I used a free Vinyl simulation plugin from Izotope to add some grit and warble to the final mix, as well as the pitch dive at the end.
The mix most likely suffered a bit due to the last-minute nature of the whole thing—I wrote, recorded and produced the song inside of 48 hours. If all goes according to plan, I'll be a bit bummed on it when I listen back next halloween.
Benny: I keep my piano in the bedroom
so I can sleep that close to freedom, still
sometimes I chew my fingers more than I should
til they bleed.
Father always said to keep my color off the keys.

Teddy: I show my trophies in the gift shop
and pose my father in the billiard room.
I want the house to be a tribute to him—
a museum.
And though some may try,
my father’s love can never die.

Benny: Of all the vampires, kings and thieves
dropping by to harvest me,
none shall pay a higher price
than he who shares my bed at night.

Benny and Teddy (equal): I choose you
I choose you
I choose you to carry his pride
I choose you
I choose you
I choose you to be his sacrifice

Benny and Teddy (dominant): I keep my Hope locked in the basement—
can’t let the dark get out
or the light get in.
I find that hope is not so good for my skin,
or my throat.
I don’t know what it is...
I guess it’s just the way that I cope.

Benny (dominant) and Teddy: I'll get the shotgun from the attic
and leave our body on the lobby floor.
Then when she finds us, Sam will clean up the mess,
drive out east
—somewhere meaningless—
to bury father’s masterpiece.

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