Musical Month Week 3: CHRISTIIIINEEE

Back when I wrote the first post for Musical Month, I had a deep inner crisis over which song deserved the number three spot for “Be More Chill.” Though I knew “Do You Wanna Ride” deserved the spot just as a song I enjoy listening to, I also desperately wanted to talk about “I Love Play Rehearsal,” a short, sweet little song that does an absolutely fantastic job of characterizing Christine. In the end, it came down to the fact that I felt like I had a lot more to say about “I Love Play Rehearsal” than “Do You Wanna Ride,” so it merited its own post. This post, actually!

Yes, Christine is probably the best character in “Be More Chill” (besides Michael). For a character who doesn’t actually have that heavy a role in the actual plot, she remains a character motivation for Jeremy, and an important one at that.

Wait, the female love interest who does nothing but be the character motivation for the leading guy? Hasn’t that been done over and over and over and over (and over and over) again? Isn’t it playing along with that idea that women are merely actors in a story dominated by men?

Oh yes, that’s very true. But allow me to make a case for Christine. While I don’t know if I can say that she’s the perfect example of a woman with agency in a musical (as I said, she doesn’t do a whole lot), I do think she gets excellent characterization. It would be easy for “Be More Chill” to sideline her as the adorable, quirky love interest she is – always just a bit out of Jeremy’s reach, but still lovely and perfect – but instead she’s made out to be a person with feelings, and it’s not until Jeremy realizes that that he “gets the girl.”

I also have to commend “Be More Chill” because Christine appears in maybe, like, three songs? And she still manages to be a really interesting, complex character. So let’s talk about her solo number, “I Love Play Rehearsal,” and what it implies about her character.

{CHRISTINE}
I love play rehearsal
Because it’s the best!
Because it is fun.
I love play rehearsal
And I get depressed as soon as it’s done.

So, what is there to say about this song except… it’s adorable? Well, a lot (obviously, as I’m writing a whole post about it), but it is also incredibly adorable.

But besides establishing the adorable tone, this verse sets up a motif we’ll be following throughout this song. Escapism! Christine uses play rehearsal as an escape from the rest of her life, explaining why she gets “depressed” as soon as it’s over.

It’s also worth noting the tone she sings these lines with – namely, the difference in enthusiasm between the second and third lines. “Because it’s the best!” is cheered, while “Because it is fun,” is toned down purposefully, as if Christine is trying to remind herself to remain calm. Considering she is saying all of this to Jeremy, a guy she has never talked to before, the audience can assume she doesn’t wish to come off too enthusiastic to a guy she’s just met – she’s self-conscious about her enthusiasm.

But not depressed as in like kill yourself depressed
No, I’m not into self-harm
Dude, I swear, here check my arm!

In another telling verse, Christine makes it a very specific point to tell Jeremy that she is not depressed, or suicidal. It’s such a quick and desperate point that I would be surprised if it wasn’t meant to imply the opposite.

This brings me to another important point about Christine in “Be More Chill.” As I mentioned above, she doesn’t play that huge of a role in this musical. Honestly, this makes sense to me, since the story we’re presented is Jeremy’s, and one of Jeremy’s biggest character flaws is the fact he doesn’t seem to care all that much about the problems of other people.

This is directly stated in his treatment of Michael and Brooke, but I think it applies to Christine too. The implication that she might be depressed or suicidal here is basically skipped over by the musical, and I think that’s on purpose. Jeremy doesn’t care about Christine in any way other than as an object of his affection, a prize once he finally becomes “cool.” So, we only get implications of Christine’s problems, because Jeremy doesn’t notice and doesn’t care, and so neither does this story.

See, I just use the word to emphasize a point,
Show the passion I have got
I am passionate a lot.

Christine’s passion is another important part of her character we’re given in this song. Christine is actually one of the only characters to have a defined “passion” in the musical, except maybe Michael with his love of retro products and video games. I think that sets her apart as slightly more mature than the rest of her classmates, assured enough in herself that she knows exactly what she loves to do.

The other characters spend most of their time concerned with the drama of their high school life, while Christine seems to flit above it all. She’s not pegged as one of the “popular crowd,” but she also gets attention from Jake, who is one of that crowd. I find that interesting when compared to Jeremy, who is absolutely obsessed with his status in high school, but loves the girl who seems pretty disconnected from it all.

I have mad, gigantic feelings,
Red and frantic feelings,
About most everything
Like gun control, like spring,
Like if I’m living up to all I’m meant to be.
I also have a touch of ADD.

Where was I?
Oh, right!

I love the juxtaposition of the two things she names as passions of hers. Gun control and spring… doesn’t that just say so much about her? Passion for the political and the downright fluffy. Precious.

But anyway, we get a little more implication of depth and conflict in Christine’s life in these lines. She wonders if she’s “living up to all [she’s] meant to be.” From this line, we can assume she’s probably a very self-determined person, with an image of who she needs to become one day.

I love play rehearsal,
Cause’ you are equipped with direction and text,
Life is easy in rehearsal,
You follow a script so you know what comes next.

These lines also reveal an interesting motivation for Christine. Her love of how the script provides direction for life speaks to a discomfort with the unpredictability and difficulty of real life. This matches up pretty well with Jeremy’s motivations, actually. Like Christine alludes, he also seeks an easy answer to life’s problems.

That’s a pretty easy way for Jeremy and Christine to connect right here, but as I’ve mentioned a few times at this point, Jeremy is currently too wrapped up in his own problems to notice Christine’s. He’s not even able to recognize his own problems in hers! That will change as the plot of the musical progresses but… yeah.

Anywho the point that I’m getting to is sometimes life can’t
Work out in the way
It works out in the play
Like the only time I get to be the center of attention,
Is when I’m Juliet or Blanche DuBois
And can I mention?

That was really one of my best roles,
Did you see that?

These lines continue with the idea that Christine longs for an easy solutions for life’s problems, but then implies that Christine also longs to be “the center of attention.” I already briefly talked about how Christine doesn’t seem to factor into her school’s popularity hierarchy, but it’s interesting that despite this, she still longs for attention.

Also, I can’t help but look into the two roles she namedrops. Juliet is something that comes up again later in the musical, so I can discount it as a story beat, but Blanche DuBois is especially notable, especially since she calls it “one of her best roles.”

Blanche DuBois is a formerly wealthy southern belle who comes to live with her sister and her sister’s husband in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Without spoiling the plot of that excellent play, Blanche is an incredibly complex character who ends up slipping into a state of insanity. It’s a really intense role for a high schooler to play, and I can’t help but think that it not only speaks to Christine’s talent as an actress, but also perhaps her connection to the character?

I think later parts of the musical confirm that Christine deals with mental health problems of her own, so I think that she connects so deeply with a role like that.

And no matter how hard I try,
It’s impossible to narrow down the many reasons why-y-y,
I love play rehearsal.
I happiness cry whenever it starts!
It’s just so universal
Getting to try playing so many parts.
Most humans do one thing for all of their lives,
The thought of that gives me hives!
I’ve got so many interests I wanna pursue,

And another interesting point about Christine! I really love the concept of loving acting as a way to escape from yourself. I’m not an actress, but I am the daughter of two actors and the granddaughter of an actress, so I’m acquainted with their mentality well enough, I’d think. I also think writing has a similar appeal. I love sitting down and writing about other people and worlds for a while. It’s a wonderful form of escapism.

But anyway, Christine reveals she has a lot of interests beyond acting, but acting gives her access to all of them. It’s a rather fascinating approach to interests. It implies that Christine would be doing so much more if she had the time, but uses acting as a way to efficiently explore all her many interests. It sheds more light on her insecurities regarding whether or not she’s living up to all she’s “meant to be.”

And why am I telling this to you?
Guess there’s a part of me that wants to.

These two lines get reprised in “A Guy that I’d Kinda Be Into.” I mention this because I think they take on a different meaning if you consider the context the reprise adds. At this point, the audience is meant to think this means Christine might be harboring secret romantic feelings for Jeremy. However, “A Guy that I’d Kinda Be Into” reveals that these lines show more platonic feelings for Jeremy. She trusts him without knowing why, a fact that isn’t enough for selfish Jeremy at first, but eventually becomes a basis for their relationship.

Back to play rehearsal,
My brain is like ‘bzz’
My heart is like ‘wow!’
‘Cause we’re here at play rehearsal,
And it’s starting,
We’re starting,
It’s starting,
Soon.
Oo

Not much more to say, just more cute lines.

Overall, “I Love Play Rehearsal” is a really fascinating introductory song for Christine’s character. It explores her love of theater as an escape and as a way to explore many of her passions. It touches on her inner worries and motivations. And it also, in a low key way, points out Jeremy’s character flaws and the way they align with hers, setting up their relationship throughout the musical.

While I don’t think Christine is a perfect example of female representation in a musical, what strengths in her character exist are unique and worth celebrating.

Advertisements

Musical Month Week 2: Pierre & Natasha

I want to start this post with a slight disclaimer. I think a lot of parts of this analysis are a bit self-indulgent on my part. I think in many cases analysis of things we love can often fall to self-indulgence due to the fact that the things we love very often connect to ourselves in a personal way. I don’t think it’s unusual or detrimental to an analysis to feel a personal connection, but I also think it can make it difficult to see opposing sides of an analysis.

So, wordy apologies aside, I want to talk about Natasha and Pierre. I want to talk about them both individually but I mostly want to talk about their relationship. This analysis will mostly focus on four songs – “No One Else,” “Dust and Ashes,” “Pierre,” and finally, and most importantly “Pierre & Natasha.” So, let’s break this down.

Part 1: Natasha

At the beginning of the musical, Natasha is defined by her youth. It’s the first thing the audience learns of her – she is young, she is in love. In “No One Else,” this idea is expanded upon even further. In a sweeping ballad, Natasha declares her love for her absent fiance.

While the audience could definitely take note of her passion, they might also take notice of her innocence. Consider her repetition of “I love you,” as if in childish glee over the new adult emotion she feels. Or when she expresses her want to “put her arms ’round her knees,” “squeezing as tight as possible,” and “flying away”. Or, maybe most notably, her naive wish that Andrey will suddenly appear, “sitting in the drawing room” and she’s only missing him because she “forgot” he was there.

Ultimately, while the audience might be charmed by Natasha’s love for Andrey, it’s hard to ignore the fact that she loves him without a hint of realism. In a way, that’s admirable, but as the musical progresses, it becomes obvious that it’s detrimental.

As Natasha is caught up with Anatole, it’s clear that her passion for Andrey was fueled more by childlike glee than actual adult emotion. Throughout the musical, she continues to make uninformed decisions, getting involved with a dishonest man, nearly eloping, and then almost committing suicide. While Natasha’s idealism in “No One Else” is beautiful and touching, it is also ultimately hollow.

One could blame Natasha for rushing into things, but in a way the blame could also be put on the world she lives in. She is young, after all. Her marriage to Andrey was not her own decision, and although she was willing to convince herself that she loved him, swept up in the idealism of being a wife, it was ultimately grounded in very few of her own decisions. Similarly, Andrey’s disappearance to fight in a war is out of Natasha’s hands. So is her whirlwind romance with Anatole, who repeatedly is the one to make the plans, up to where he almost whisks her away on a troika. She is repeatedly a victim of her society and those around her, using her for their own ends.

So, by the time of “Pierre & Natasha,” Natasha has had her innocence and naivete beaten out of her. While she certainly deserves some of the blame, it is obvious that the mistakes of others have been pinned to her, bringing great shame to her name.

Part 2: Pierre

Unlike most of his fellow characters, Pierre is not explained with a short little word and phrase. Instead, Pierre gets an entire song, aptly named “Pierre,” to explain his mentality at the beginning of the musical.

Essentially, Pierre is a man unsatisfied with his current life. He feels as though he has declined in his age. He constantly compares himself to Andrey, feeling as though Andrey’s choice to go to war makes him a better man. In comparison, Pierre views his life as too quiet, too sedentary. The rest of the cast appears to see him as a sad, yet generally good-hearted old man. (Interestingly, Pierre doesn’t really seem that much older than the rest of the cast, at least not physically. Regardless, he gets referred to as the old man a lot.)

However, we also are introduced to Pierre’s romantic life, or the lack thereof. While he is married, his wife, Helene, clearly doesn’t love him. The two of them argue, and refer to each other only as “wife” and “husband.” In addition, Helene’s romances with many other men (and probably also women, let’s be honest) is pretty much common knowledge to the rest of the cast. Pierre only briefly touches on this situation in “Pierre,” when he remarks that “the women they all pity me / because I’m married / but not in love / frozen at the center.”

It’s not until Pierre almost dies in a duel with Dolokhov that we get to hear his true feelings on romance. In “Dust and Ashes,” Pierre comes to the conclusion that the only reason he feels compelled to stay alive is that he still hasn’t fallen in love. He hypothesizes that only through love (romantic love, mind you) can one find divinity.

Pierre, Natasha, and Marriage

So it’s easy to draw comparisons between Natasha and Pierre. Both seem to put a lot of stock into romantic love. For both, it’s their downfall, the main source of their pain and dissatisfaction with their life. But I want to take a look at what part of romance has caused them such grief, because I don’t think you can argue that it’s simply romance as a whole. No, it’s marriage.

Think about it. Pierre is stuck in a loveless marriage, and it’s that marriage that is preventing him from being able to find love, and by extension, divinity. Natasha, on the other hand, is controlled by her impending marriage to Andrey. When she’s finally convinced to act on her “own terms” without worrying about that marriage, she’s caught up with Anatole and ruins her life by trying to elope with him. It’s not love or romance, it’s marriage specifically that is causing both characters such trauma.

In addition, I’d be willing to make this analysis even more specific. It may not just be marriage that is causing both characters problems, it may be the idea that marriage and romance are the same thing. Natasha’s seemingly endless passion for Andrey is actually not at all lasting, and goes away as soon as Anatole becomes a more present option for marriage. And then it’s her haste to marry Anatole that ruins her life. In both cases, her longing to marry both of these men is mistaken as romantic feeling.

On the other hand, we don’t really know why Pierre married Helene. Though, once again, their marriage by no means equals romance.

So, with that in mind, I want to look at “Pierre & Natasha,” the last song I’ll be analyzing. In this song, after Andrey has firmly rejected Natasha, so Pierre tries to comfort her. However, the conversation that takes place starts to say a lot more about their relationship with one another.

First of all, I want to point out that in War and Peace, Natasha and Pierre were good friends when they were younger. This song draws attention to that friendship early on, when Natasha refers to him as “Peter Kirilovich,” and he corrects her, wanting her to call him “Pierre.” Not only does this show he feels comfortable enough with her to be on a first-name basis, but “Kirilovich” was also his former last name, before his now-deceased father allowed him to take on the name “Bezhukov.” It shows that she knew him during a time before now, when they were both young and idealistic. It’s a sign of familiarity and friendship.

Another point to draw attention to is Pierre’s question to Natasha about Anatole, and her response:

[PIERRE]
But I should like to know one thing
Did you love—
Did you love that bad man?

[NATASHA]
Don’t call him bad
But I don’t know, I don’t know at all

Natasha doesn’t know now whether she ever loved Anatole, and I think this goes to show my point earlier about her confusing marriage and romance. Now that Anatole is firmly not a candidate for marriage, Natasha isn’t sure whether or not she ever truly loved him, or was more excited for the possibility of their wedding.

After this exchange, Natasha breaks down into tears, and Pierre, at this sight, also begins to cry. Despite the fact that Pierre tries to “despise her” for what she’s done, he cannot help but feel for her on a personal level. Again, the audience is shown the connection the two of them share on an emotional level.

He promises her that they do not need to speak of the situation with Andrey again, and says “But one thing I beg of you, consider me your friend / And if you ever need help, or simply to open your heart to someone / Not now, but when your mind is clear / Think of me.” Repeatedly it’s the friendship and close emotional connection Natasha and Pierre share that is brought up. Neither expressly declares a grand, sweeping passion for one another, but it’s made abundantly clear that they care deeply for one another. Even after Natasha tries to say she doesn’t deserve his care after the things she has done, the music cuts out and Pierre delivers the one spoken line in the entire musical:

[PIERRE]
If I were not myself
But the brightest, handsomest
Best man on earth
And if I were free—
I would get down on my knees this minute
And ask you for your hand
And for your love

And yes, you read that right, Pierre heavily implies that he wishes to marry Natasha. Remember how I said that marriage and romance in this play are intertwined in the minds of the characters? It’s this line that confirms what the audience may have been suspecting this whole time – Pierre loves Natasha romantically.

But here’s the thing. Pierre can’t marry Natasha. He’s a married man, she’s disgraced and shamed, “unmarriable.”

Still, this doesn’t seem to sadden either Natasha or Pierre. In fact, it leads Natasha to “weep tears of gratitude / tears of joy / tears of thanks” and to leave the room “smiling.” Pierre too weeps some “tears of joy” of his own, and leaves the room to deliver the final, hopeful number of the musical.

So what does this all mean for their relationship? Well, I don’t think it’s an accident that the couple that cannot even consider marriage is the one that seems the most happy with the idea of their love for one another. Plus, it’s the couple whose platonic love for one another that gets their happily ever after, in a sense.

Pierre’s declaration of love for Natasha is a microcosm of what makes their relationship work. Unlike the rest of the musical, sung grandly with beautiful language, he states his love for her frankly with no music in the background. It’s not grand, but it’s earnest and well-thought-out.

And so what do we take away from Pierre and Natasha’s relationship? The kind of romance that lasts and brings happiness can only exist on a foundation of friendship and shared emotional connection. It has very little to do with passion or grand gestures or traditional marriages.

We don’t get to see what comes of Pierre and Natasha, but I think the audience nonetheless leaves the theater (or the YouTube playlist) satisfied, knowing that the too have found a real love. Platonic, romantic, lasting, and happy.

Musical Month Week 1: Picking Favorites

For no real reason other than I thought it would be fun, I’ve decided that October will be Musical Month! All month, I’ll be writing posts about musicals. For the first week, I thought we’d take more general look at musicals and songs from musicals I love.

I would call myself a casual musical fan. I’m generally last to the party when it comes to appreciating them. But for those select few I really love, I’ll listen to them over and over again and excitedly sing them with friends.

To be frank, my first plan for this post was going to be a sweeping Top 30 of all songs in musicals but… after trying my hardest to compile a list of all my favorites, it became clear to me that it was a near impossibility. I think songs from musicals are even harder to rank than regular songs, because in a lot of cases I judge them differently from song to song. They often depend heavily on context of the the story, and staging, and the way I connect to the characters singing that song… it’s just hard to put everything on a level playing field. So, instead, here’s my three favorite songs from a few of my favorite musicals. I hope this provides a suitable alternative and a good opening to the month.

(As a note: I will most likely not be talking about specific plot details in my reviews. However, be warned that the songs could contain spoilers for the musical as a whole. In addition, for some of the songs, it’s kind of impossible not to spoil things a little in the review. I’ll try my best, but be warned.)

Be More Chill

“Be More Chill” is still more or less an underappreciated fave. It first appeared on my radar because it often gets compared to the monumentally popular (and honestly a little overrated) “Dear Evan Hansen.” To be quite frank, “Be More Chill” is like “Evan Hansen” in the same way apples are similar to oranges. Both musicals about high school, both fruits. But otherwise, completely unlike one another.

If I were going to compare this musical to any other musical, I’d compare it to “Heathers.” They both take a dark, funny look at high school drama. Both create intrigue by introducing fantastical elements to the generally overplayed setting. Both feature a dissatisfied protagonist who gets taken advantage of by a malevolent but seemingly helpful force. Also, both are excellent musicals.

If you love “Heathers,” or just think you’d enjoy a unique twist on the usual high school coming-of-age, try this one out.

(Shout-out to my boyfriend Kirby, who finally convinced me to listen to this musical. I’m gonna see if I can convince him to come out of his cocoon and help me write a post for this month focusing on it. Stay tuned!)

3. Do You Wanna Ride?

I had a hell of a time figuring out which song would take the number three spot. Finally, though, I had to look deep within myself and determine which song it was that could so easily implant itself into my head on a near daily basis. And wow, this song is ever catchy.

I love how straight it’s played. There’s no doubt that the subject matter in it is goofy but the sensual performance of Lauren Marcus and Katlyn Carlson creates the kind of beautiful dissonance that really sells its humor. Plus… those vocals are gorgeous! I’ve never heard the word “Pinkberry” sung in such a pure, pleasant way.

This song is short, but it really leaves an impression.

2. The Smartphone Hour (Rich Set a Fire)

Big ensemble numbers can be pretty hit-or-miss for me. I feel like a lot of times they can just sort of exist as a means to move the plot forward. In that way, they can sometimes sacrifice quality for story. That’s not always a bad thing, but it does make for some forgettable songs.

And then there are those beautiful ensemble numbers that stick with you forever. This one does that and more. I’m not always a big fan of the “darn millennials and their ding dang social media” idea, but I feel like this song doesn’t fall as easily into that trap. It’s certainly critical of the quickly-spreading and salacious nature of social media in teenage lives, but it doesn’t do that by being preachy. Instead, it presents the scene as it is and allows the audience to draw their own conclusions.

It’s funny, dark, fast-paced, and a little overwhelming. The instrumentals and the vocals are top notch and only serve to heighten the emotions and ideas being presented. It’s a beautifully-written song, and serves as a great microcosm of the strengths of the musical as a whole.

1. Michael in the Bathroom

To no one’s surprise, everyone’s favorite song from this musical is also my favorite. George Salazar, man. George freaking Salazar. His voice is just beautiful. It’s perfect for Michael – very “nerdy” – but it’s also emotional, and dynamic, and just… ugh.

This was the first song I heard from this musical, and it really piqued my interest. It’s just so cleverly written. It’s so relatable (anyone who has even a shred of social anxiety would definitely agree.) It’s so darkly funny. (Are you picking up a pattern in the songs from this musical?) It characterizes Michael so perfectly. A character who has mostly played second fiddle to Jeremy and is then discarded gets his shining moment and it’s unforgettable.

If you listen to no other song from this musical, listen to this one. There’s just so many moments you can’t possibly miss… the builds, the “Knock-knock” part, Michael breaking off mid-sentence in a sob, the sarcastic finality of the last lines… it’s all so good. I have a hard time describing it because it’s really something you have to listen to. Listen to it. You’ll agree, I promise.

(By the way, if you’re interested in admiring George Salazar’s incredible vocal talents and his range of emotion check out this video. Just ignore the horrible lady cackling throughout the entire performance.)

Heathers

Ah, Heathers.  A movie I haven’t seen, a musical I adore. For those familiar with the cult-classic movie, I’m sure you already know what this musical is about, but for those who don’t, it involves high school drama and MURDER MOST FOUL. It’s a dark, funny, emotional journey filled with deep, complicated characters. It’s also absolutely ridiculous at times.

It’s not a musical I would recommend to everyone, but if you can enjoy the sort of jokes that make you feel bad for laughing, you’ll find a musical chock-full of showstopping numbers you’ll never forget. I had a rough time sorting through a million favorites on this soundtrack.

I plan on writing a post later this month about some of the fascinating themes contained in this musical, but it’s a dense beast with a lot of fascinating places for analysis. For that reason, I think it might be my favorite musical of all. Maybe. Don’t quote me on that.

3. Lifeboat

While giving a villain a backstory isn’t exactly groundbreaking, I have to hand it it “Lifeboat” for being so unapologetic about it. Okay, sure, Heather McNamara is not exactly the biggest villain of this musical, but she is complicit in a lot of awful things. Yet, this song is slow and beautiful. It explains her motivations so well without really explaining it all. It’s an extended metaphor that explains so much about McNamara both explicitly and implicitly (I mean, it speaks volumes of her fear of being honest about her situation that she never outright states what is going on, using the lifeboat metaphor instead.)

Similar to “Michael in the Bathroom,” “Lifeboat” is poignant for how relatable it can be for someone with deep, terrifying anxieties. However, I think the thing that makes it stick out the most in my mind is how dynamic it is – leaping from quiet piano ballad to loud, turbulent wailing. It’s moving and incredible, and provides a fascinating view on one of this musical’s fascinating characters.

2. Meant to Be Yours

Speaking of fascinating characters… oh JD. I have a lot to say about JD, but that’ll be for a later week. The true antagonist of “Heathers,” JD is one of those characters you either hate to love or love to hate. Either way, he’s a fascinatingly complex character, and “Meant to Be Yours” is his breakdown, his villain song, his master plan. It’s frenetic and surprisingly happy-sounding, even as he speaks about blowing up his school and murdering hundreds.

I love the vocal performance of this song. There’s so many points where the vocals say so much more than the lyrics do, and I think that’s one of the best parts of this song. Certain lyrics are screamed, certain lyrics are crooned, and it all goes together to paint a startling, complex image of a deeply troubled individual.

And even if others might disagree… I love how explicitly this song states how unhealthy his relationship with Veronica is. I very much appreciate when a piece of media is self aware about the harmfulness of the tropes it follows. No one with an ounce of critical thinking could listen to this song and truly believe they’re a happy couple.

(Well, except for those YouTube commenters but… YouTube commenters are barely human anyway.)

1. Dead Girl Walking

It’s songs like these that make me wish I was a better singer. I’d belt this song all day if I could. It’s intense and unforgettable. And yeah, it’s about terrible decisions, but it’s the most beautiful, powerful song about terrible decisions ever.

I count it as a major accomplishment for this song that I can love it so much even though it’s entirely about sex. Even as it is about sex, and does contain some rather lewd jokes (not the worst in this musical, though), it also has a lot to say about Veronica’s character. We know her to be smart and savvy, but it’s fascinating to see how easily she’s fooled into maybe the worst decision of her life just due to the normal pressures of high school.

The insights into how she views JD as beautiful on the inside is interesting in hindsight considering the content of the rest of the musical. Is she wrong? Or did JD never get a chance to be better? Who knows, but the audience gets to ruminate on it. I think “Heathers” is notable for how frank and honest it can be about some very heavy subjects historically mishandled by media, and this part of the song is just a microcosm of this fact.

And, okay, it’s fun. It’s a fun, catchy song, and it’s so well performed, and everyone should listen to it! Well… everyone within reason.

Hamilton

What is there to say about “Hamilton” that hasn’t already been said thousands of times? It’s just so good. It’s one of those rare media phenomenons that deserves every inch of praise it receives. It’s a monument of fantastic writing and storytelling. I already wrote a whole post about this musical when I went to see it in Chicago, and while I can say it doesn’t define my daily life as much as it used to back then, I still look back on this musical as the behemoth of my junior year in high school it was. I remember whole bus rides to and from marching band competitions belting the songs with my best friend. I remember sitting around a bonfire in my backyard assigning different roles to friends so we could perform the songs right then and there (we all had the lyrics memorized, anyway).

I’m sure just about everyone who will listen to “Hamilton” has, but if for some reason you haven’t, do. It’s going to go down as a classic in history, for one, but also it’s just amazing. I would pay a lot to go back and listen to this musical again for the first time. You’ll learn things, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you might even feel a little patriotic. I know, crazy, right?

3. Non-Stop

This was another difficult third song to assign, but I think I cheated a little with this choice. “Non-Stop” kind of combines all the best elements of all the songs in the first act into a fast-paced act one finale. So in picking this song I kind of picked them all.

Remember what I said earlier about ensemble numbers? This is another good one. It’s vast and grand, and ends the first act on such a high note. There are so many great moments: Hamilton’s “I was chosen for the Constitutional Convention!”, Burr and Hamilton’s conversation, Hamilton being a butt in court, George Washington, basically everything Eliza and Angelica do in this song, the ending part where everyone is singing and you want to sing along but you can’t pick which part to sing along with… wait, what was I talking about?

Oh, right. “Non-Stop.” Er… well… let’s talk about that ending, though. The chaos, and the twisting of “I am not throwing away my shot” to become a forboding omen hanging over Hamilton’s head. It’s masterful and sets the stage so well for the tragedy of act two. Just amazing.

2. Burn

I was going back and forth over whether I wanted to pick “Helpless” or this one for the second spot. Eliza is unabashedly my favorite character in this musical, so there was no way I was leaving out one of her two solos. But it eventually came down to emotional impact and just why I love Eliza so much that finally helped me make the decision.

I read a post on tumblr recently that discussed how “Hamilton” is the story of narrative control. It is a constant battle for who gets to tell the story. However, it’s Eliza who seems the most content to stay out of the battle. She purposefully makes herself a part of her husband’s narrative, content to stay in the background and do her best to help out.

And yet, it is in this song that Eliza first decides to take control of her role in the narrative, by forcefully cutting herself out of it, and taking with it many of the positive information about her husband. She exercises her power in the only way she feels she can. It’s powerful and beautiful and it’s a great precursor to the ending, where it’s revealed that it was through Eliza’s efforts that Hamilton’s name is ultimately kept alive. She’s a fantastic historical figure and an incredible character in this musical.

But as for the song itself… what can I say? Phillipa Soo is a goddess, and her vocals are perfect. The song is sweeping and tragic and beautiful and also kind of badass. A masterful work.

1. Satisfied

“Satisfied” has always been one of my favorites – from the beautiful piano in the background, to Angelica’s clever, rapid-fire lines, to the really fascinating motif of “rewinding” time and regretting your actions, it’s clearly a strong point of the musical. But that was all it was for me, “one” of many favorites.

And then I saw this song live.

It’s hard to describe to you in words what it was that made the difference from listening to this song over and over and seeing it live so huge for me. I have some suspicions, mostly involving what was happening in my life at the time I saw it, but regardless of what it was, it moved me to tears. The staging was just so beautiful, and the music and the vocals of the actress playing Angelica struck me to my core. I had definitely expected to cry at the performance, but I hadn’t expected to cry so early on.

Either way, it will always be a high point of the musical for me, perhaps my favorite part. The emotions of regret and nostalgia evoked by this song are just so gut-wrenching, and every part of the song comes together to make you feel every twinge of pain Angelica feels.

I don’t know if listening to the soundtrack will ever be able to match the experience of seeing it live at that very moment in my life, but I’ll never forget it. It’s the reason this song is my favorite in this musical, and most likely will be for the rest of time.

Legally Blonde

I think of all the musicals represented on this post, “Legally Blonde” is probably the most… light-hearted. It’s sort of a guilty pleasure of a musical, but I can’t help but love it. It’s certainly goofy, but it has a lot of heart and surely appeals to my “rah rah feminism” core.

It’s a classic, really! How can I argue with a classic? It’s a musical with music that never fails to make me happy. I have a hard time really saying much more about it. It’s a very simple joy of a story. For that reason, my reviews of these songs will most likely be a little shorter than the rest. There’s just not much to parse here besides pure enjoyment and amusement.

3. There! Right There! (Gay or European)

I feel like even if you aren’t familiar with “Legally Blonde,” there’s a good chance you’re familiar with this song. I’d call it infamous. It’s certainly erm… heavy handed with its portrayal of a gay man, but I still can’t help but enjoy the overwrought drama of it all. I want to acknowledge that this song is not exactly the best example of respectful LGBT representation but… okay, it’s funny. It’s funny and I enjoy it. I’m so sorry. So very, very sorry.

2. Whipped Into Shape

I’m not a big fan of diet and exercise video culture, but come on. This song is just so catchy. The lyrics are catchy and clever, and I find the way they connect her exercise routine to her possible guilt in the murder of her husband is hilarious. Plus, for those who have actually watched this musical, the way the actors perform the action of getting “paused” by Professor Callahan is so well done. Speaking of – I absolutely adore Professor Callahan’s interjections. The contrast between his parts and Brooke’s create a kind of dissonance that makes this potentially one-off number an absolute star on this soundtrack.

1. Legally Blonde (Reprise)

My choice for the top spot is almost entirely based on the fact that Vivian is maybe one of my favorite characters in this entire musical. Her beginning part in this song makes me so happy. Women supporting other women… dumping their awful frat boyfriends and becoming successful lawyers… what’s not to love? Also, basically everyone who deserves it gets their fun happy endings. (Paulette and Kyle!!!!) This is a triumphant song that gets everyone in the audience happy and bopping along. It’s just so good. Listen to it and try to keep a smile off your face. I dare you.

Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

The most recent favorite on this list, “Great Comet” is most certainly a musical unlike any other. It barely rhymes, and it shares more similarities with an opera than with a musical. And yet there’s something so irresistibly charming about it. Perhaps it’s that the characters are all so very alive and complicated, or that the music so often defies regular rules in order to make a thematic point. No matter what it is, it’s an experience unlike any other.

I’m forever sad there’s a very slim chance I’ll ever see this musical live, because it involves its audience more than any musical I’ve ever heard of. Actors dance around the audience, offer them food and drink, and dance with them. Honestly, that’s a microcosm of one of the biggest strengths of this musical. Despite its dense source material (War and Peace, anyone?) it’s inviting and never too pretentious. In fact, it’s much the opposite. It states what is going on in the characters’ heads outright with great simplicity.

And it’s that grand simplicity that endears this musical to me, I think. If you do anything else, take a few hours out of your life and listen to this journey.

3. Prologue

Remember what I said about this musical going out of its way to be inviting? “Prologue” is the song that makes that abundantly obvious from the get-go. It’s essentially a cheat sheet for the characters and the story in song form, presented outright to the audience as a tool for remembering everyone, as well as their relationship to each other. It accomplishes the monumental task of introducing everyone to the audience through repitition – think “Twelve Days of Christmas.” It’s very effective.

Plus, it breaks the fourth wall and pokes fun at itself. The musical is fully aware that its very premise makes it sound too complex and pretentious for an audience to enjoy, but this song welcomes everyone into its story, and sets the stage for what the musical will be. Friendly and inviting and relatable and unabashedly human.

Considering how very “utility” this song is, it’s honestly a crime how good this song is. It has no business being as catchy or as delightful it is! I’ve listened to this song so many times, sung it out loud in the car with friends so many times… and it’s just a list of names! In song form! What the heck?!

2. No One Else

I cannot even begin to guess how many times I’ve listened to this song. There’s just something about it that compels me to hit the repeat button over and over and over again. And that’s especially surprising considering it took me quite a few listens just to have this song click for me. But once it did… oh man.

I guess it helps that I adore Natasha’s character, and I think this song really highlights a lot of the fascinating things about her. Her childish naivete, her idealism, her wide-eyed wonder at the world… all is present in this sweet, crooning melody. The song takes on an even more fascinating meaning once you’ve gotten to the end of this musical, but I don’t want to spoil anything.

The lyrics are intimate and honestly adorable. I love seeing Natasha’s lovestruck view of her fiance. Plus, that ending… perhaps one of the most brilliant endings of any song. Such a unique gut-punch. Ah. So good.

1. Pierre & Natasha

If “No One Else” punches you in the gut, “Pierre & Natasha” grabs your heart, rips it out, stomps on it a few times, and shoves it back into your chest. This is the song that had me in literal tears the first time I listened to it. (Of course, this was in public, sitting on the floor in Woodburn Hall… yeah.)

It’s a very subtle song. The instrumentals are just a few piano notes repeated. And honestly, that’s all this song needs. The focus is absolutely on the lyrics, the heartbreaking conversation between Pierre and Natasha. And of course, I’d be remiss not to mention the only spoken lines in the entire show. These lines are particularly brilliant for how earnest and honest they sound once the melody has been stripped out of them. Ugh, just brilliant.

I have a lot more to say about what I feel this song means for both Pierre and Natasha’s characters, but I’ll save that for a post later this month, I think. But Tl;dr… I think there’s a lot more to this song than just romance. But hey, we’ll get to it.

Next to Normal

On the subject of being moved to tears by a musical… here’s “Next to Normal”! This musical is a brilliant study of a family affected by mental illness. To say much else about the plot would take away some of its impact. The characters are incredibly real, so flawed and beautiful and deeply fascinating.

I’ve always admired how grounded this musical is. It wants to depict its characters as realistically as possibly, both the good and the bad. And though that truth is ultimately pretty sad, it also doesn’t revel in its tragedy too much. Ultimately, it’s actually a hopeful musical.

I feel like a lot of musicals try to make themselves into one or the other – unabashedly positive or unbelievably tragic. “Next to Normal” toes the line between, choosing instead to be honest always. And that’s really the tear-jerking part. It’s too real, man. Too real.

3. Superboy and Invisible Girl

Probably my favorite character in the entire musical is Natalie, the daughter. It’s pretty obvious why – I mean, age-wise, that is. She’s a really well-written teenage girl in a genre of music that doesn’t always lend itself to well-written teenage girls. I feel like this song is a fantastic representation of her depth and how much the musical values that depth.

Unfortunately, a lot of the great things about this song are tied into the biggest spoiler in the entire musical, so I won’t go too into detail about the meaningful lyrics and interesting motifs present in the song. However, I can talk about how it sets up more of the conflict between Natalie and her mother, which I think is one of the most intriguing parts of the entire musical.

This was also the very first song from this musical I ever heard! It was enough to intrigue me into investigating the rest of the musical further, so that of course earns it brownie points.

2. Who’s Crazy / My Psychopharmacologist and I

Although, in my praise of Natalie, I forgot how great Dan is as well… and Diana, of course, the powerhouse and center of conflict in this musical… ahhh!

This song represents one of the biggest strengths of this musical, representing deep, complicated conflicts between characters musically, often through competing and combining musical motifs. In this song, we see the conflict between Diana and Dan. I love how well it demonstrates Diana’s relative disregard for her husband’s emotions through her focus on her medication as Dan stresses about her.

And that brings me to a second point. This musical is never fully clear on who the audience should root for among the cast. Diana goes through so much with her mental illness, and feels Dan doesn’t understand her, and yet Dan is doing his very best to provide for her while also not feeling any support from her anymore. There are arguments for both sides, and both sides are represented equally.

1. Hey #3 (Perfect for You Reprise)

Oh wait! Is Henry my favorite character? Oh no, Henry might be my favorite character… Okay, every character is my favorite character. But Henry. I love Henry. Henry is kind of the outsider of the cast, the only one not a member of the family. His relationship with Natalie is another really excellent and complicated part of the story. His somewhat awkward conversations with Natalie progress steadily throughout the musical until he becomes one of her most important supportive figures, and it’s a joy to see.

This song is the culmination of this musical, where we get to see some hope for Natalie in the future. While her parents are resigned to their unhappy relationship, this song makes it clear that Natalie doesn’t have to consign herself to her parents’ fate. It’s beautiful how this song emphasizes Henry’s support of her no matter what as a true indicator of how much they care for each other.

Plus, the music is simple and pretty, tying this subplot together in a beautiful little bow. A beautiful bow that makes me cry like a child.

Waitress

I talked about how wonderful Sara Bareilles is in my Women in Music post, so when I heard that she wrote a musical based on a lightly successful romantic comedy movie of the same name, I was all in. And “Waitress” feels like the musical version of Sara Bareilles’ whole career. It’s simple and romantic and sweet and ultimately positive. It makes me want to jump up and dance (and also eat pie).

Despite the cherry tone, “Waitress” has a cast of really interesting and flawed characters. It plays with the idea that happiness doesn’t only come from the most perfect situations. It instead preaches happiness through finding happiness in the life you’re given. It’s a lovely message for a lovely musical.

3. Opening Up

And nothing sells this tone immediately like the opening song. You get your introduction of most of the major characters, as well as the idea that everyone in the musical is unhappy with their lot in life but willing to work to better themselves. That’s admirable, and it’s also expertly depicted in this cheery opening number.

I love how every character gets their own little line or two that hints at their character conflicts. Jenna and Becky implies that they’re willing to do what she must to derive pleasure from her “small town” life, Dawn remarks on her comfort with sameness, suggesting she’ll have to learn to be brave… plus, pie! Gotta love that pie motif.

It’s a sweet, upbeat song that works so well to introduce this sweet, upbeat musical.

2. She Used to Be Mine

And now we take a hard left into the tearjerker of the musical. The show-stopper. The one everyone remembers. And honestly, it’s pretty easy to tell what makes this song the bombshell it is. Jessie Mueller’s original version is so subtle at points, but then grows to a powerful crescendo, but every version of the song has its own emotional value.

The idea of looking at oneself in the third person is an idea that really appeals to me. After all that’s happened to her, Jenna steps out of her own person and laments the parts of her life and personality she has lost. It’s such a beautiful concept, and it’s performed so well and so emotionally that even if you’re not liable to cry over songs, you’ll still probably get close.

And like, just watch the performance from the Tonys. Watch how vulnerably Jessie Mueller performs it. It’s just, ugh. It’s so good.

1. When He Sees Me

And now, for the song that makes me really cry. Embarrassingly enough. Or not? I can’t actually figure out if how hard I relate to this song is something to be ashamed of or not. Either way, Dawn’s conflict over making herself vulnerable without knowing all the facts is so relatable.

And I mean, this song is adorable. Kimiko Glen’s little southern twang tied with her sometimes ridiculous worries over her blind date plus the romantic backing instrumentals of the song ties together in the most adorable package. Plus, her friends’ mostly futile attempts to talk her off the ledge is hilarious.

Again, I have to point to the performance of this song. Dawn dances with random patrons of the diner, swooning and swaying to her own vulnerabilities… ahh it’s so sweet. It makes me sob like a baby, really. Ugh.

And that’s where we end it for now! I was planning on writing a lot more on a few other songs from musicals I didn’t get a chance to talk about… but this post is already a monster so I’m not gonna continue. But never fret! More musical coverage is coming this month! Stay tuned!

A Sparkling Personality Type

I’d like to think of myself as a purely scientific person all the time. I wish I could say I always listen to facts and only facts… but listen, I love personality tests.

And I know there’s a lot to be said about the legitimacy of a test that claims to understand your entire life and personality through only a few questions. I know personality quizzes tend to pull off their eerie accuracy through making sweeping, vague statements that almost anyone can relate to. That’s how completely unscientific classifications like horoscopes work, but it’s more or less how more specific personality tests operate as well.

Still… I can’t help but love them.

A few days ago, I was hanging out in my dorm floor’s lounge when my business school roommate announced she was taking the Myers-Briggs personality test for a class. This sparked a conversation throughout the lounge as everyone took the test for themselves and excitedly shared their results.

The Myers-Briggs personality test creates an overview of how a person interacts with the world. It involves four categories of two possibilities each. You can either be an Introvert (I) or an Extravert (E) which determines whether you focus on your inner world or your outer world, Sensing (S) or Intuition (N) which determines whether you’re satisfied with basic information or you prefer to interpret it for yourself, Thinking (T) or Feeling (F) which determines if you approach problems emotionally or logically first, and finally Judging (J) or Perceiving (P) which determines whether you prefer to have decisions made for you or prefer to make decisions yourself. I had already taken the test years before and gotten the result of INFJ (Introvert, Intuition, Feeling, Judging).

I retook the test to the same result and found myself shocked at the incredible accuracy of the ensuing description. How did they know so much about my life, my world-view, my relationships, my goals?

Well… it’s a detailed test. But it also made me think about personality tests in general and how despite their sometimes shaky scientific merit, there’s still something valuable about them.

See, I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about myself. I assume it’s a college thing, to start thinking about the person you want to be and the life you want to live, but I think those thoughts also lead to having to think about your current life. I’ve made a lot of realizations about myself in the last two years or so that have brought all nineteen years of my life into clarity. I imagine that process will most likely continue for the rest of my life.

But it’s not an easy process. I think you become so used to the way your own brain works that it’s hard to step out of it, per se, and look at it critically. The fact that it’s taken me so long to figure out some fundamental things about myself speaks to this difficulty.

So I think there’s something to these personality quizzes. As much as they may not be the most scientific thing in existence, they do provide a pretty easy avenue to talking about yourself. It’s much easier to identify yourself as an INFJ, or a Virgo, or a Ravenclaw than someone with a lot of empathy, or someone who likes to have control over every situation, or someone who is more comfortable with books than with people.

It’s hard to sit down with other people and talk about yourself seriously – you’ve gotta overcome that modesty barrier, and you’ve gotta be brave and vulnerable. But when you’re talking in fun categories, in personality types, it takes down these barriers somewhat.

I mean, I could see that firsthand that night in the lounge. We excitedly shared deep details about how our minds work, how we view relationships and goals. I learned a lot of personal detail about the people on my floor, and it was fascinating and beautiful.

And it was all inspired by a personality test – a collection of four letters. And in that moment I was convinced that even if personality tests aren’t always based in facts, they’re still an excellent tool for self-reflection and self-discovery. And isn’t that a unique and useful thing worth celebrating?

The Boys are Back – “One Foot” Review

So I’d say it’s been a pretty good birthday week.

It was actually on Monday, my real birthday, when I first saw Walk the Moon’s vague announcement-of-an-announcement coming today on their Twitter page. I wasn’t sure whether we’d be getting an announcement of an album or of a song, but I was excited about any information about my favorite band. After all, since their last album “Talking is Hard” they’ve been more or less missing in action. (For good reason, but still.)

So, I turned on my Twitter notifications and lo and behold, right before Spanish class this morning, I got the news. They’re back! Today, they dropped their new single “One Foot.” I’ll get more into it, but spoiler alert, it’s good.

(Ah how I missed Nicholas Petricca’s lame dance moves.)

Now first off I’ll say to anyone who is concerned about Walk the Moon’s more rock-influenced style being put aside in order to pursue more “mainstream” styles, I wanna remind them that this is the first single off of their new album. In vein of “Shut Up and Dance,” “One Foot” is definitely the kind of song that’s meant to be radio-friendly and danceable. And honestly? That’s not a negative.

I think Walk the Moon does a lot of things right (obviously, they’re my favorite band) but one of those things is that their explorations of pop music are never shallow. Such is the case with “One Foot.”

It has dense, well-written lyrics with some fun rhyming conventions. As a lyrics fan, this song gets a big A+ for me. I love the riff in the second verse where the lines all start to rhyme with “dust.” It’s clever and fun and fast-paced and I’m a big fan. I also love the “King of Nothing at All, Queen of Nothing at All” motif. It’s a pretty lyric.

As far as instrumentation goes, I was a little disappointed at first. I felt like a lot of the instrumental choices mirror a lot of the stuff you hear on the radio nowadays, especially the kind of squeal-ish repetitive electronic sounds. Honestly though, after my third or fourth listen, I found myself making peace with them. They at the very least jibed with the spacey sound of the rest of the track, and I trust my boys to use even overplayed tools and instruments well.

Of course, the vocals are spot on. I could spin posts and posts and posts about how much I love Nicholas Petricca’s vocal work, and he’s done it again with this song. His voice is always so clear and fun and lively, and it works so well for this kind of dance track.

Overall, I’m satisfied with this comeback. I think this song has the makings to catapult Walk the Moon back into the public spotlight, which is exactly what they need. And they definitely haven’t sacrificed quality. I still felt like I was listening to a Walk the Moon song when listening to this track, and honestly that was all I really needed.

I don’t want to spend too much time on speculation because it doesn’t in the end do much good, but I do have to comment on where I think their next album is probably going. Based on this track as well as what we’ve heard from “Tiger Teeth,” which has already been more or less confirmed to be on the album, I think their next album is going to have a bit slower of a sound. “Talking is Hard” is an album full of frenetic songs, focusing on energy and fun. While I definitely think that characteristic Walk the Moon energy will be present in this new album, I think we’ll be seeing them slow down and look inward a little more. I think that’s a great thing for them.

I’m anxiously awaiting more information about the future of this band, and there’s no doubt I’ll be writing more about them as we hear more.

The Death of a Pony

Recently, I’ve found myself doing what I thought I’d never do again – playing a browser-based pet game.

That’s right, gape in shock and awe at all the time I’ve spent recently on Lioden and Tattered Weave, two games featuring cute, multicolored animals to raise and train.

These sort of games are definitely, definitely not new for me. My parents and old friends can attest to how much time I used to spend on games like Neopets, Webkinz, Howrse, and the topic of this post: Ponystars.

Usually I like to try and draw some sort of philosophical or analytical point in these posts, but to be honest, I want this post to commemorate a community that was really important to me years ago that now no longer exists. I don’t really have any kind of deeper point to this other than a chance to remember how important it was to me back in the day.

Nowadays, a Google search for Ponystars will probably pull up a few scattered news articles about its untimely demise at the hands of copyright law as well some broken links from “girl gaming” websites. There’s a Facebook group remembering the site, but it hasn’t been updated in a long, long time. Google Images pulls up a few pictures of the ponies and screenshots of the website back when it was still up and running. But no one really talks about it anymore and that makes me kind of sad, honestly.

I joined Ponystars back in 2009, when I was ten years old. I was a horse-obsessed kid back then, even though I had never really ridden horses. I was raised on My Little Pony. I loved animals. So Ponystars appealed to me immediately. A website that lets me raise and breed multi-colored pastel ponies? Uh, yes please.

My first pony was a winged air pony named Magenta. She had, as her name suggests, a magenta coat, blue eyes, and a green mane. Later in life I gave her a little tattoo on her butt cutiemark-style of a rainbow-and-music-note design. In the rich story I made up in my head around my ponies, she was a beautiful and lively queen of her herd.

Her king was a horned earth pony named Ice Blizzard, all blue with brown eyes. I was delighted to discover they bred to produce lots of cute purple ponies (my favorite color.)

The breeding quickly became one of my favorite aspects of the game. You could breed two pony parents together and their coat, mane, and eye colors became the range of colors their offspring’s coat, mane, and eye colors could be. I would give these ponies long, elaborate names, often inspired by songs or book quotes.

(Off the top of my head, I remember one cream colored, blue-maned air pony named “Lost in Space with Nothing but a Few Cream Puffs and My Dignity, Sort Of.” I couldn’t make that one up if I tried.)

Another obsession of mine in the breeding aspect of the game was breeding for “glitches.”

When you begin the game, you roll for your first pony by designing their parents. You pick their coat, mane, and eye colors by setting the RGB values. You could pick from a color picker, but for a short time early in the site’s history, you could also just type the numerical RGB values in directly. And while that’s all fine and good, it allowed for some… er… interesting experiments.

Some enterprising early users used this creator to create ponies with colors wildly outside of the RGB range. Some, called “Plitches,” had RGB values of higher than the standard 255, 255, 255 maximum. They usually appeared bright red or orange, but in rarer cases could appear black, white, or green. “Glitches,” on the other hand, were rarer still, and had values lower than 0,0,0. Their color ranges varied much more wildly than Plitches did, which made them ultimately more valuable.

Eventually, the glitch was fixed and ponies were no longer able to be created with these impossible color ranges, but the ponies that had already been created remained, and people learned how to breed more. The easiest way was to breed two glitched parents together, but even in that case it was rare that their glitched colors would pass on to their offspring. It was also possible to breed an all black pony (0,0,0) to a glitched pony to create glitched offspring, but that was even more rare and difficult.

I can’t remember if I ever successfully bred my own glitched pony, but I certainly spent a lot of the in-game currency on buying them from other users. They were my prized possessions.

Another aspect of the game that convinced me to sink real-life money was the customization options. There existed hundreds of “traits” in the game – little clothing items you could buy and dress up your pony with. These items ranged from accessories, to special coats, manes, hooves, backgrounds, and props the pony could be displayed with. Most of these items could only be bought for the special paid currency, so I convinced my parents to buy me gift cards for them on many occasions. I took pride in customizing my ponies, matching colors and styles and tweaking them until they were just right.

Was the amount of money I spent on this doomed game a total waste? Oh yes, absolutely.

However, I think through all the breeding and customization of those pretty, pretty ponies, it was the community that kept me coming back. The website had a large, populated forum for discussing the game with other users. People would use these forums not only to chat but also to run contests, giveaways, and even tiny in-game businesses – selling items and ponies to other users. I spent hours and hours on these forums – probably more time than I spent on the actual website.

However, the biggest aspect of the community came in the special Ponystars IRC, or Internet Relay Chat. It was a website-sponsored instant messaging website, and there I spent a ton of time chatting with people not only about the website, but about life.

It’s strange, to me, looking back on these days. I’ve never really been the sort of person to have Internet friends, but my time on Ponystars was the only exception. I knew the regulars of the IRC like I knew real-life friends. We had inside jokes. We helped each other out with customization and naming advice. We held giveaways. We talked about our lives.

And you know the weirdest part? A ton of those people were way, way older than me. And not in a creepy, internet predator way. I mean, a lot of my closest friends on this website were teenagers, or college-aged, or even parents with children! I remember often being the youngest in the group chat, and being praised for my maturity.

Nowadays that sends off all sorts of creeper bells in my head, but back in the day I didn’t worry about it. We were all connected in our love of our pastel ponies. (I mean, granted, there was no sharing of personal information, since we all tended to go by our usernames and there were rules against sharing anything else that might be incriminating, but still.)

And then, after a few years, Ponystars was struck by a litany of copyright claims from another, similar website called PonyIsland, and the website was unceremoniously closed down for good. I remember saving pictures of all of my favorite ponies, and mourning their loss with the other members of my little IRC community.

I looked for those pictures in the process of creating this post, but to my dismay, I couldn’t find them. I imagine they’re probably rotting in a dusty corner of one of my Mom’s old laptops. And I still sometimes stop and wonder what happened to all those people I used to talk to so regularly. Where are they now? What sort of lives do they leave? Do they remember me, gillystar45, young in age but “mature?”

I’d love to talk to some of them again. Maybe that’s the point of this post, But it’s a long shot. The more realistic purpose is to pay homage to a personally important, dearly departed website.

Will I ever find another pet website quite like Ponystars? Probably not. But then again, I’ll never be that same horse-obsessed ten-year-old girl. But I can still remember those days, full of pastel prettiness and a unique community.

Writing Advice (For Mortals)

When I first heard about the controversy surrounding the previously-unknown YA novel Handbook for Mortals, I was immediately engrossed in a tale that seemed to constantly outdo itself in juicy, dramatic twists and turns. It would take an entire separate blog post to parse the dense threads of intrigue involved in this story, so I instead urge you to read the link I provided to contextualize today’s blog post.

And while yes, it would be fun to provide my amusement on just how deep this story goes, or how incredibly disgusting I find its author and its publishing company, I feel as though you can probably draw your own conclusions on those topics. What I instead intend is to use some of the awful writing in this terrible book as a sort of “What Not to Do” of sorts for newcomers to writing.

Now, I do need to say that I have not read this book. And, unless I find a free version, I will not read this book. I don’t really want to support this author and this publishing company. That being said, I will try not to judge the book by anything other than what is contained in the two excerpts I will be using.

(But, honestly, if I do end up judging the book by something beyond the excerpts… I still think I’ll sleep well tonight.)

The excerpts I will be using are pasted below. Both are passages from early on in the book, used mainly as description of the book’s main character and first-person narrator, Zade.

 

So, What’s the Problem with it?

While I think it’s pretty obvious that these two passages are written in a… let’s say… juvenile manner, it may be difficult to parse what exactly makes them sound so cringe-worthy.

So, let’s start with what’s wrong with these passages.

Slow and Lengthy Loses Everythinng

I think the first problem to discuss is the incredible length of both of these passages. Combined, these two passages probably equal about a normal novel-page of text. All things considered, that’s a pretty sizable amount of story we’re talking about. Sure, it’s not a whole chapter, but you could still expect a reader to spend a few minutes with this text.

Normally, as a writer, your biggest mission is to get people to keep reading. Most authors attempt to grab a hold of their readers by constantly presenting them with story beats to keep them interested and paying attention. For that reason, it’s important that every paragraph has a purpose. For some paragraphs, that purpose is to move the story forward, while other serve to provide exposition on important characters and settings.

These paragraphs, as I mentioned above, serve to give the reader a feel for the character of Zade by telling the readers what she looks like and how she relates to her environment. But it does so with the least amount of efficiency possible.

See, pretend you’re a reader who just wants to read a paranormal romance that topped the New York Times bestseller list for… a bit. You picked up “Handbook for Mortals” with an expectation that there will be a cool, magical storyline or intriguing romance. Either way, you’ll want things to happen as soon as possible, to progress towards either of these possibilities. And yet, in this entire page’s worth of text… neither of these things happen.

So what really happens in either of these chunks of text? Zade does some hair pushing and… she looks a bit at the sky? In nearly a page’s worth of text the story does not move a single inch forward. That’s a pretty good way to get your readers to put the book down immediately.

And sure, one might argue that, even as nothing has happened, the reader has still gotten a sense of the sort of person she is, but the thing is, well…

The First Person Problem

Zade is the narrator of this story. Every part of the novel will contain her own personal opinions on the world around her. For this reason, it’s more or less pointless to take this time to make her stop and comment on the weather of all things. The fact that she’s a little offbeat and out-of-place in her hometown is a fact that can be more naturally and efficiently revealed by having her do anything other than just stand there and wax poetic on the weather.

And what’s more, having Zade come out and say these things about herself violates suspension of disbelief. For those unfamiliar with the term – suspension of disbelief refers to the sort-of pact between a creator of media and the consumers. While consumers acknowledge that the thing they are consuming is a work of fiction, and therefore will not necessarily adhere to the rules of the real world, the creator of the media must adhere to some rules of the fictional world, though these rules might not be grounded in reality.

In this case, the breaking of this suspension of disbelief comes in the simple fact that we are given access to a person’s thoughts in the form of Zade’s first-person narration. As such, the narration should, more or less, conform to what a normal person’s thought process would sound like. There’s no in-universe explanation for why Zade would constantly think about her own appearance and personality in such an explanatory way, and so the illusion is broken. The readers know that Zade is only thinking these things to provide exposition, and thus the prose becomes false-sounding and not believable.

Everything, All at Once

Another problem afflicting these two passages is the sheer density of information being thrown at the reader. I mentioned before that this passage is too lengthy, but it’s also too dense in information.

In most cases, it doesn’t matter what the protagonist’s hair color or body type is. It may be worth it to mention physical traits of each character in passing, but long, overly-detailed descriptions are boring, and ultimately don’t help the reader understand the characters any more than a quick, simple description would.

This is because, in most cases, readers are forming their own mental image of what a character looks like. Just because a reader isn’t told the exact curvature of the protagonist’s body doesn’t mean the reader is picturing a floating head in their mind when they think of a character. It’s more efficient, and often overall better to allow readers to form their own mental images of characters and settings, only providing a few select descriptions where appropriate to guide their views.

In addition, as I mentioned above, spelling out Zade’s “quirky” personality so blatantly violates the classic rule of “show don’t tell.” There’s no need to blatantly tell readers this. It only adds to the information dump and will be ultimately unnecessary since personality information is always better shown through the character’s interactions with other characters and their surroundings.

So How Do We Improve?

So I’ve torn this passage down. How do we build it back up? Let’s take it step-by-step.

Just… Like… Chill

The problems both with length and with information density can be solved by simply… cutting all of this out. Almost the entirety of both of these excerpts could very easily be cut and would probably improve the natural flow of prose a ton.

“But then,” you ask, “How will readers know this important physical and characteristic information about the protagonist?”

Well… simple. Take this information and spread it throughout the regular story beats. Instead of slowing down and taking the time to describe everything about Zade all at once, allow the physical and personality characteristics to come up as they become necessary to the plot. It’s okay to mention little things about Zade in this scene where she jumps off the front porch, but don’t dump everything on the readers at once.

Perhaps, have another character mention her brightly colored hair? Or comment on how she’s changed the color recently, perhaps with a note of incredulousness? This could very easily lead not only to the physical information on Zade’s hair color, but also might allude to the way she doesn’t quite fit into her community.

Have a little trust in your readers not to melt into a puddle of confusion if they aren’t given all the information right off the bat. Just chill! Let the story reveal information naturally.

A Note on First-Person

I also think some of the problems of this prose could be solved by looking into some of the inherent difficulties that come along with first-person prose.

First of all, exposition is already kind of a difficult thing to integrate naturally into text. It’s hard to justify explaining important key details of the setting or characters without running into problems of suspension of disbelief. But these problems are compounded when you’re dealing with a first-person narrator. Because you’re more or less in the head of a character, reading their thoughts, it’s hard to justify the character thinking of things they should already know innately about their world, their comrades and enemies, and themselves.

So you run into a problem. How do you divulge this information to a reader without making your character seem like some sort of odd amnesiac?

One way is to put your character into totally new situations, so their inner narration commenting on the obvious makes logical sense, since they have just as much experience in the situation as the readers would. However, this doesn’t always work out for every story.

Another way involves allowing some information to remain vague. This can be a toss up as far as positives and negatives. On one hand, you don’t worry about suspension of disbelief and you also allow for some intrigue as the readers want to find out more about your world. However, on the other hand, you risk confusing readers. Really, it’s up for you to decide. Personally, I think a balance between intriguing and confusing can be struck, but it’s not always simple.

Or, you could consider a third-person narration instead. I understand the reason why first-person narrations are so popular. They can often create a very emotional and personal tone for a story. But they don’t always work out, especially for those stories that involve a lot of world building. Understand that first person doesn’t work for every story, and be open to experimenting from different perspectives.

A Final Note on Characterization

While I already said that I’ve never read Handbook for Mortals and I can’t comment on Zade’s character throughout the entire story, some parts of these two excerpts make me think that her characterization is probably a bit… er… flat.

This is a pretty common issue in juvenile fiction, but it is a little troubling in a story written by a grown, published author.

First of all, her character seems hinged on a lie that having personality quirks is something that only a few select people have. She speaks as if loving thunderstorms or coloring her hair is something that no one in the world has ever done. And that’s simply not true. So these statements that seem to be trying to make her character seem out-of-place and odd kind of fall flat.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make a character special and different from those around her. (I mean, dang, she’s the protagonist. It’s not exactly a crazy thing to want.) But it’s important to ensure that the traits you’re saying make your character special are actually special. It’s that suspension of disbelief thing again – you can’t just say liking thunderstorms or coloring your hair is a crazy thing unless you make it clear that in your fictional world, these traits have an actual reason to seem out-of-place.

As it is, it seems Zade is living in a world similar to our own, a place where many people enjoy adverse weather or hair dye. Now, a world where these traits are uncommon could very well be a fictional world that the author wants to create. However, if this is the case, they need to make it clear from the get-go that this is a different world with different values we’re dealing with.

And so these are the ways that Handbook for Mortals could, in theory, be improved. There’s a lot of other problematic aspects in these excerpts (and most likely in the rest of the book) that could be improved, but I hope the select few things I have discussed in this blog post could turn this honestly terrible book into a learning experience. Take my advice and take this as a huge example of what not to do.

Either way though, happy writing! And remember… Zade does not have a thigh gap. (She does not! How could you even think that???)