Music League Gives Me Life
An essay about making an exquisite corpse, breaking tech's stranglehold on your ears, joyful routines, and the bonds of friendship
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Music League Gives Me Life
I don’t think I’d last very long in the zombie apocalypse. I’ve explained this to Christina many times. I’m fluent in zombie stories—The Walking Dead, World War Z, Zombieland, Dawn of the Dead—which is why I’m positive that I lack the classic zombie apocalypse survival skills. I can’t shoot a gun, can’t hot-wire a car, can’t perform an emergency tracheotomy with a fountain pen. Also, there’s no way in hell I’m clearing an abandoned mall and making it into my apocalypse home. Hard pass, George Romero. If the shit gets real and the dead rise from the grave, you can’t count on me. But if we’re thinking about zombies as metaphors, or just escaping into LaMOE (last man on Earth, see World War Z) fantasy, I am here for it. Maybe that’s why the first and only time I won a round of Music League was when the theme was to pick a song to listen to while killing zombies. I chose Heads Will Roll by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
Music League is an app that our friend, Mother Truckin’ Cupcakes, turned us on to. (To protect their privacy I’ve given my friends DJ names like Mother Truckin’ Cupcakes). The way it works is simple: Mother Truckin’ Cupcakes (our admin) set up a league that currently consists of sixteen people. Most people in Music League have been friends for decades. I came into the picture through Christina, so I’ve known everyone since around 2008. Each week, there’s a new round with a new theme. Everyone submits a song that matches the theme. The submissions are anonymous, but you can leave a comment explaining why your submission rocks and/or rolls. Once everyone has submitted their song, the app generates a Spotify playlist. Because not everyone uses Spotify, Calvin creates an Apple playlist too.
At the end of each round, we vote. The voting is the only complicated part. The app won’t let you vote for your own song. It also won’t let you complete your ballot without first allocating all ten of your votes. But you can’t vote for one song ten times. The most votes you can give a single song is three. There is no guidance for how to cast your vote. Some people pick songs they enjoy. Others scrutinize each submission and make an aesthetic judgement about how well the song matches the theme. A few people vote strategically—either because they hope to win, or at the very least deny victory to a rival. After voting closes, the app tells us who won. As soon as we have a winner, the group chat lights up with hilarious shit-talking, boasting, and unfounded accusations of cheating. It’s kind of like election night in America, only the stakes are low and the fun is real.
We began this game back in March. As of this writing, we’re nearly halfway through our fourth season. So far, I’ve competed in 33 rounds, which means I’ve shared 33 songs and collaborated on 33 thematic playlists. My record is 1-32, and I couldn’t be happier.
One reason why I almost always lose at Music League is my devotion to Warren Zevon.1 The man only had one hit, Werewolves of London, but he made a lot of great music. For me, Music League is a chance to share Warren’s work. By sharing Warren’s work so often, I’ve created what comedians call a “running gag.” I am a fan of running gags—the longer they run, the better. Warren’s lyrics were dark and funny, so I think Warren would’ve gotten a kick out of a musical joke that just won’t die. But maybe the joke is on me (and Warren too), because he never was a chart-topper, and therefore he isn’t a Music Leaguer. But losing at Music League doesn’t bother me because even when you lose at Music League, you win at life.
First life win: making exquisite corpses with friends
The playlists we make are a little like making mixtapes—if you remember those glorious musical artifacts of the analog era. Only instead of making a mixtape for a friend, we’re making mixtapes with friends. The weekly theme gives us structure, but it’s up to each of us to contribute something that raises the bar, aesthetically speaking.
The collaborative mixtape concept reminds me of the exquisite corpse—an artistic method whereby words or images are assembled collectively. There are plenty of examples of the exquisite corpse technique, but the one that speaks to me is a novel called Naked Came the Manatee. Each of the thirteen chapters was written, in sequence, by a different Florida writer, beginning with Dave Barry and ending with Carl Hiaasen. That’s exquisite Florida Man energy right there, folks. But an exquisite corpse doesn’t have to be commercially viable to be a work of art. It just has to be something cool you make with other people.
Of course, group projects are like a game of chicken—hit or miss. Nobody wanted to point the finger at an exquisite corpses that missed the mark, but I think the round where the theme was songs “dealing with food or cooking,” felt like a musical potluck with too many casseroles. Sure, there were some good songs, like Greyhound’s winning submission, Ham ‘N’ Eggs by A Tribe Called Quest, but I’m not sure if the overall playlist was cooking with gas.
When I asked the group if any exquisite corpses stuck out as particularly good, there was widespread praise for the instrumentals round. Mother Truckin’ Cupcakes won that round with Apache by Incredible Bongo Band, a song that’s been sampled so many times there’s an entire Spotify playlist featuring more than fifty songs that sampled Apache. Several people also mentioned the round where we picked songs that “make you want to groove at the roller rink.” Mia Toretto won that round with Fantasy by Mariah Carey. But even the last place song, The Bad Touch by Bloodhound Gang, was a solid entry from The Oklahoma Kid. Naturally, I went with Warren Zevon’s Night Time in the Switching Yard, and it warmed my heart when Anne Hackaway, who used to do roller derby, declared in the comments, “this is actually totally groove-able!”
Second life win: breaking Spotify’s algorithm (a little)
playlists exquisite corpses aren’t just cool, they’re impactful. I’ve read a dozen articles claiming that we stop discovering new music around age 30. These articles might be clickbait, but they feel true. After all, old people are always complaining about the music the kids are listening to these days. But I’m skeptical of those articles because they all cite studies commissioned by music streaming services.
Now, I wouldn’t know an algorithm from the rhythm section, but I do know a thing or two about the tech industry, and I can tell you that the business case for helping a Deadhead “discover” their affinity for Dubstep is fucking zero. The name of the streaming game is simple: learn the user’s personal poison, then feed it to them forever. Music streaming services use your love for music against you. They figure out that you love Dire Straits, convince you to ditch your complete Dire Straits collection by promising you a personalized Dire Straits radio channel, pound you with ads until you buy a subscription, then jam so much Dire Straits into your ears that you hate the group you once loved. Talk about Money for Nothing.
Before we started doing Music League, my daily mixes on Spotify were stale as fuck. I was marching to the beat of the algorithm section, and that beat was driving me bonkers. Maybe that’s why Steel Guitar, the only musician in our group, put his finger on the cure for the algorithm section when he said his favorite rounds are the ones that force us to look for new music.
Actually, there are two cures for the algorithm section. The first cure is to quit the app. There are days when I think long and hard about amputating the app and cauterizing the wound with vinyl. But that feels like something I’m incapable of doing—like nailing a zombie in the eye with a crossbow from ninety yards away. So instead, I rely on the exquisite corpses I create with friends as a kind of medicine to treat the chronic modern condition of app-itis. Each new music playlist disrupts the disruptive discovery algorithms that never really discover anything. Or, put another way, Yoshimi can battle the Pink Robots all she wants, but if she’s going to defeat them, she needs her friends.
Third life win: creating a joyful routine
I used to go a life coach. Before I started seeing Greg, I thought a life coach was someone who wore a whistle around their neck and yelled at you while you did meal prep, or drew up plays on a chalk board for you to walk barefoot across hot coals without getting burned. But Greg was just a normal dude who had been through some shit, figured his shit out, and then built a business around helping people figure out their shit. I still use a lot of the things Greg taught me, but one of my favorite lessons from Greg was the idea of a joyful routine.
At first, a joyful routine seemed like an oxymoron. Joy felt like life, or rather livin’, without the “g” because people who live joyful lives don’t sweat details like spelling. But a routine felt like the opposite of a joyful life. To me, a routine felt like drudgery, like death. When I explained that to Greg, he said, “whoa, that’s fucked up, dude.” Actually, he told me to journal about those feelings, then we read my journal together, and Greg helped me see that I was afraid to sit down at my desk and write because I was afraid of dying.
“The goal is to show up and write for twenty minutes,” Greg told me. “It’ll suck at first. But you can show up to anything for twenty minutes because it’s just twenty minutes, OK? You’re gonna write for twenty minutes. That’s it.”
“Then what?” I asked.
“If it feels awful, you can stop. But if it feels good, you keep going. And then you show up the next day and the day after that. The idea is that we’re building a joyful routine by committing to showing up.”
As it happened, the week we started Music League was an awful week for me. Really awful. My mom was in town, and we got into a terrible fight. Soon after that fight, my phone blew up. Everyone had made their Music League submissions, except for me. I was already in a bad mood, and I thought about quitting Music League, digging a hole in our yard, and burying myself in it. In other words, my instinct in that moment was to withdraw from fun, withdraw from friends, withdraw from life.
But then I remembered what Greg said about showing up for twenty minutes and building a joyful routine. I wasn’t exactly feeling it, but I had twenty minutes, and really, I only need two. The theme, somewhat ironically, was called “Pump Me Up.” We were making a workout playlist, so I turned to a song I often turn to when the going gets tough and I need a musical lift to help me gut it out—Cake’s version of War Pigs.
That first Music League round was a rough week for me, but I suspect that by now everyone in Music League has had a rough week here and there. It happens, right? But the other thing that happens, if you show up for it, is a joyful routine. Sometimes that joy is the cherry on top of a really good week. Other times, it’s the bright spot in a dark place. But like a record, or a CD, that joyful routine just keeps spinning.
Fourth life win: fun with friends
If it isn’t obvious by now, Music League is about having fun with friends. But the thing about having fun with friends is that it used to be so damn easy when I was younger. Sure, I had more angst and I was more likely to get wrapped up in my own bullshit, but I also had more time, which meant that seeing a show on a random Tuesday night, or catching a movie, or just hanging out happened organically. As a forty-something dude, seeing friends takes a lot more planning. Which is fine. Life is complicated and it’s getting more complicated. But as it gets more complicated, it really helps to have a joyful routine that makes space for fun with friends.
Not that Music League is drama-free. If you vote too soon after the exquisite corpse drops, Steel Guitar will jump on your ass. If you’re too slow to vote, The Oklahoma Kid will taunt you with voting GIFs in the group chat. Meanwhile, Calvin and Greyhound will dock you points if you submit a song that’s already been submitted before. No matter what song you pick, Rob Zombie will judge you. And don’t get me started on the thematic questions raised by Ripley, Horror Show, Clown Daddy and, well, everyone. Music League is as spicy as it is eccentric. But Mother Truckin’ Cupcakes keeps us rolling along, and if we ever do a round where the theme is friendship, I already know the song I’m going to submit.
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Stick around and chat!
You know the drill. I’ve got questions, you’ve got answers.
Some people golf, others enjoy Words With Friends, I Music League. Do you have an ongoing activity that you share with friends? Share with the community!
Have you ever made an exquisite corpse? Details!
Are the music streaming algorithms working for you, or are you working for them? Tell your story!
An upcoming theme is a song from a genre I don’t usually like. I’m not a huge fan of country or techno. Got any suggestions? Help me notch my second win!
Do you have a joyful routine in your life? Please share because you might help another situation normie🙏
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