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In this episode, Carl King examines one film and one song: Tim Burton’s Wednesday Ep. 1 (Netflix) + Sarah Brand’s “Red Dress”
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SHOW NOTES / LINKS
“Friday” on YouTube
“Friday” on Apple Music
“Friday” on Spotify
Sarah Brand / Red Dress
Sarah Brand’s Website
I’m Carl King, and this is The Carl King Podcast, where we learn about music, filmmaking, and the other creative arts. To support this podcast, head over to Patreon.com/carlking, and join for just $1 or $5 per month. Or send a tip through PayPal or Venmo to username CarlKingdom. Special thank you to my Illusionist $51 level patrons, both Hank Howard III and Chewbode.
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Now let’s get this episode Beginned!
CARL KING THE HUMAN UPDATE
Very Good Friends of Carl King… I have just a few Carl King The Human Updates:
1 – My prog-metal and glockenspiel cover of Rebecca Black’s “Friday” is now available to hear through YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, and of course BandCamp. So go to those apps or websites and give it a listening.
2 – My friend LeeAnna Vamp and her team have released an animated teaser trailer for their show THE FIENDS. And I wrote an 80s synth music theme for it. You can find it on YouTube, and I will post a link in the show notes.
The Fiends – Animated
3 – I am in the process of scoring my new animated pilot, Dragontooth Inn. After many technical issues of importing my voice actor and sound effect tracks into my gigantic orchestral scoring template in Cubase, I am now struggling with settling on a sound palette. I’m currently torn between using a big traditional orchestral fantasy-sounding score and a tiny medieval ensemble with pitchy instruments. Unsure which way it will end up, or if it will be a combination of both. I posted a rough mix, as well as the full-length script a while back inside my Patreon account.
So head over to patreon.com/carlking and hear what there is to see.
And now, let’s officially get beginned with this week’s Filmmaking Analysis.
FILM: TIM BURTON’S WEDNESDAY EP. 1 (NETFLIX)
This week, we’ve got: Tim Burton’s Wednesday Episode 1 on (Netflix).
First of all, I believed this TV show was CREATED by Tim Burton. But it was NOT. Tim Burton DIRECTED the first 4 episodes, but it was created and screenwrited by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar. We at the Carl King Podcast would like to apologize for calling this segment Tim Burton’s Wednesday, but it was not up to us.
Wednesday the CHARACTER was performed by an actor named Jenna Ortega. And it was the perfect casting, because she has a self-care routine that includes Pilates. And Wednesday is the day I teach Pilates.
I also did not realize until I looked it up, but she is the same actor from the film X, which I reviewed in Episode 38 of The Carl King Podcast. I suspect Jenna Ortega will go far in her career having already been in solid roles at age 20.
Overall, as can be expected, this is an expertly-executed TV show. It looks good, and it sounds good. It even has some music by an actual expert, Danny Elfman. No problems there.
Now before I dig into any analytical commentary, I want to make this clear. If I had watched this TV show when I was a teenager I would have IDOLIZED the Wednesday character. Not because she is a 90 pound goth girl, which I also was in high school. But because as a young adult, I loved movies about smart-as-hell and rebellious anti-heroes and outcasts. Underdogs who rejected the mainstream. In some cases, straight-up criminals we might sympathize with.
In the 80s, there was Pump Up The Volume, Heathers, Beetlejuice, Ferris Bueller, The Breakfast Club, even Summer School (with those characters Chainsaw and Dave), who wore trench coats and backwards baseball hats. And The Princess Bride and Dead Poets Society feel like they would fit into that list of smart kid movies.
In the 90s there was Daria, Ghost World, Falling Down, Good Will Hunting.
In the 2000s there was V for Vendetta.
And maybe Frank Zappa was a real-life version of this archetype.
Those unconventional characters had the confidence to be themselves, even if they were uncool according to the rest of society. They saw through the BS and weren’t afraid to speak their minds.
So I get it. I’m sure there are kids out there who will resonate with this character 100%. They’ll point to Wednesday and say, that’s totally me. Or that’s a part of me that I want to be more of. And probably the best purpose of this type of character… is to reach out and connect with non-conformists and make them feel less alone. Or, to sell Netflix subscriptions. We don’t know yet.
So anything I say about this show that might sound negative — it’s all for the purposes of technical analysis.
I like to start these segments out with what I call The Implausibilities. In the teaser, which is about 3 minutes long, Wednesday puts plastic bags of piranhas in the school’s swimming pool. And I’m no veterinarian, but I don’t think piranhas would react well to being dumped into a chlorinated pool. And don’t fish need to be temperature acclimated first? I remember I was always told to do that with my goldfish. You put the plastic bag into the fish tank for a while first and let the temperature equalize, so the fish aren’t shocked when you let them out.
And according to Wikipedia, the reputation of piranhas eating people is kind of a myth. “Piranhas typically do not represent a serious risk to humans.” Huh.
Now you might say, Mr. Carl King, this is a supernatural fantasy story. It doesn’t need to be realistic.
Okay than. I will let everyone know.
There is a thing called “Wells’s Law” named after H.G. Wells’s. He was the author of War of the Worlds. His LAW goes like this:
“A science fiction story should contain only a single extraordinary assumption: As soon as the magic trick has been done, the whole business of the fantasy writer is to keep everything else human and real. Touches of prosaic detail are imperative and a rigorous adherence to the hypothesis. Any extra fantasy outside the cardinal assumption immediately gives a touch of irresponsible silliness to the invention.”
Basically, you get to have one big unusual thing, and that’s it.
That means, in a Superman film, just because there’s an alien with superpowers — it doesn’t mean all the laws of physics can be broken at random, in every scene. You shouldn’t add dragons and time travel and parallel universes, because that stretches the premise too far. Also, Superman’s powers need to be consistent. He can’t suddenly start using a new power later to conveniently get out of a problem. And everything else around Superman needs to remain normal. Or as the Upright Citizen Brigade calls it, Base Reality.
So applying this to the Piranha, or is it Piranhas? Anyway, unless they were called-out as super-mutant piranhases, which Wednesday bred herself specifically to survive in chlorine and feast on BAD PEOPLE, I think Wells’s Law has been broken. Now it’s totally possible that IS part of the backstory, and it was left out to save time.
Maybe it is. We don’t know yet.
Aside from that, there was a good example of “ironic counterpoint” in the music during that scene: The French music as the piranhas are attacking. The on-the-nose instinct for a composer would be to write Jaws-type action music. In this case it was effective to go the opposite direction. Good Friends of Carl King: please remember that, the next time you score a film.
Now let’s talk about the character of Wednesday Addams, which was perfectly executed by Jenna Ortega. I think the character could easily be wearing a Star Trek uniform, and be a Vulcan. Because Wednesday is 100% emotionless and hyper-intellectual. That archetype of the special, gifted child, wise beyond her years. She speaks with non-stop dry wit and a straight-faced stare — and makes no unnecessary motions. She has a stiff posture and basically behaves like a robot.
Also, did anyone notice she never blinks? I suspect that’s bad for her eyes.
She’s the classic “I’m a superior introvert, I hate small talk, and most people are stupid.”
And in a TV show or movie, those extreme personality traits are entertaining. But I bet if you met a real life Wednesday, it might be frustrating. She’s an exaggerated version of a person who is imprisoned in their pre-frontal cortex. It’s kind of an alpha-nerd thing, where they’ll act like they don’t know what figures of speech are, and refuse to have an easy flow of conversation. Instead of showing interest in other people, interactions are just a chance to prove their cleverness. It’s like they shift between either talking too little and freezing you out, or they use more words than are needed. And I think that comes from a need to prove how complicated they are, like overplaying or wanking on a guitar. But instead of doodly-doodly on guitar strings it’s talking in synonyms. Calling people “lifeforms” and calling houses “dwelling places” and calling food “sustenance” and all that. Like,”Look at me, I’m a thesaurus.”
I think it’s a defense mechanism: an ego or persona some of us develop in response to a hostile environment, or a feeling we don’t belong.
But as I said, a lot of people identify with that. I definitely would have in a previous stage of my life.
Now here’s something that didn’t add up: Wednesday’s snarky comments convey that she is somehow evil or dark. But aside from dumping piranhas in the pool, the rest of the time, she doesn’t actually do anything that could be considered evil. Her darkness is only a mostly-visual goth aesthetic.
She says “I admire the sadism.” But she rarely behaves sadistically.
She says “I do like stabbing,” but she never stabs anyone.
She says “They feel like electroshock therapy but without the satisfying after-burn.” But we never see her enjoying electroshock therapy.
She says “The only person who gets to torture my brother is me.” But she doesn’t torture her brother.
She says “I see the world as a place that must be endured, and my personal philosophy is kill or be killed.” But she doesn’t kill anyone.
I think Wednesday MIGHT be all talk. The show is full of her deadpan goth jokes. It’s almost like the story was written as a vehicle for them.
Here’s something I noticed about the cinematography: I’ve never seen so much of this in my life. There are many closeups and extreme closeups on Jenna Ortega’s face. As she does… not a whole lot. Is it harder to play a non-emotional character? We don’t know yet.
There’s also an unusual use of dialogue spoken directly into the camera. Normally, looking directly into the camera is a no-no, except when intentionally breaking the fourth wall. But somehow, it felt mostly effective here. Still, I NOTICED it. So maybe it wasn’t that effective.
Let’s talk about the story’s setting: instead of putting Wednesday in a “normal” school, it was a strong choice to put Wednesday in a school of misfit goth kids. And even THERE she’s doesn’t fit in. Why? Why does she not fit in there? I don’t know. I haven’t been able to figure that out exactly. Maybe because the kids at Nevermore behave the same as normal teenagers. They’re the same old jerks — except they happen to be Vampires and Werewolves. Overall I think this concept gets murky.
For instance, when she arrives at the school, Wednesday is paired up with a blonde, bubbly, extrovert roommate — who happens to be obsessed with rainbows? But is also… a Werewolf? It seems to me the setting was a clever idea that got all mixed up.
The writers probably liked the idea of a Goth girl who doesn’t fit in EVEN at a Goth school, but then realized it wouldn’t create enough conflict. Because who is she going to clash with? We need a solution. Well, get out the shoehorn and Add More Characters!
Maybe as they were writing it they painted themselves into a corner. Because there’s also the blonde therapist and the nearby town full of people who hate the Goth kids for some unknown reason, because both groups are cruel and intolerant. Maybe it’s too many points of conflict, like having 3 people armwrestling at the same time.
Anyway, the whole episode felt a bit long. In my own personal, totally subjective opinion, they could have cut out 25% of it. Because it felt like the same joke was repeated in every scene. Wednesday expressing that she’s “Goth” over and over. Yes, we know. We get it. You wear black and like the rain. Okay than. I will let everyone know.
From a screenwriting perspective, there also seems to be a problem that our hero, or heroine, has no flaws. Wednesday is smart, she speaks multiple languages, is a virtuoso cellist, and she knows everything — even martial arts. What is there for her to aspire to or overcome within herself? Is she already portrayed as perfect? I think that is what they were going for.
But I only watched Episode One. So maybe these questions are answered in future episodes. Or future seasons. Or future reboots.
I could not have done a better job making this show. So I would give this show 5/5 stars on Letterboxd, but it’s not on Letterboxd. Because some TV shows are on Letterboxd… and some are not.
And now: let’s move on to the Song Analysis of the Week!
SONG: SARAH BRAND “RED DRESS”
Years ago, I wondered what would happen if you were to play a guitar solo entirely with “wrong” notes? And what I mean is this: there are 12 chromatic notes. If you play in a major or minor key, you have 7 basic notes to chose from. That leaves the other FIVE that are NOT in the key. What if you ONLY play THOSE? What would that sound like?
Well, Sarah Brand has written a pop song called RED DRESS that answers that question. If you haven’t listened to it, this segment won’t make much sense to you. So please, go give it a listen. I’ll even put a link in the show notes. Or pop open YouTube and type Sarah Brand Red Dress. It’s REALLY something to hear.
Now, for the rest of you who know this song, let’s put on our music theory socks and investigate.
To explain what’s happening, let’s start with a basic C major chord. Over that chord, it would be considered “in the key” or “diatonic” to play these 7 notes: C D E F G A B. But since there are 12 chromatic notes, that leaves the 5 black keys. D# F# G# A# C#. Those happen to form a pentatonic scale. And you could consider it a MINOR pentatonic scale starting a MINOR THIRD above whatever key you’re in. So in the key of C, you would play a minor pentatonic scale starting on… D# (or Eb). Or you could consider it a MAJOR pentatonic starting on F#. And hey, that’s a TRITONE up from C. Interesting, isn’t it?
As you can hear, those notes don’t feel like they BELONG. F# major pentatonic over C major. They’re quite dissonant and outside the key. That’s because they’re basically two keys at once. The official term for that is: Bi-Tonality. Two keys.
Now let’s apply this to our selected song, Red Dress by Sarah Brand. What makes it sound “wrong?”
First of all, the song is in the key of G. GABCDE and F#. That’s right, if you know your scales, in the key of G, we have only one sharp, that’s F#.
Now, the chord progression throughout the song is G – D – C – Am. That’s kind of an odd chord progression, actually. It’s a common group of chords, but they’re in a slightly unusual order. Normally in tonal music the chord progression would be more like G – C – Am – D. That would be I – IV – ii – V. The V chord is usually placed as the last chord in the phrase before returning to I. But the order she plays the chords in, G – D – C – Am, which is a ii chord at the end returning to I, adds a little bit to the lop-sided sound. Or at least a weaker cadence.
And by the way, I’m not here to say which chord progression is “good” or “bad.” I’m only telling you which one is considered the norm according to music theory 101.
So what really makes this song special is the note choices in the vocal melody. You might listen to this song and think “Wow. That’s some bad, out-of-tune singing.” And I’m here to tell you, the MAJORITY of the notes she sings are VERY in-tune. I know this because I isolated the vocal melody from the rest of the music using Izotope RX, and lined it all up with a piano in Cubase. You can try this yourself if you have the software. I’d say 95% of the notes are not at all sharp or flat. It’s her actual NOTE CHOICES that sound WRONG, by creating dissonance over the chords.
Let’s go through it, line by line, chord by chord. Here’s the first example, right from the beginning of the song, the first verse.
When she sings the words: “I came to church.” It’s a G major chord. But the notes she sings are G# and A#. That’s a b9 and a b3. Or you could more properly consider them a #1 and a #2, but that just seems bizarre to say. And I don’t want to get into calling them flats, which would be a Ab and Bb. So let’s stick with sharps and do our best. Neither of those notes “belong” over a G major chord. Neither of them are even in the key of G, which the song is in.
The words “to praise all love” are over a D major chord. She sings a C#, D#, and E. That’s a 7, b9 and a 9 over the D major chord. And two of those notes, C# and D# are not in the key of G.
Now if you take those two lines of melody, she’s pretty much in the key of Bb (or A#) minor blues. And remember, the CHORDS beneath it are in the key of G major.
And right there we have the “Black Key” trick — she’s mostly using those 5 notes that DON’T BELONG. Intentionally. Creating a Bi-Tonal piece of music.
The next phrase “Sitting, coming for” is over a C chord. And the vocal melody is F# G# A#. Do any of those notes belong over a C chord? No.
However, that F# IS the leading tone or Major 7th in the key of G. But over the C chord it’s the scale degrees b5, b6, b7. All black keys over the chord.
The next phrase “Someone else” is over an Am chord. And she sings the notes D, D#, and E. Which would be the 4 (or 11), #4 (or #11) and 5 over the chord. A chromatic line. It’s pretty rough to land on an 11 over a minor chord. And the note she keeps emphasizing in that sort of superimposed Bb minor blues scale is the b5, that E. And the D# is also not even diatonic to the key of G.
The next phrase “It didn’t stew” is over a G chord. And the notes are D, E, F#. Which in the key of G would be… 5, 6, and 7. And if you listen to JUST THAT CHORD and section of melody, it creates a nice jazzy Major 7 tonality. But within the context of the chords that come before and after, our ear is already so bent, we can’t even hear that jazz Major 7 for what it is.
But the next phrase “Well with me” is a D chord and she sings the notes C# and D# which in the key of D would be a 7 and a b9 again. And in the key of G major those would be #4 and #5. She’s back on the black keys again.
Next phrase “But I said it was a” is a C chord. With the notes D, F, G, C#. Which are 9, 4, 5, b2 over C. And in the key of G those would be a 5, b7, 1, and b5. 2 of those 4 notes are out of key.
And the final phrase I’ll cover from the verse is “lover’s deed.” That’s an A minor chord with the notes C# and D#. Which would be a MAJOR 3rd and a #4. So she’s creating a Lydian kind of thing over a minor chord, which totally clashes. Also, remember that C# and D# are not in the key of G.
And I have to say it again: ALL OF THESE NOTES are COMPLETELY IN TUNE. Chromatically. If you run them through a tuner, they’d come up just fine. In fact, her vocals without the music sound kind of like Tori Amos.
Before we get into the chorus, there’s a TAG where she sings “Cause what they saw” and that previous Am chord becomes an A MAJOR. Sometimes called a Picardy Third. The notes of her melody are Eb G# A G. And over A Major those scale degrees would be b5, 7, 1, and b7. It’s a chromatic nightmare with a tritone thrown in. Remember, Eb and G# are not in the key of G. Those would be sort of “black keys” we keep running into.
Moving onto the chorus, it’s the same chords as the verse: G – D – C – Am.
And miraculously, the melody of the chorus ACTUALLY pretty much FITS over the chord progression. And the main vocal still SEEMS to be in-tune. But to keep up the necessary level of dissonance, they ADDED an OUT OF TUNE vocal track doubling those in-tune vocals.
Folks. FOOOLKS. It’s theoretically possible this song was simply monkeys at typewriters… that happened to output a bi-tonal avant garde masterpiece. Or Sarah Brand (and / or her producer) has an incredible ear for 20th century composition and should become a member of Mr. Bungle.
My own subjective opinion, there’s no way this song was made on accident. It’s not just “bad singing.” It’s way too hard to sing random notes and have the majority of them land so cleanly on non-diatonic pitches. If you play any note, you have a 58% chance of playing a note IN-KEY, and a 42% chance of playing a note that is OUT of key. That means you’d need really bad luck to play mostly “wrong” non-diatonic notes.
And it’s pretty hard to sing non-diatonic notes in-tune at all. Try it sometime.
At the core, Sarah Brand is doing EXACTLY what serious composers like Stravinsky and Charles Ives did with taking sing-songy folk music and injecting carefully-chosen dissonant or “wrong” notes.
And modern listeners are reacting in the same way classical music listeners reacted when they first heard 20th century composers. With ANGER.
Sarah Brand herself had THIS to say:
“I wanted to find a way to create what a call a holistic music video experience. What do I mean by that? Red Dress was about judgement. And so we follow this woman into a church community where she’s met with exclusion and judgement. So how can I make the real world audience feel that judgement? Well one, the vocals are out of place just like that character, and two, the music video’s music being out of place and out of key incite judgement from the real world audience.”
I’m looking forward to seeing what Sarah Brand comes up with next. You can visit her website at Sarah G Brand Dot Com. I’ll put a link in the show notes.
OK, that’s the end of this Episode of the Carl King Podcast. Remember to subscribe on Spotify, Apple, or anywhere else you listen to these dang podcasts. And support the creation of more episodes by joining my Patreon for $1 or $5 a month. That’s Patreon Dot Com Slash Carl King. Or send a tip through PayPal or Venmo to username CarlKingdom.
And as always, special thanks to my $51 a month Patrons, at the special Illusionist level, Chewbode and Hank Howard III. And thank you to ALL of the Very Good Friends of Carl King for listening, and as I always say: Okay Than. I will let everyone know.