Saturday, July 31, 2010

Singapore National Day Parade 2010

(This is probably going to be the shortest post ever, because the following captures everything I feel about being Singaporean. The second person obviously refers to the leaders of Singapore. When ever we see pronouns suggesting group solidarity, such as "our", you know they mean "(y)our". Refer to a previous post here.)

LIVE (Y)OUR DREAMS; FLY (Y)OUR FLAG.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Legalising same-sex marriage: Argentina beats Singapore

(Unpublished - July 16, 2010)

Argentina, a predominantly Christian country, recently legalised same-sex marriage.

I am very sad that multicultural and multireligious Singapore has not decriminalised consensual same-sex sexual intercourse, and legalise gay marriage, before Argentina did.

We Singaporeans and the government remain in a state of inaction and ignorance.

I am perplexed that there exist Singaporeans who believe self-identified homosexuals are dangerous people, hence deserving of criminalisation, censorship, defamation and abuse.

There are some who have conflated homosexuality with bestiality and paedophelia, which is not only an untrue association but borders on breeding hate.

The stigma remains so strong that even heterosexually-identified people fear registering their support for their queer-identified fellow Singaporeans.

There are also censorship laws that disallow the positive portrayal of gay people.

I believe there are no excuses for Singapore to be a truly diverse society, not only on paper, but also in reality.

A diverse society is characterised by tolerance, acceptance and mutual respect of differences in persuasions and orientations.

It will remain a farce every time the national narrative of multiculturalism, multireligiosity, meritocracy and diversity is reproduced, so long as segments of the Singaporean population remain discriminated.

Furthermore, most of us do not understand the implications of our inaction and ignorance on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered Singaporeans.

It is through inaction and ignorance that we become more intolerant.

That is why there are physical and emotional abuses leveled against young queer and questioning Singaporeans.

That is why queer Singaporeans have to pretend to be people they are not in front of family, friends and colleagues.

That is why in light of abuse and the lack of support, there are migration, broken families, health problems and even suicides amongst queer Singaporeans.

Both Singaporeans and the government must take the lead in fostering greater understanding and acceptance of persons of different persuasions and orientations.

We should not merely have anti-discrimination laws that protect traits that have historically been associated with riots and violence, such as race and religion, but also that of gender identity and sexual orientation.

The decriminalisation of Section 377A of the Penal Code and legalisation of same-sex marriage are two humble steps the government can take to truly fostering a diverse society.

We only have to see for ourselves the impacts of directing hate, misinformation, guilt and fear at other communities.

I ask not for bravery to challenge paradigms and moral ideologies, but just simply common sense as we strive to create a Singapore that is truly diverse.

Surely we are capable of having a maturity that matches our state of economic development.

Ho Chi Sam

Afterthoughts: I'm quite disappointed the Straits Times didn't publish this on its forum, but it was expected.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Let film be available for public discussion

(Unpublished - July 14, 2010)

I refer to the recent ban on film-maker Martyn See's film "Dr Lim Hock Siew".

The film presents political detainee Dr Lim Hock Siew giving his experience and views with respect to the 19 years and 8 months for which he was detained by the Internal Security Department.

The grounds for the film's ban is that it is against "public interest".

Moreover, Dr Lim is suggested to have made a false portrayal in his speech, which could allegedly undermine public confidence in the government.

I would like to find out, as in interested member of the public, as to what extent is his speech untrue.

At the same time, I find the total ban of the film as an overreaction and that it could be kept for academic purposes.

Historical accounts are based on oral narratives, apart from publications and state releases. It is important that we do not silence individuals who were part of Singapore history.

What we have for history are merely textbooks and existing publications approved for release by the government. Most of these accounts involve the villainisation of communism and the conflation of socialism in communism, which are forgivable in the context of political ideology and foreign relations in the Cold War era.

Moreover, the ban is premised on the belief that our society is not mature enough to discern the content.

I recall the government reasoning that policies will only change if Singaporeans have a change in mindset or are "ready".

Such a move on the state suppression and selective valorisation of information, in this case deeming the film "against public interest", only prevents Singaporeans from questioning and contributing to the democratic process.

Because of moves like this, we will obviously never "be ready" as a society.

Whatever people interpret is out of the government's hands, because people think differently.

We cannot be a democratic country if people are silenced, or deprived of information.

I hope the allegedly accusations of the film will be made available for public discussion.

Surely we are mature enough to have a dialogue with the government and the mainstream press to discuss the accounts of ex-political detainees.

Ho Chi Sam

Afterthoughts: I believe in the freedom of information and the freedom to information. A relatively developed country like Singapore should have some morsel of maturity to deal with its history and discuss issues deemed contentious by the state.

No information, no discussion. If there are selected pieces of information made available to people, discussion will be oriented towards this calibration.

It is utterly ridiculous that democracies in the Cold War era had to conflate socialism into the much villainised communism. It's a matter of foreign affairs too, given Singapore's alliance (or rather soft-soaping allegiance to the United States) in an economic bipolar world.

It is all the more perplexing that the PAP government today has socialist approaches to policy, given its past persecution of the socialists, whom they have rechristened "communists" and made easy targets for internal security purging. History is written as such because certain voices and accounts have been silenced and invalidated, threatened with defamation and sedition.

I give credit to the PAP government today for their seemingly socialist approaches to education, health, tiered taxation, (to a small yet contentious extent) public housing and to some extent retirement welfare. These are coming from a government that ironically regurgitates the same old story of meritocracy, and privatises all welfare and charitable organisations. This is a government that flip-flops with various conflicting political and economic discourses in order to legitimise the decisions they make. They are mixing socialism into their own brand of authoritarian democracy legitimised by their economic leadership. However, the resultant balance is still in need of tweaking and that is why we probably need the input of non-PAP voices to contribute to the political discourse.

With regards to the film, I believe it should have never been banned. Even if the content of the film is untrue, or that the subject speaking is an unreliable and non-credible source, it deserves public attention and public discussion. If the government has nothing to fear, it need not censor alleged threats to its legitimacy. Any way, it is not as if someone is insulting race or religion here, so there should be no threat of mass violence a la 1960s.

On a concluding note, I do not see Martyn See as a film-maker, but a journalist-cum-historian. Unlike most Singaporean "reporters", he actively seeks news, and like a historian, he shares with us an "alternative" account that challenges our pre-conceptions of our daily realities. I'm less concerned with his sources and the content of his "film", than I am with his efforts to share with Singaporeans other "truths" that would enlighten us about our past.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Write a Song for Singapore, and Striking a Chord

The following post is a little bit technical, but then again, most of my posts are. You could skip till after the hash symbols and read my recommendation on National Day Parade Songwriting.

Probably it is my backlash for not even being in the top 10 for the OMY.sg Most Insightful Blog category. Seriously? My use of sociological, poststructuralist, feminist, queer theories aren't insightful enough? How about music theory?

Okay, I'm sorry to have snapped like that, but I would love to win those bragging rights and earn that holiday for me and wife again. But that lies second to the fact that I would want the issues I have been championing to be read by a larger audience and hope that we can slowly change and adopt these causes.

Any how, this post is about songwriting, in particular the National Day Parade.

With 5 chords, you can write a song that would become the theme song of the National Day Parade. Amazing, no?

That is Corrine May's piece for the NDP 2010 theme song, entitled "Song for Singapore".

Most of the song is the looping of 4 magical chords:
D major, A minor, C major, G major.

If broken down into its basics, it's basically:
1, 5 minor, 7, 4.
Or simply 1-5-7-4.

As for the counter-line, it does not skip as much, which allows for the song to sound melancholic, pensive, bittersweet.... WAIT A MINUTE!

That's the same chord progression as The Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony"!
That's also the same chord progression as Rialto's "London Crawling"!

Back to counter-line, it's probably:
(D, C, C, B) or (F#, E, E, D)
The counter-line goes down, and gives the song it's unique feeling.

The chords are spaced apart from one another, jumping down 5 keys, then jump up 3 keys, then down 5 keys again, which resembles most (1 step forward 2 steps back) policies in Singapore, no?

It is inevitable we would compare Corrine May's song with last year's Electrico song "What Do You See".

"What Do You See" comprises 6 chords, one more than Corrinne May's song.
For the verse, we have
E B G#m A
E B C#m A
F#m B

The chorus, we have
E G#m A B
C#m B A G#m F#m A B

For the unimaginative bridge, we have
B C#m B C#m
B C#m A B

The two NDP theme songs (of 2009 and 2010) contrast greatly in songwriting styles. Electrico are rock musicians, too big for indie, too indie for everyone else, unfortunately. For me, simply overrated. But they make the music do the talking, rather than the vocals.

Their chords are the normal 1-3-5 chords, for example, they would play B chord (comprising B, D# and F#) with the 6th note (G#), just to make it tainted, dirty and edgier. Their A chord isn't just A chord (A, C# and E), but it is A major 7 (A, C#, E and G#). Musicians like to be experimental, so they would love to play with the configurations of individual chords.

But what makes a song a song is its bone structure, that is the counter-line. Musicians always have to dumb it down for the masses. Electrico uses that U2 "With Or Without You" chord sequence to open the song. Tried and tested, but a very reliable chord sequence that can be used for both verse and chorus.

For the chorus, they begin with that Foundation's "Build Me Up Buttercup" chorus 1-3-4-5 chord sequence, or if you are familiar, the verse of "One People, One Nation, One Singapore". The beauty with 1-3(minor)-4-5 chord sequences is that they are bound by a pretty tight counter-line. In the case of "What Do You See", the chords go "E-G#m-A-B", but the counter-line goes "E-D#-C#-B". But the end part of the chorus, while uncharacteristic of the song, is good pop songwriting with that snakey counter-line that reminds us of every cheesy Chinese song that rips off Johann's Pachelbel's Canon in D (arguably one great classical counter-line that took root in the pop-rock world, and also firmly entrenched in Chinese musical pop culture).

The chorus goes "E-G#m-A-B-C#m-B-A-G#m-F#m-B" which has a counter-line that is winding down, like "E-D#-C#-B-C#-B-A-G#-F#" before it hits B chord. Very tight counter-line that makes a song listenable to most ears in today's society. Of course, Lady Gaga is slowly reintroducing to the world, what metal and hard rock musicians have already been doing for the past 30-40 years, that is the Devil's Triad, your wonderful augmented 4 or diminish 5.

"What Do You See" has similar chord structures to "One People, One Nation, One Singapore", especially when its post-chorus transition to the 6th minor, resembles the "...One Singapore"'s pre-chorus transition to the 6th minor in "Strangers when we first began...". Nevertheless, it is good use of the 6th minor.

Any way, what the NDP theme songs of Electrico and Corrinne May share in common is their lacklustre and uninspiring bridge. The ultimate pop song will always have verse, pre-chorus (build-up to chorus), chorus (climax time!), post-chorus (to wind down from the excitement of the chorus), and of course that magical bridge. The bridge breaks the normal 1-2-1-2 structure of the song with different chords and chord sequences, but ultimately leads to 2 outcomes, the reintroduction of the chorus, or transposition (when you shift the keys of the song higher, just like Michael Jackson's "Heal The World").

Electrico and Corrinne May just respectively muck around with 4 and 3 chords for their bridges. Perhaps, in the process of writing their songs and cringing at the lyrics, their songwriting intelligence told them, "Hey Uncle, better put in a chorus. Otherwise people buay song ah!"

Electrico plays around with the 4-5-6, because I guess they like to be on top. Corrinne May likes to get down and under with her 6b-7b-1. Despite the uncreative bridges, both musicians still stick to the plot.

"What Do You See" strictly plays with the 1-2-3-4-5-6 chords. Decent musicians would know that if they want a song to be a 10-course Chinese dinner, they better don't add mutton curry with papadum to the set. The flavour of the song is best preserved with the use of the chords that are already featured in the verse and chorus.

As for Corrinne May, she uses B flat (Bb), C and D chords in her bridge. B flat major is the distant cousin to the D-A(minor)-C-G chord sequence. It builds up to a climax, because B flat goes to C and then to D, climbing higher and higher, a departure from the normal ending with a 5th chord, which would transit back to the first chord.

The B flat chord is a good masquerade for the D chord, because it contains the root note of D chord, which is D, Einstein! Most cheerful songs will use this (6 flat) chord to make people think we are returning to equilibrium (i.e. the first chord), but we are making a slight detour. 4th chord to 5th chord is probably too weak a transition, so let us use 6flat chord to 7flat chord to make a bigger point.

The ending of songs like "Stand Up For Singapore" and surprisingly, JJ Lin's ultimate songwriting monstrosity "You Are The One Singapore" have the 6b-7b-1 build-up too, but they use the chord sequence to end the song with a bang.

Speaking of the devil, "Stand Up For Singapore", a well-written song, uses a bit of both the chord structures of Electrico's and Corrinne May's songs. It's got that 3rd chord minor, and they also got that 7th chord.

Corrinne May's song is a breath of songwriting fresh air. Because we have grown so accustomed to the Chinese-influenced/dominated songwriting styles, that play with chords along the 1-2-3-4-5-6 lines.

Look at the song "Home" sang by Kit Chan. It tangos in the safe and sturdy structure comprising chords A, B minor, C# minor, D, E and F#m (1-2-3-4-5-6!!!). The beauty of these six chords is the variety with which you can create chord sequences.

The Chinese wet dream of pop songwriting would involve the toying with the 2-3-4-5-6 structure and end it with the 5th chord for a transition into the chorus.

For those of you who feel Electrico's "What Do You See" sounds a little bit (stereotypically) Sino, a morally neutral word for Cheena, you are probably right. It is because the 2-3-4-5-6 structure has been invaded and over-used by East Asian pop, which also happens to have a strong influence here in Singapore, before we were doubly desecrated by hip-hop music. I can't given East Asia too much credit, because a little band called Michael Learns To Rock has also mastered the art of cheesy songwriting by maximising the utility of counter-lines and truckloads of chords, apart from those AWWW/URGHHH lyrics.

With these chords you can have any kind of sequence you like to have a transition:
4-3-2-5
4-3-4-5
4-3-6-2-4-5
You get the picture, right?

If you are really into Chinese music, you can probably go:
4-3-2-3-4-5
4-3-4-3-4-5
YEEEAAAAAHHHH, keep toying with those suckers.

Corrinne May's song offers a sound that is rather British or European, just by its chord sequence. Of course, with her choral singing style, she has carved out a unique identity amidst the ocean of guitar-playing female "singer-songwriters".

You can slap The Verve's Bittersweet Symphony's string loop to her song and it would fit in nicely like JJ Lin's cheer in a Singapore Sports Council executive's office.

Speaking of JJ Lin, an award-winning songwriter, his cheer is actually a deceptively well-written song, as much as possibly everyone would want to hate it. Perhaps it is doused in too much Chinese pop cultural cheese and with all that unnecessary hand gestures.

JJ Lin uses the old formula of pop songwriting, stripped down to its basics: The 1-4-5 sequence. Oh YEAH OH YEAH OH YEAHHHHHHHHH MOTHERF-----ZZZZZZZ!!!!

When he gets to the "You are the one, Singapore, take off my pants and see my balls YEAH" part, the songwriter adds a good touch to the piece. The song is in B flat major by the way. How ironic, be flat.

Eb, D minor, C minor, Eb minor.
Yes, there are 3 minor chords in the "You are the one Singapore..." part. By tradition, minor chords are meant to create a sad feeling to songs, but JJ Lin uses a consecutive order of 3 minor chords, but of course, after E flat minor, he caps the sequence with a quick F chord to transition back into B flat.

JJ Lin is smart too and uses the 6/8 or 12/8 time signature, depends on how fast you would want to get through the cheer. Marilyn Manson stumbled on that time signature with The Matrix soundtrack hit "Rock is Dead", and reused it for the song "Disposable Teens", simply because his fans love the beat. We do get tired of 4/4, 8/4 and 16/4 beats any way. That is why the rare appearances of 12/4 or 6/8 beat songs like Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody" and Seal's "Kiss From a Rose" are such gems. Rather, they stick out like uncut carrots from the soup of 4/4 music.

Songwriters know how to not only reach out to their audiences, but also please executives. I would speculate that Corrinne May's song gets the nod simply because it is definitely not as (stereotypically) "cheena" as its predecessors.

I have also tried to submit a song for the NDP, but got rejected. I had gone for the "cheena" chords of G, B minor, C, D and Em, and only used 5 chords in all for the song. The structure is basically 1-3-4-5-6, just one chord shy of Electrico's "What Do You See". In all honesty, I wasn't convinced it would make it any where, and the chord sequence was cheesy in the Chinese pop-rock sense. But it was worth a shot, or in this case, worth a shoot-down. Ouch.

###

Last year, I wrote something about writing lyrics for your National Day Parade theme song. You may read it here: http://thinkingbetterthinkingmeta.blogspot.com/2009/08/how-to-write-national-day-song.html.

This year, apart from lyrics, perhaps we can figure out how to write the chords of the song itself.

Say we are going to write a song in C major key signature.

F and G chords will be your best friends. F minor could come in handy.
Let us not forget the D, D minor, E, E minor, and A minor chords too. They would be useful too.

If you're going for a Corrinne May sound, you might want to have G minor, B flat major and A flat major in the mix too.

The next thing you need to do is to put the chords together. But what makes them stick together is the counter-line. Always remember that. Some chords comprise notes that are only 1 to 2 keys apart. Some chords share similar notes. The closer or more similar the notes of the 2 sequential chords are, the tighter the counter-line.

Look at the song "We Are Singapore".
There was a (C major) time when (D minor) people said that (E minor) Singapore won't (F major) make it but we (C major) did.

It goes from 1-2-3-4 and back to the first chord again.

We build a (F major) nation, strong and free (C major on E, or E minor), (F major) reaching out together for (D minor) peace and harmony (G major).

That's your toying with the chords. Lots of pop musicians love that sequence. 4-3-4-2-5. I call it teasing. The song will always tease its listeners who who expect the transitional chord, which is the 5th chord, or in this case, G major. But the musician is not cheap, so he/she will beat about the bush with F majors, E minors and D minors before finally moving to G major. It's called foreplay. Some like it longer.

You know what's a good chord sequence too? The teasing of the 6th minor, or A minor chord.

In Clement Chow's excellent piece "Count On Me Singapore", he does a good tease. The song is in F major, but I shall transpose it to C major to explain.

We're going to (F major) build a better life (G major) for you and (E minor) me (A minor).
We can (D minor) achieve. (G major) We can achieve.

Clement is brilliant with his use of counter-lines. It is back-to-basics songwriting. He also has clever use of C major on E, C major on G, F major on G and so on. This is a must-have for National Day Parade theme songs. Simple chords, but well-crafted chord sequences.

However, with contemporary musical tastes, songs these days should have at least a verse, a pre-chorus, a chorus and a bridge.

Your verse chord sequence should be the least exciting part of the song, but always either building to the chorus or ending on its own. For example, beginning with C major, and either ending with G or back to C again. You are not writing a Rock n' Roll song by ending with F7 or an alternative rock song by ending in F minor. But these chords, along with D minor are sometimes useful.

Here are some possible verse chord sequences:
C, Dm, Em, F
C, G, F, G
C, F on C, G on C, F on C
C, Am, F, G (Ooo my love, my darling, I hunger for your touch)
C, Am, F, Em or C on E, F or Dm, G
C, F, C
C, Dm, F, G (Stand up for Singapore, do the best you can....)
And if you're Corrine May, you can go C, Gm, Bb, F and loop it for the whole song.

For the pre-chorus, you would usually begin with an F, D minor or A minor, but all roads lead to G major.

For the chorus, well, you can begin with C, A minor or F.
As in Electrico's "What Do You See", you would have C, Em, F, G.
Or "Home", you would have C, Em, F, Em, F, Em, Dm, G (that is a long tease by the way)
How about "Stand Up For Singapore"? C, G, G, F
One People, One Nation, One Singapore. C, Em, F, G

Well, those are just simple suggestions. For all we know, songwriting might change, or rather, attitudes towards accepting different songwriting styles might change.

Chords and chord sequences may change, but some things still remain. Those awful cheesy rhymes!

Story/me/be
Achieve/believe
Care/share
Brother/sister/mother/father
Singapore/more/for
Love/above
Generation/nation

Interestingly (again), Corrinne May's song doesn't employ the traditional pop song rhyming sequence. Perhaps this is a sign of things to come, but then again, the National Day Parade organising committee always changes every couple of years, so we might have different tastes.

One thing I can't understand is why would she be spreading the message of procreation? "With every generation there's more to be grateful for"

And why is she reinforcing paternalism and the warning against complacency? "Sometimes the best things are taken for granted"

Only Corrinne will know. But based on the chord sequence alone, it is a well-written song. Brief yet brave. You don't really have to use a long string of many chords to make a song, when looping 4 chords is all you need. Just ask Semisonic with their "Closing Time" song.

I might have missed out on other critical factors, such as melody (vocals). When you have that few chords in a song, you compensate with extraordinary vocal melody. If you have a limited singing range, sometimes you would compensate with greater instrumentation and more chords and complex chord sequences. Well, that's normally the case.

Songwriting is (un)fortunately very subjective, because audiences have different musical tastes and preferences. As for pop songwriting, for NDP theme songs in particular, the songs' simplicity belies their complex arrangements. They can do without the token ethnic instrumentation that pepper the opening, interlude and ending of the songs though, but they would still sound good if not better.

Maybe I'll try writing and submitting a National Day Parade theme song again for next year.

Any way, what is your favourite National Day Parade song?
(and if you managed to finish reading the entire 3,000-word post, say "outstanding, I made it!")