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Folk music, viral weirdness, and the Ballad of Steven Slater

[Psst! If you like this song, you might check out the album I recorded earlier this year, Inchoatery!]

This is probably the only time I’ll ever end up being the soundtrack to Wolf Blitzer’s “The Situation Room”.

So: I recorded a song yesterday morning, using the lyrics of fellow Metafilter user Max ‘Astro Zombie’ Sparber. The song is called Ballad of Steven Slater. It’s a little three-minute pop-rock tune that I’m pretty fond of, especially for something I knocked out in only a few hours. Here, give it a listen!

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

UPDATE 8/14: now with music video! Check it:

Of course, you might already have heard a bit of it yesterday, if you happened to be watching CNN…

Or, if you’re a Portlander, you might have heard a bit more of it on KGW TV’s “Live @ 7” broadcast, where they played the whole bridge with lyrics on the screen—and understandably bleeped and blurred the enthusiastic “fuck” at the capstone of same:

Or, on Good Morning America today, you might have caught a recitation of the end of the first verse at the end of this clip.

I didn’t do anything but record the song and post it over at Metafilter Music, which is the sort of thing I do on a regular basis. Usually Wolf Blitzer doesn’t end up involved. So what the hell happened there?

Meming the Cube

Steven Slater’s sudden showy departure from his career as a JetBlue flight attendant has been making the rounds since the news broke Monday morning; by Tuesday morning it had outlived the typical too-good-to-fact-check news-of-the-weird wire blurb’s lifespan and turned into a genuine meme. The dominating feature of that meme: Slater as folk hero.

Here’s a man doing what we all wish we could do, being who we all wish we could be. A man who, having had enough, says: fuck this noise, me and my beer are taking the airplane slide outta this bullshit. If anybody needs me, I’ll be fucking my boyfriend.

And folk heroes get folks songs, right? The idea is obvious enough that people were suggesting the idea in idle tweets yesterday morning. Seattlite Caleb Hannen, meanwhile, suggested that Slater isn’t a folk hero because he doesn’t have a folk song, right around the time that I was posting mine to the internet. Heh. (Take heart, Caleb: Arsenio Hall isn’t a fan either.)

But before hellocruelworld tweeted or Caleb blogged, Max Sparber had already written up six stanzas about Slater and posted them to Metafilter. And when I came back from breakfast at my local diner, I saw the lyrics and got to thinking, and after some noodling on the piano decided I had a song worth recording.

So I spent the next three hours arranging and recording the ballad, and I posted it to Metafilter, and people seemed to get a kick out of it. Mentioned it on twitter and a few people passed it around, which is always nice to have happen. Success, as far as I’m concerned; I kept half an eye on my Tweetdeck notifications and went back to my dayjob moderating MeFi.

But then it kept making the rounds. Waxy linked to it. Gruber over at Daring Fireball linked to it. One of my favorite people, mefite ColdChef, nudged fellow mefite and CNN video editor type person Vidiot, who managed to get it on to the Jeanne Moos segment above. A local news channel picked up the song without even realizing initially that I was a Portlander.

Max, savvy fellow, let his local press know about the whole thing, and so I got mentioned variously in a few different pieces as “songsmith and MetaFilter moderator Josh Millard“, “one of the dudes that helps run the site“, “some other random guy“, and “another musician“. If I ever get to Minnesota, I will exploit this to the hilt.

So it’s been surreal. Fantastic. I couldn’t have planned it. If I’d known the song would get so much (granted: random, faddish, fleeting) exposure, I might have spent more time polishing up the vocals. But if I’d taken more time, I might not have gotten it out promptly enough to let all of the above happen.

The Competition

Timing probably mattered. My collaboration with Sparber was certainly the first Ballad of Steven Slater to really hit the scene with force, but folk music is by definition a populist phenomenon: if Max could write a ballad, so could other people. And so there were other takes on The Ballad of Steven Slater (with, reliable trope that “The Ballad of ___ ___” is, precisely that name) popping up yesterday.

Youtube user thestratbrat posted her very-folky take on Steven:

Daily song machine Jonathan Mann went likewise acoustic-folky, and adapted Slater’s verbatim intercom blue streak as his chorus:

Even Jimmy Fallon, later that night, milked the idea, though he gets pretty rapidly distracted from actual Slater-related balladeering in favor of Sandler-alike call-and-response jokes:

And much as I was riding high yesterday on the link love and the twittering and the blips of TV footage, I can’t compete with NBC; Fallon’s bit is currently dominating the twittersphere. Alas. I’ll always have CNN. Though if any national talk show producers feel like having me on for a live performance, I’m pretty sure I could fit it in my schedule.

I’d like to think there’ll be more takes on Slater coming along, but news of the weird tends to die fast and memes don’t live much longer. Four songs about one guy’s bad day is pretty decent, in any case, and it’s been fun if weird to be caught up so directly in the whole zeitgeist like this.

Singing The News

This isn’t the first time I’ve worked with Max Sparber (or, to better characterize the situation, taken his lyrics and run with them—he’s in Minnesota, we’ve never met, and we’ve never intentionally coordinated this stuff) on news-related stuff: a couple years ago, I recorded his epic ode to a Slidell kid who managed lose his arm to an alligator but come out on top, in a tune called Young Devin Funck:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

And late last year I recorded fellow Metafilter member mikepop‘s lyrical adaptation of Darling Corey to the hoax spectacle of the ostensibly aeronautical Heene family, Oh Balloon Boy:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Beyond that, though, I spent fully half of 2006 writing short songs several times a week about developing news stories, in a now-long-defunct project called The Aural Times. It was a fun but stressful project; after a few months I burnt out and my output dropped to a crawl and then to nothing. (I had begun to redesign the site as a general music blog, before abandoning that idea as well and eventually building this site from scratch instead as my general musical archive; accordingly, much of the hokey faux-newsprint charm of the original is currently swapped out for a more slick and neutral layout, something I really ought to fix at some point.)

I recorded something like seventy songs during those six months; you can find them all in the Aural Times archives, complete with writeups from my Editor-In-Chief doppelgaanger; see for example the July 2006 material. But I’ll link a few of my favorite recordings here for quick reference:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Serial project-starter and project-abandoner that I am, The Aural Times is easily the project I miss the most, and that I most wish I could have found the time and energy to keep up. While as an official project it may be dead and buried, things like yesterday’s Ballad of Steven Slater recording are a nice reminder of what I enjoyed about the project, and for the handful of stray Aural Times fans still out there on the web I hope these occasional forays into longer-form news-related projects are a bit of a consolation.

Endnote

While my recording was making its way onto CNN yesterday, somebody went and ousted me as mayor of the diner I’d just had breakfast at. Makes me so mad I could hit something. Probably a piano. With my fingers. Rhythmically. Hmm…

Misc. further linkage

- Margaret Lyons at popwatch.ew.com gives Max and I a nice nod.

Last night, Jimmy Fallon sang “The Ballad of Steven Slater.” And it was pretty good. Except I’d already heard a different song called “The Ballad of Steven Slater,” and that one is mas macho. Or something. Take a listen (contains salty language)…

This one, with lyrics by Max Sparber and music by Josh Millard, packs a certain poetic punch I feel the Fallon version lacks…

- NYMag, Daily Intel, Steven Slater: the ballads:

But the best tunes so far are by Jimmy Fallon, and MetaFilter’s cortex and Astro Zombie. “It ain’t that easy to ride the skies / laboring for JetBlue / A man’s got to keep widened eyes / For terrorists or shampoo,” goes the latter. “And worser still are the passengers / They turn a kind man to a hater / Won’t nobody stand up to this? / One man: Steven Slater.” (Seriously, go listen to it.)

- Sundance channel, SUNfiltered:

Over at Metafilter, one MeFite Astro Zombie penned “The Ballad of Steven Slater” which Josh Millard aka Cortex (a MeFi moderator) then put to song. It’s fantastic.

- Yet another ballad, this one an angular poprock composition from Irish Brooklynite Ornaith O’Dowd.

- Fellow balladeer thestratbrat managed to show up on a CNN segment as well, today, and on a WPIX NY segment (about 2:00 in on each). Judging by the comments on her Youtube post, she’s even more surprised to end up on CNN than I was.

- Yet another ballad, though only lyrics this time, from blogger That Reilly Monster.

- And for god’s sake, Fallon, a reprise?

- Jonathan Mann’s version gets used as background music for an ABC Australia radio piece.

- Sparber’s lyrics excerpted in a Philly Inquirer writeup about the Slater/Folk Hero thing.

- Dutch Radio 1′s “BNN Today” did a little Segment on Slater ballads, featuring excerpts of mine and Max’s, Rachel’s, Jonathan’s, and even the accursed Fallon’s.

- Youtube user Kimfob recorded a cover of Rachel’s version. 2nd generation folk song! (Linked video is a keychanged do-over; he appears to have removed the original.)

- Jonathan’s version gets blipped briefly in…a sort of spammish-seeming market-watch talking head type thingy. Okay!

8/12: Some more aggressive searching turned up a number of other Slater songs I hadn’t seen yet (or which hadn’t yet been posted)!

- Greg Morton with a new Slater tune, a jaunty Welkian short that breaks with naming tradition in favor of alliteration: The Steven Slater Song

- Youtuber (duo?) DanReynoldsRock with the, I dunno, yacht-pop? Steven Slater Jet Blue Blues

- Beret-wearing Gary DeLena with a Paul Simon parody, 50 Ways to Leave Your Day Job

- Andy Hoskinson with a fairly critical take: Steven Slater Lost His Cool

- Noah Needleman and Lee Curreri cover the White Guy Blues angle with a solid guitar-and-piano tune, Jet Blues

- Steve Kolander’s breezy stroller, Fly Away

- Elliot Pollack looks like he’s kicking off a project after my own heart with his Current Events Song #1: Steven Slater

- And, filling a key niche, here’s retired flight attendant JudyCoconutty with her rap composition An Ode to Flight Attendant Steven Slater of Jet Blue

- In the same vein but with a skosh more production value, here’s rappingFA with Steven Slater Resignation Rap

- In a bit of opportunist re-branding, band Mind’s I retroactively declares their existing track Jaded (As A Flight Attendant) as an homage to Slater, with a thematic video to back it up.

- A weird brief animated joke promo, more jingle than song: Steven Slater – Fabulous Quitter

- Here, from hidingtruid, is another Ballad, sounding a lot like the verse to Happy Xmas (War is Over).

8/14: Another bit of searching, another crop of songs:

- Seattle band Midstokke short shouty The Ballad of Steven Slater

- ondancetronetarnatha apologizes to Dylan for his folky The Ballad of Steven Slater

- Jimmy Fallon does it a third time. I swear to god.

- In CNN news (geddit), this schizophrenic montage of web reactions includes a fair bit of both Jonathan and Rachel’s videos.

- On the metacommentary front, Adam Kovac doesn’t like these songs one bit.

- And here’s a ultra cheapo karaoke-assisted parody of The Box Tops’ classic tune “The Letter”, with the misleading title Take This Job and Slide It, from weirdly shillish youtube account. Weirdness. (But considering how many people have been just tagging their random old videos with “Steven Slater”, this counts as making an effort by comparison.)

- GuitarConi2 knocks out Steven Slater Song from her easy chair.

- upsetmama put together a waltzy take called Goodbye Now, Take Care, I’m Off

- Mighty Bulger does some minimalist poprock stuff in Steven Slater Song

8 Comments

  1. Rachel wrote:

    Hi to my partner in viral-ness! Isn’t this crazy? Love your take on it. And screw Jimmy Fallon for hogging the spotlight!

    Wednesday, August 11, 2010 at 6:28 pm | Permalink
  2. Josh Millard wrote:

    I know, right? First he secretly plots to depose Conan, and now this!

    Wednesday, August 11, 2010 at 6:30 pm | Permalink
  3. Verne wrote:

    Lyrics and music rock, nice voice. Well done.

    If you guys can create a ballad in a few hours, imagine the opera you could create around this story. Steven Slater – a “folk” musical.

    I’ll check out your other work.

    Wednesday, August 11, 2010 at 7:23 pm | Permalink
  4. Yo! Love this write up. Listened to your other news related tunes. Love Balloon boy. I also looked through your other music…haven’t listened to much (yet), but I love the layout! The insight into your process, complete with demo recordings, is really interesting! And awesome.

    Really, really love your Steven Slater ballad. When I heard the story, my first thought was to write a song, and imagine my surprise when I heard yours on Daring Fireball! For a second I was like, “Well, no point now!” cause it was so good, but then I figured I would give it my own take.

    Do you know about Songfight.org? If not, you should check it out. Weekly fun song competition. I competed every week for about two years between 2004 and 2006. Or so. They give you a title and you write a song. The forums are great (maybe like metafilter, I’m not familiar with that community), in that they give you feedback. And stuff.

    Yay!

    Wednesday, August 11, 2010 at 11:15 pm | Permalink
  5. Josh Millard wrote:

    Hiya, Jonathan! Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you knocked your version out as well; the various iterations of the whole thing have been really interesting to keep an eye on.

    By weird coincidence, I finally got involved with Songfight about a week ago, after years of knowing it was there but never quite making the leap. Enjoying it so far, nice little community. Metafilter’s own cadre of musical types is not dissimilar — we don’t have any formal competitive constructs over on Mefi Music, but the general “be awesome” dictum and sense of sharing and supportiveness is there and we’ve got a bunch of folks posting music as it comes along. If you or Rachel are interested in checking it out, I’d be happy to comp you accounts so you don’t have to jump through the $5 paypal hoops.

    Thursday, August 12, 2010 at 7:04 am | Permalink
  6. Wow! I had no idea there were so many other songs.

    And…Jimmy Fallon, jesus. 3 TIMES?!

    Sunday, August 15, 2010 at 10:05 am | Permalink
  7. Josh Millard wrote:

    Yeah, I’m pretty delighted by how broad and varied the musical reactions to the whole thing have been.

    Sunday, August 15, 2010 at 10:08 am | Permalink
  8. Great compilation! Somebody should take this list and release a Steven Slater CD box set (I’m only half joking).

    Wednesday, August 18, 2010 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Tin Man » Steven Slater on Thursday, August 12, 2010 at 8:01 am

    [...] Folk music, viral weirdness, and the Ballad of Steven Slater. [tags: memes, metafilter, steven slater] [...]

  2. [...] If you know of any not featured here, or related folk-musical artifacts or oddities tied to the subject, leave me a comment and I’ll be sure to get them added. If you’re curious about the backstory to some of this, see my previous post about the Slater folks music / viral weirdness thing. [...]

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