“We'd all become unpeople undoing unthings untogether”
“Wouldn't know the difference between a real blonde and a fake”
For probably the majority of its user base, Instagram is a quick and fun way to share photos of what you’re doing with your friends. Furthermore you can follow celebrities and artists you admire to see what they’re up to.
For musicians, as well as other artists and businesses, it’s a way to engage with your audience and help new people discover what you do. This can be done by simply putting out information about upcoming releases and shows. You can also share the day to day aspects of your life or other facets and interests you have to build up a rapport with your fanbase.
But whatever this platform is in its ideal state, it’s no secret that it’s being co-opted, gamed, and abused.
The plain semantics of a “like” on Instagram should mean that someone saw your photo or video and enjoyed it enough to take the level of effort it requires to press a little heart icon and thereby let you know they think what you’ve shared with the world is something worth at least that level of appreciation. It’s a nice little dopamine hit for you; a nice little reward for your effort; and it acts as a reinforcement for your use of the platform.
But that’s not necessarily what a “like” actually means in practice. If it’s not a user that you're familiar with, it’s less likely that they’re someone who happened to stumble across your photo and wanted to let a stranger know they enjoyed a post than it is someone or something that is seeking your attention. So now it’s not “good job” it’s “hey, look at me!” — a total inversion of the intention. And since this is a digital platform it’s not even necessarily a human — in fact it’s more likely than not to be a bot acting on a human’s behalf. In all likelihood no human actually ever laid eyes on your photo to produce that supposed interaction.
The primary way the bots discover content to “like” is through the hashtags you add to your post. If you ever want to see this in action, simply create a bunch of related tags (30 is the max — beyond that Instagram will make your post blank) and use them with a picture of literally anything (it could be television static and you’ll still get likes — I literally did this). There are even tools that will help you create such a collections of tags. Once posted, you’ll be pretty much instantaneously swarmed by bots giving you likes. In fact, you can get more “likes” than people your post supposedly reached — “reach” being measure of how many people have seen your post in their feed one way or another. Short of discrepancies in how Instagram’s backend updates these counts, logically this sort of mismatch doesn’t seem like it should ever happen (you couldn’t like something that hadn’t reached you).
I did a spate of such posts recently (in the name of science!) and they became the frontrunners for “engagement” compared to all my other posts for the past 2 years — engagement being a catch all for likes and comments. After playing around a bit by creating posts with tags of different subjects (fashion, food, photography) and I’ve concluded musicians — particularly singer-songwriters — are the some of worst perpetrators of this sort of nonsense. It’s frustrating because some people could be legitimately discovering your content, but to know who is doing that as opposed to who’s actually only interested advertising to you requires more time and effort than its worth.
I mean, I’m pretty sure the random chiropractor’s office that’s liking my post is not on the up and up. But a random songwriter? — well, honestly, chances are, they’re not either — and how exactly you’d determine otherwise I’m not exactly sure. I assume the idea is to target non-musicians who are posting about music they enjoy in hopes of attracting them to the ostensible “liker’s” own brand, but as a musician who’s just starting to build audience, this means the majority of accounts “liking" my posts are probably more focused on building their own followers than they are in any content I’m creating. Maybe this just becomes all so much noise as you grow your number of followers, but I think it's much more insidious than simply being a nuisance.
And the bots don’t necessarily simply ”like” the post. Some will add some supportive but generic and inane comment that at first glance might seem relevant but is really meant to be applicable in an all purpose way. Some bots even have the gall to directly call for you to look at their own work. Others will actually start liking a handful of your other posts as if they had just discovered you and started looking at your feed. Still others will follow you — only of course to quickly stop following you even if you naively start following them in return. In my experiments, even after the bots swarm a heavily tagged post, my overall number of followers pretty much remains constant over time. This is an insidious way to build up a follower base without having to do any actual engagement oneself.
All of this activity will no doubt sound familiar to anyone who’s spent much time on Instagram. I find it to be disingenuous and manipulative. Furthermore, I would also contend that all of these machinations hurt the value proposition of the platform and I’m surprised that Instagram even allows it to happen. The fact is though, the functionality that allows this is part of their web API which means that far from making it difficult to do, Instagram has actually enabled it.
Now, according to Instagram’s terms of service, automated activity along these lines would appear to be a violation. According the "General Terms" of the API usage, client applications are not to “confuse, deceive, defraud, mislead or harass anyone.” As I said, it’s inherently deceptive to say you “liked” something when you never laid eyes on it according to what I think would be the generally accepted idea of what “liking” should mean. To post a comment on it that suggests a person looked at a photo when no person did is obviously misleading. So I would say the powers that be at Instagram are a bit lax about enforcing this rule.
The good news is apparently the API functionality to post “likes” automatically is being removed on December 11th of this year (though this doesn’t quite jive with the list of features that were supposedly deprecated on April 11th). Why this was ever made API in the first place astounds me to be quite honest. This is an open invitation to automate “likes” by a client application. It feels like the developers came up with general purpose API that exposed all the platform’s capabilities but who ever was minding the store as far as the overall system's functionality didn’t think through the implications as to how it could be used in practice and what that would mean to the end user experience. And given the level of activity one sees from bots, whatever measures they might have in place to govern bot activity are clearly insufficient. Aside from making the numbers of likes and followers suspect, it also casts a pall on a business that wants money to promote posts and sows doubt in the authenticity of activity generated by such promotions.
It remains to be seen whether or not this change in the API leads to a serious decline in the activity. People may wake up on December 12th and see their apparent engagement plummet. Other platforms, (i.e. Twitter), have had issues with fake accounts, and some users have seen follower counts dwindle when such accounts are culled.
We do live in a day and age where we have be wary of whether news is “fake” or not — is it legitimate content or is it being shown to us because an entity that is hostile to our interests wants to sow dissent — or is someone is simply "trolling" us? In the larger political arena, making it more difficult for voters who are likely to oppose your positions is common place, not to mention diminishing their representation through gerrymandering. And the consequences of being deceptive or telling falsehoods seem to have fallen by the way side in general. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that we see this “bending the rules” elsewhere.
I’m cynical in general about people’s motivations and willingness to adhere to rules in the online world. It doesn’t even surprise me that some segment of the creative community online would behave in an unethical way for their advantage. Not so long ago I was in an internet poll that to my mind was clearly being manipulated (if you look at my Instagram history, it’ll be apparent what I’m referring to) and given its nature it was quite an easy thing to do. I discouraged anyone voting for me from doing so, but some folks didn’t seem to regard there to be anything wrong with not playing along with what should be the general understanding of what a vote would mean in that context. IP Addresses don’t listen to music, so they shouldn’t be the ones voting and having more than on IP Address shouldn’t entitle you to vote multiple times.
In the context of promoting one’s self as independent artist, one might see these tactics used on Instagram and elsewhere as simply being scrappy and resourceful — doing what it takes to get ahead in a dog-eat-dog world is a tried and true tradition and a little violation of the spirit of a platform’s intentions is minor. But I’ll stick to my guns and say that using bots is a perversion of the system and makes Instagram less useful to its users — both artists and casual users alike. And in the realm of the singer-songwriter where authenticity is good currency, using these tactics or others undermines any claim you might have to that authenticity.
I hope other artists and creatives would consider this and how ethical anything they are doing to build their fanbase actually is.
Kill the bots.
“I been to Sugar Town, I shook the sugar down”
In addition to blogging about my own songwriting, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to write about other songwriter's songs. This is not done from the perspective of researching the song's background in depth, but rather from my own experience and analysis of it. In fact, beyond consulting the lyrics, I've actually avoided other perspectives (including the author's) because that seems to be how we all most naturally experience a song. For the first of these posts, I've chosen Dylan's "Tryin' to Get to Heaven" given that is one that I've covered and therefore have some intimate familiarity with.
“Time Out of Mind” was the first release of new Dylan music I had at my disposal after I had become an aficionado of his music in college. Prior to that there had been releases of old blues and folk covers on “World Gone Wrong” — but this was the first set of new originals released from the man who’d I’d come to admire for albums such as “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blood on the Tracks” just a few years prior.
Was I immediately in love with this new work? No… but with opening tracks like “Love Sick” (it took me forever to even understand what he was saying with some lines) and “Dirt Road Blues” (not exactly top tier, not exactly leading with your strongest song) as well as just the overall newness of it, I think I can be forgiven. I did immediately dig the title of the album — though this owes largely to a soft spot I have for Mercutio (having played the part, albeit only for high school class rendition). The album subsequently became a very important album to me, one that gave me solace in those lonely moments of heartbreak. I recall taking many a warm bath with this album playing in the background.
Admittedly “Tryin' to Get to Heaven” was not as interesting to me as “Standing in the Doorway,” “Million Miles,” and “‘Til I Fell in Love with You.” In part I just wasn’t that taken with the vocal performance. Moreover, there was the fact, for me as someone who is more or less an atheist (in the moments when I’m worrying about such things), even a light touch on a vaguely theological subject matter was a bit off putting (this has led to Dylan’s evangelical period still being somewhat terra incognita to me — even “Ring Them Bells” on “Oh, Mercy” is one I’m not all that inspired to revisit).
It wasn’t until I came across the early 2000’s live recording that was released as part of single with its jazzy re-harmonization that I really began digging this particular song. Having spent most of that decade immersing myself in old Blue Note recordings and the like from the Virgin Mega Store bargain bin (a bygone era, alas) instead of listening to anything current, this was my jam.
So when this past May I put together a Bob Dylan tribute show with Swamp Child's Robb Hagle, this became one of my go to options for a song cover. Part of it was simply that with this particular arrangement it seemed “on brand” for me given my own blending of folk, jazz and popular music. But it’s also a song that’s come to mean more to me as I’ve taken my own songwriting more seriously. No longer just a hobby that I keep to myself, my efforts to get my music out there in the world at a somewhat later stage of life than is typical has given the refrain and the themes of this piece greater resonance.
And as a songwriter, I find it interesting just from the standpoint of the lyrics.
There’s almost a certain sloppiness to the composition. The first two verses start their penultimate line with “I’ve been walking” and then the song drops it for the subsequent three. That this is an echo of the album's opening line is probably coincidental, given how these things ultimately come together, but one does wonder how much the writer is paying attention as to whether he's repeating himself (though hardly as conspicuous as the use of the word "brain" throughout Modern Times). The line length changes so much for this line in each verse, it defies your expectations as a singer and some oddities just make remembering the order a bit difficult. There are some helpful mnemonics, even if they are counterintuitive — the verse that’s talking about railways ends with our protagonist “going down the road feeling bad” — for instance.
There are some bits that I do just adore — this character, Miss Mary Jane, a player who appears on stage and is quickly shuffled off, is a typical Dylan walk on. Like Mary Lou and Prince Phillip in “Dignity” she’s only there so briefly and all we see is a snapshot. All we learn about her is she has some connection to his train of thought that begins with New Orleans and that she has a House in Baltimore. Sure, her name is a euphemism for marijuana, but I can’t see how this makes any literal sense. Dylan was smoking some pot in a buggy in New Orleans? How does the house in Baltimore jive with such a reading. To me, this is an actual person who’s memory our protagonist has tripped over in his thinking? Perhaps she is drug-like in some way, but I prefer to interpret her as being an actual character and not just a symbol.
What's her significance then? Her juxtaposition with the admission that he doesn’t “know what ‘all right’ even means” and within the overall song suggests that this is not a relationship that is in a good state of repair. What happened in that house in Baltimore? We’re not given a clue, beyond perhaps that this is a door that now is closed. Maybe she is the lost love to whom references are interspersed throughout the lyrics — a woman he’s slowly starting to forget, a woman who’s sealed up the book.
We’re given some interesting settings for this song — thrown in “in media res” with Dylan wading through the high water just before a storm on a muggy summer day. And then in subsequent verses we traipse through Missouri, a train platform, New Orleans and then finally his parlor, where he imagines he'll dream about ramblers of old, hitching rides on trains (the latter harkening back to the heavily self-embellished mythology of Dylan’s youth).
With the advent of “Tell Tale Signs” we know that Dylan’s approach to songwriting is more like that of a collage. Verses from the unreleased “Marching to the City” and the like wound up in completely different songs that actually ended up on this or subsequent albums. As a writer, he’s a packrat — keeping whole verses tucked away in his outtakes in case he can reuse them later. More recent songs are practically written like ransom notes with virtually every line clipped from different tunes from another age. So whether any of “Try’n to Get to Heaven” is meant to make any narrative sense is questionable. It’s imagery, it’s impressions, thematically connected…maybe. Or maybe he just thought it sounded “right.”
What really binds the verses together is the constant return to a loss that is haunting our protagonist — maybe not like it used to, but still there in the back, if not the forefront, of his mind. So in what sense is he trying to get to heaven? Who is closing the door?
One of the questions we as songwriters are often asked within the context of writing our songs (say in a song circle or writing group) is “who is being addressed here?” Well, clearly there’s a second person — the “you” that the narrator keeps engaging with. It sounds like it would be a woman, as I alluded to earlier. But then there’s this strange tell in the fourth verse — “I’ve been all-around the world, boys” — that is interesting. Who are these “boys?”
English is a bit frustrating in its refusal to distinguish between singular and plural second person and can lead to international or unintentional authorial subterfuge, so maybe our narrator isn’t simply changing up who he’s addressing midway through the song. Maybe he’s been addressing a group from the beginning. Could it be this is a traveling musician, on the road, who got run out of Missouri after his gig there? Is he speaking to his audience, perhaps in absentia, as he reflects on this tour gone wrong. Maybe this is how we ended up wading through the water in the beginning — in his hurry to get away, there was no time to make his way to a bridge, and he ended up fording a river.
Still, whoever our boys are (fellow travelers?), this anonymous “they” hangs out there. But they often do. “They” are often responsible for saying things, being the ones who “ought” to do things and a myriad of sins. Notably it’s a door, not (pearly) gates. But still, maybe it’s the angels and archangels and saints who are about to make their domain forevermore inaccessible. Why? Well, maybe heaven itself is not immune from overpopulation. For the Talking Heads, it’s a bar. So perhaps management is concerned about violating fire codes and it’s not salvation that our protagonist is seeking, but just being part of the hip and happening scene.
This is a man who feels like his opportunities are fading as he drifts and reminisces as the walking wounded.
In that I can relate, as I’m sure we all can from time to time.
Below is my own cover of the song as well as the full lyrics.
Try’n to Get to Heaven
The air is getting hotter
There’s a rumbling in the skies
I’ve been wading through the high muddy water
With the heat rising in my eyes
Every day your memory grows dimmer
It doesn’t haunt me like it did before
I’ve been walking through the middle of nowhere
Trying to get to heaven before they close the door
When I was in Missouri
They would not let me be
I had to leave there in a hurry
I only saw what they let me see
You broke a heart that loved you
Now you can seal up the book and not write anymore
I’ve been walking that lonesome valley
Trying to get to heaven before they close the door
People on the platforms
Waiting for the trains
I can hear their hearts a-beatin’
Like pendulums swinging on chains
When you think that you've lost everything,
You find out you can always lose a little more.
I’m just going down the road feeling bad
Trying to get to heaven before they close the door
I’m going down the river
Down to New Orleans
They tell me everything is gonna be all right
But I don’t know what “all right” even means
I was riding in a buggy with Miss Mary-Jane
Miss Mary-Jane got a house in Baltimore
I been all around the world, boys
Now I’m trying to get to heaven before they close the door
Gonna sleep down in the parlor
And relive my dreams
I’ll close my eyes and I wonder
If everything is as hollow as it seems
Some trains don't pull no gamblers
No midnight ramblers like they did before
I been to Sugar Town, I shook the sugar down
Now I’m trying to get to heaven before they close the door
“I Am Half-Sick of Shadows”
— Alfred, Lord Tennyson, The Lady of Shallot
“Lady of the Shadows” is a song that began as one of those post EGPhest efforts to convince myself I can still actually write new songs.
EGPhest is this event I’ve done for three years running where I invite other songwriters to indulge me by singing my songs for my birthday. It’s all very nice to hear folks cover the tunes I’ve written — which I appreciate it to no end — and of course people say all sorts of wonderful things about me (mostly owing to the fact it is my birthday) — which is lovely, of course, but far from stroking my ego the whole affair actually is a bit intimidating. What if I can’t ever write anything again that people like? Which I guess is a typical for writers, but somehow I feel like this whole affair ups the ante.
Anyway, after the first EGPhest, I embarked on a rather intense effort to write a song called “The Comet and the Wandering Moon” (more about that one in the months to come) and after EGPhest 2 I wrote “Lady of the Shadows” — oddly enough although I’ve been writing a number of songs since EGPhest 3, there hasn’t necessarily been a single “one” that’s been the focus.
The idea for LotS (as the cool kids will call it, no doubt) originates from my friend Luna Taylor, another singer songwriter I know from the Bay Area music scene (though she’s subsequently moved down to San Diego). Luna, by the way, is also responsible for the cover art for this single. Luna has this lovely habit of photographing shadows — she has a whole Facebook photo album dedicated to this pursuit and actually uses the hashtag “shadowgirl.”
One night while hanging around Bazaar Cafe with future proprietors Josh and Rozanne as well as Shawn Byron and his wife Jen, Rozanne took to referring to Jen as the “golden lady” owing to the fact Jen was wearing yellow and has long blonde hair. For some reason this stuck in my head and got cross pollinated with Luna’s photo taking habits, so in my mind Luna became “the lady of the shadows.”
This seemed to me like the sort of phrase that I must have picked up from somewhere so I did what any self respecting wrier does, which is to do a Google search. This brought up Tennyson’s “Lady of Shallot” which I was heretofore unfamiliar. For those similarly unfamiliar, the basic story of this poem is that there is this woman who resides in a tower and is quite isolated there (reasons unspecified) who creates pictures of what she sees through mirror on a loom (once again, reasons unspecified). Then along comes Lancelot of the Arthurian legend through the fields in the glow of the sunlight (hence Lancelot’s armor aflame in LotS) at which point our protagonist decides to leave her tower, get on a boat, and then proceeds to die (reasons unspecified, yet again). She is later found by the local peasantry who are all like “who is this woman?” And that’s the poem. It’s filled with lots of gorgeous imagery, which tends to go on ad nauseam and some folks have even put the poem to song, which come off as a bit interminable. But still, you know, it’s great literature or something.
Anyway, at some point while this woman is stuck up in her tower she mutters that she is “half sick fo shadows” and it’s apparently one of the better known bits of the poem and probably the reason it came up in my Google search. Being sick of shadows is a situation I doubt Luna would ever find herself in.
With all that in mind, with a premise for a song like “Lady fo the Shadows” one must immediately set out to find rhymes for the word “shadow” — of which there are a paltry few. But the rhyming dictionary did provide some “near” rhymes like “vaquero” and “Kilimanjaro” — the latter of which I felt like I just had to use. It immediately brought to mind Ernest Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” — so we’ve got another literary reference. Plato’s Republic with his whole notion about us only seeing the world as shadows on a cave wall seemed like an obvious choice to make it a trio.
The payoff is somewhat akin to Dylan sneering “you’ve read all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books” but with perhaps a bit more nuance. For instance, yes, our protagonist is familiar with the arguments Plato makes regarding our ability to know reality as only a mere shadow of itself, but she still nonetheless has an affection for those shadows (and therefore perhaps the ever so limited understanding we have of reality? At this point I let other people do the analysis — mostly I just thought it sounded pretty).
A half rhyme with “scarecrow” brought to mind this image of our protagonist dancing around a frosty field in November — something which I have no knowledge of Luna ever actually doing, but it was a fun idea so I decided to make it my opening scene. It also worked well for the overall “ad campaign” — such as it is.
Also around about the time I ended up hanging out a bit with Brandi Cheek of Swamp Child after a Balanced Breakfast meeting. As it happened Andy Strong was leading the group that morning and at the time he was doing the booking at PianoFight. I encouraged Brandi, being from New Orleans, to approach Andy (likewise being from the South) about doing a booking, knowing a certain cultural affinity would be to her benefit in that regards (didn’t help me get on the bill, but oh well). This led to a subsequent conversation about her Southern roots where she mentioned how sometimes she’ll say certain sayings from her native land that make her boyfriend laugh (this boyfriend being, BTW, Robb Hagle, who plays lead guitar on “The L.A. Song” and is a Midwesterner like myself) — one of said sayings being “ridden hard and put to bed wet.”
Well this seemed to me to be a little bit of poetry, and as incongruous as it seemed, I kind of wanted to use it in this song I was working on. The term actually refers to horses (get your mind out of the gutter) and the practice, or perhaps lack of it, of not cleaning them up (hence the wet) after a hard day of riding. In my research of this phrase I came across all sorts of additional terms in the realm of horsey-type phrases like “green broke” that I felt like I had to incorporate as well as “sunfishing” and “crow hopping” which sounded so much more evocative than spinning or twirling for our lady as she danced about the field.
It was actually a couple of drafts in before the refrain morphed simply from “Lovely Lady of the Shadows” being repeated to making sure we emphasized that she took photos of the shadows as well. For the harmony I cribbed largely from Bill Evans’ “Jade Vision” — one of those strange flashes of inspiration one can't quite account for but some reason happens to work (at least in my opinion). I did throw in a D Augmented chord, largely because I had thought I would try and ape Sonny Rollins’ “Shadow Waltz” at one point for the lols. The instrumental bridge with its chromatic ascension is largely my own invention — I knew the song needed a little bit of a break but felt a bit iffy about even attempting it as it felt like I was already vandalizing someone else’s work as it was, but in the end I think it turned out quite lovely and I’ve got some very appreciative reactions when I play it live.
When it came to recording, I decided to use this song as the “pilot” project for working with Ben Osheroff as my producer. I met Ben through his now fiancee Louise Nalbandian (who contributes vocals to the song). Louise I know through the Bay Area music scene, Balanced Breakfast and open mics like the one KC Turner was hosting at the now defunct Doc’s Lab. I’d invited Louise to be part of my second residency at Bazaar Cafe and as part of her set she brought in Ben (on accordion) — whom she’d recently met — and his friend Chaz (on violin) to play some traditional Armenian songs. At the time I recall Ben saying some nice things about my song “Lighthouse at the Edge of the World” but it was the better part of year later when we met again at a pop-up event Louise was playing at Amado’s that he asked if there was a recording of that song. Although Shawn Byron had recorded his version, I did not yet have one of my own, at which point Ben expressed interest in creating one.
Since I had in mind a full album built around Lighthouse and am a bit protective about in general, I wanted to start with something less ambitious in scope to figure out if this would be a good fit as far a working relationship went (Ben gives me a hard time about this). Like “The L.A. Song,” LotS was new and I didn’t necessarily feel like she fell into an overall set, so doing her as a one off was appealing. It also felt like something that didn’t need to be huge in scope production-wise. So we brought in a bass player (playing and electric upright) so we could record the guitar and bass together in Louise’s living room. Ben added parts for Wurlitzer and accordion as well the tambourine. In addition to Louise’s backing vocals, I brought in Shawn Byron for some backing overdubs — Shawn had just a accompanied me on the song for a show at the Lost Church and I thought a second male vocal added an interesting texture.
With LotS finished, Ben I decided to embark on a full length album project, which had to be finished rather quickly given his ambition to head to South America and travel for an extended period of time. But more on that project later. For now, please indulge me and take a listen to our first collaboration together, “Lady of the Shadows.”
Thank you to Tohm Lev for stepping into the shoes of our eponymous lady for the purpose of the promotional video. Tohm has accompanied me on backing vocals on this song in the past and she is wonderfully creative songwriter in her own right.
Give the song a spin on Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music or bandcamp.
- E.G. Phillips