Jonathan Mann, a.k.a. the Song A Day guy, has more than a little musical chutzpah. Not only did the Berkeley, California, songwriter compose a new ditty every single friggin’ day during 2009, rain or shine, in sickness or health, but he also created daily music videos to post on his website, called (WTF?) RockCookieBottom.com. Some are simple, some reasonably ambitious; a handful are truly inspired while another handful are shameless ploys to win contests or get media attention—and he’s gotten his share, particularly on MSNBC. When you write a song every day, as Mann intimated to Rachel Maddow—who’d invited him on her show to perform his ode to economist Paul Krugman—a few of them are bound to be pretty lame. But occasionally you’ll get a gem.
Rather than go back and listen to all 365 songs Mann wrote in 2009, I invited him to sum up the year for Music Monday, giving us his best and worst for each of the past 12 months. By the by, what began as a motivational experiment begat a lifestyle. Logging into my email on New Year’s Day, I found a message from Mann in my inbox. Subject: “Song A Day #366!” In the past year, Mann also formed a band—the Rock Cookie Bottoms—with whom he performed his best creations live at an Oakland club. Recently the group went into the studio to record a five-song EP titled Barefoot in the Family Tree. You can download any of his songs, and will soon be able to purchase the EP, through his other website. And now, heeeere’s Jonny….
My adventure began when I received a flyer for “Fun A Day,” a collaborative project conceived by the ArtClash Collective. Artists are asked to create one piece daily during the month of January—paintings, poems, sculptures, dances, cakes, etc. Once February rolls around, everyone gets together to share and display their work. The idea is to spur creativity and discourage procrastination. For me, it was the perfect excuse; I’ve been writing songs since I was handed my first guitar at age 12 and immediately began doing wheezy Guthrie and Dylan imitations. I continued throughout high school, and studied music and recording at Bennington College in Vermont. (Here’s my video music bio.)
The Song A Day mentality wasn’t completely foreign to me. During my first year at Bennington, a friend and I started a project called Forty Second Songs. We would write forty 40-second songs in a single sitting, capturing the results on a cassette recorder. Some friends and I later recorded the best of them. Then, in 2003, I competed in a weekly online song competition for an entire year.
By January 31 of this past year, I’d completed my Fun A Day obligation, but was having too much fun to stop. By Day 4 or Day 5, I’d begun to incorporate video. On Day 10, I wrote “The Three Rules Of The Internet,” which was picked up by the popular site Boing Boing and got a viral-ish 50,000 views. Now Song A Day is so much a part of my life that I have no plan to quit. I enjoy the instant feedback, and feel like it’s made me a better songwriter. I’ve written songs I’m quite proud of, and songs that make me cringe—though inevitably someone out there likes even those. Here’s my roundup of the year’s best and worst:
Best: “The Three Rules Of The Internet” (#10)
I was visiting friends in New York City and staying in a tiny shoebox apartment, so I was compelled to record many of the songs, including this one, in a stairwell. The next day I wrote “The Fun A Day Anthem,” which I also like a lot. Sometimes I’m on a roll.
Worst: “Hello Hello” (#24)
I wrote this while visiting my brother in Connecticut. I’m not sure what I was thinking other than the fact that I was exhausted. I used preset loops in Apple’s GarageBand to make the backing track, and recorded the vocals (if you can call them that) through the built-in mic on my MacBook. There were some other real stinkers this month, including “Airport Song,” written at the airport, and one I wrote for a friend (sorry!!) called “The Marks Sisters.”
Best: “I Love Battlestar Galactica” (#33)
I wrote quite a few good songs this month: “Water,” a public service announcement about drinking water, “Zombie Ponies,” “Our House,” and “The Legend of Zelda.” But the Battlestar song is my out-and-out favorite. I don’t even think you have to be a Battlestar Galactica fan to enjoy it.
Worst: “Just Sing A Happy Song” (#34)
Not the worst I’ve ever written, but definitely bad. I do love cheesy music, I really do, and sometimes I take it too far.
Best: “Hey, Paul Krugman” (#76)
Another “on” month. If I have to choose one, it’s got to be Krugman, which was a huge viral success, landing me on the front page of the Huffington Post and on The Rachel Maddow Show, which propelled many other opportunities. This was by far my biggest public success. Another highlight was “Penguins Having A Party,” a fun, quirky song that was a huge hit with the live audiences. My third March favorite is “You’re Doing It Right, Jon Stewart.” (I was hoping it would get me on his show, but no such luck.)
Worst: “Can We Kick It With Kikkoman?” (#70)
I started competing in online video contests this month, hoping to supplement my meager income. Since I’m creating a video every day, it seemed logical to write and film some for specific contests. Unfortunately, this can lead to a terrible song.
Best: “The Ten Plagues” (#94)
I love this song, written in honor of Passover. I can imagine it reproduced with horns and a huge choir and becoming a Passover staple. (Some family friends actually used it to take the place of the long and drawn out Haggadah, traditionally read at the seder table.) Other April favorites included “Wren, The Polyamourous Polar Bear,” “Steve The Hippo With Multiple Personalities,” “Don’t Let Your Ovaries Get You Down” (inspired by my girlfriend), and “Torture Memos In Song.”
Worst: “My Baritone Uke And I” (#96)
Stale melody, trite lyrics, poor singing, and the baritone uke is out of tune. I’m cringing as I write this.
Best (tie): “We Are Pattern Machines” (#123), “The Smog Gets Thicker” (#148)
I included “Pattern Machines,” one of my 2009 favorites, on the EP—I’m fascinated with the idea that human intelligence is based on our ability to detect patterns. “The Smog Gets Thicker” is also just begging to be produced and reworked. I hope I have the opportunity.
Worst (tie): “Flying To Vienna” (parts 1 & 2, #131 and #132)
Writing half a song at one moment (before traveling to Vienna) and half at another (after landing there) was a good idea, but in this case both halves were uninspired. With more effort, I think the concept would have worked. I live, I sing, and I learn.
Best: “A Letter To The Killer Of George Tiller” (#151)
This has one of my favorite lines: The world is full of complicated answers and you reached for the simplest one. I think this song has the potential for lasting value because it is not too explicit about time and place. It’s more about evoking emotion, which I believe should drive all political music (and all art?).
Worst: “I Will Follow You” (#165)
Ugh! It’s terrible! Turn it off! Don’t listen! This is absolutely awful. I don’t know what the hell happened.
Best: “Baby, It All Led To You—An Evolutionary Love Song” (#197)
A contender for my best of the year. It’s an epic love song on another subject that fascinates me. Think for a moment about the amazing luck needed to create YOU. Beginning with the Big Bang, there were an infinite number of things that could have gone differently, all the way down to one single ancestor having died before conceiving a child. And yet, here you are. This song and one other July track, “Bury Me Beneath The Ocean,” are on the EP.
Worst: “Bing Goes The Internet” (#201)
TechCrunch.com called this “The Worst Jingle in the World.” I wrote it in 10 minutes but it still won the online video jingle competition for Bing, Microsoft’s new search engine. The prize (thank you, Mr. Ballmer) was a $500 gift card.
Best: “Happy Anniversary, The Cat Has Kidney Failure” (#234)
No clear winner this month, but I like this one because it is about my brother and embraces his satirical sense of humor. He and his wife were all set to celebrate their seventh wedding anniversary when their cat began pissing everywhere; they spent their anniversary cleaning it up and learning that he had kidney failure. I wrote this song as a meditation on life in general: The kitty was dying and their daughter, my niece, had just been born. I also quite like “GPS With Bob Dylan,” based on a news story saying Bob Dylan had been approached to be the voice of a GPS system. It was perfect fodder for a song from a huge Dylan fan. (Me.)
Worst: “Tired” (#240)
As the name implies, I was exhausted, and proceeded not so much to write this song as to yawn it, completely unrehearsed and off the cuff in front of the camera. Sometimes that works. Not this time.
Best: “Scary Hill” (#270)
Full disclosure: I didn’t technically write this song on day 270. I wrote it in 2008. But I did do extensive rewrites that day, and reproduced it. It is based on a series of images from my childhood in Northern Vermont. Our family actually had a name for a downhill patch of a dirt road notorious for automobile accidents. It brings back many childhood memories.
Worst: “No Judgments V2” (#264)
I wrote this for another contest and never ended up using it because it’s very, very bad.
Best: “It’s This Rain” (#294)
Another contender for my best of 2009. It has a multipart structure and more than four chords, which is unusual for a Song A Day song. I put it on the EP, renamed “Dance And Dance Again Alone.” Other October favorites: “Artipithecus Ramidus” (which apparently helped some anthropology students pass their tests), “Pants In The Middle,” “Who Needs Sleep,” “Frack The Dow Jones,” and “I Never Promised.”
Worst: “Keith Valley Middle School” (#304)
I received an email from Microsoft of a video showing middle-school kids in Pennsylvania singing and dancing to my Bing song. I was horrified. Don’t get me wrong, the kids were adorable, but Bing? What had I created!? Then I began to hear from the kids, who told me what a great time they had dancing to my song. I must admit I was honored. Then they asked me to write a song about their school. Its failure is a statement of my ambivalence about the whole incident.
Best: “The Beating Of A Single Heart” (#318)
I love this song. It’s a positive political song, which is rare, and I feel it succeeds at what I was attempting to convey.
Worst: “I’m Tired Halloween Weirdness” (#305)
This was another instance of me having absolutely no energy to write a song. Instead, I turned on the camera, filmed a bunch of half song ideas, and edited it together to make it seem funny. It wasn’t.
Best: “If You Piled Up Everything I Didn’t Know Would It Be As Big As The Universe? Oh.” (#350)
This is an example of a successful song written extemporaneously. I think it has some great moments. Other highlights include “Black Holes” and “Jesus Christ At Christmastime.”
Worst: “Puking My Guts” (#355)
I wrote this in between bouts of vomiting from food poisoning. I made it up while lying in the bathtub feeling as though I were about to die. My mother says it demonstrates my devotion to the project. But then, she’s my mother.
Click here for more Music Monday features from Mother Jones.