Details and Transcript

Buzzsprout Affiliate Link: https://www.buzzsprout.com/?referrer_id=891796

Timestamps

  • 00:00 - Introduction

  • 01:14 - Segment 1: Climate Inaction (Short Story)

  • 10:34 - Segment 2: The Origin of "Like A Broken Record" (Metaphor History)

  • 20:02 - Segment 3: Hit Song Science (Communication Topic)

  • 29:32 - Segment 4: Talk With Martin Sutton (Guest Interview)

References

Theme Music​

Transcript

To my exhilarating family and friends. Near and far. Old and new. This is Kevin Mercurio on the mic. And welcome, finally, to the 38th episode of the Metaphorigins Podcast.

 

I suppose this is the first episode of 2022! As always, to show support if you like this sort of content, it’s very simple, please take 5 seconds to rate and subscribe to the podcast on Apple or Spotify or Google Podcasts or whatever platform you are listening to this on. It truly helps small, independent podcasts reach new people and grow the show with minimal effort. You can always leave a small review as well, and follow @metaphorigins on Instagram, that’s @metaphorigins, where I will be posting all of my updates, as well as on my personal website: kjbmercurio.com/metaphorigins. Yes, I will hold another draw on my 40th episode for… you know it, I know it, something. Something will be won. But stay tuned for more information on this obviously true… concept, whatever it ends up being!

 

Okay. So for today’s episode, I’ll be talking about a simile that gets repeated so many times, it has become a metaphor for itself.

 

Maestro, hit me with a beat. *HUM COP26 SMALL PIPER BEAT AT 18:50* If you didn’t catch this obvious melody, it was Scottish smallpiper Brìghde Chaimbeu (BREE-JA HIME-BOW) opening the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland. You, a negotiator for your home country, are sent as a national representative to contribute novel ideas and participate in the formation of global agreements addressing climate action. “Anything later than now, is too little too late.” You echo from a poem performed by writer Yrsa Daley-Ward.

 

You sit amongst the world elite. Presidents, Prime Ministers, Lords and Queens, elected and appointed, young, old and very old. A collection of individuals who despite power struggles have come together to decide the fate of a planet. It is no simple task, and perhaps insignificant in time to the universal parameters of slow gradual change we mere humans fail to perceive. This is not a fictional story, no action movie like James Bond, whose name frequently repeated by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. This is no clock on a singular doomsday bomb ending in instantaneous incineration, but a dial on an oven.

 

Yet, speech after speech, statement after statement, brings a sort of deja vu feeling. You’ve been attending the annual Conference of the Parties, or COPs, since 2015, when the 197 countries composing the parties signed the highly optimistic Paris Accord. But you couldn’t quite figure out why that is. Is it the constant repetition of degree increases that determine our futures? Or rather the warning of impacting not just our futures, but the futures of our children and grandchildren? Or is the sadness of smaller countries, those categorized as developing or small island nations who feel the brunt of climate change happening now and is scared of the devestation to come? Hidden from the consciousness of privileged citizens within high-income nations more ravaged by social and internal turmoil? Perhaps all of the above.

 

You have been given the opportunity to end the opening ceremony of COP26 with a speech representing the nation you were born and raised in. However, despite your best efforts, you couldn’t write a single word in preparation for this talk. What statements could you possibly say that haven’t been mentioned a thousand times over? What elements of language and wordplay could you strategize to strike chords with listeners in the crowd?

 

You reflect on this during UN Secretory General’s António Guterres remarks, whose accent perks the ears of an English speaker when he emphasizes, “Fossil fools”. You reiterate the key words mentioned in his speech. Net-zero carbon emissions, illusions, tipping points and carbon markets. Global disasters. G20 countries are responsible for 20% of emissions. 1.5 vs 4 degrees. Rising sea levels. Coal. Unprecedented conditions. Commitments, diplomacy and negotiations. Carbon pricing and fixation. Deforestation. Fires. Catastrophe. Solidarity and action. Young people and loudness. Funding and investment. Save humanity. What about COVID-19?

 

It is so difficult to understand the language of ourselves, even moreso the language of the Earth. It speaks to us just like storytellers, shamans and chiefs of spiritual cultures. You imagine a planet speaking to us. Angry at the careless endeavours we pursue for economic development and regional excellence based on outdated metrics. Perhaps Prince Charles of Wales was right when he adamantly declared the amount of private sector support as a major player in the fight, or Sir David Attenborough when he, during another one of his trademark narrative stock videos of the Earth, discussed the most fundamental metric of climate change, atmospheric carbon.

 

Sadly, the realization that this perpetual cycle of shaming the world elite by weather phenomena destroying communities, of people begging for aid and action, does so little, is disheartening. Best summed up by Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Mottley, “How many more voices, and how many more pictures of people must we see on these screens without being able to move, or are we so blinded and hardened that we can no longer appreciate the cries of humanity?” But what else can we do rather than demonstrate to decision makers that their decisions have enormous impact on livelihoods, on markets, on supply chains and capital?

 

As you ask yourself this question, the invisible announcer welcomes you to the stage as the final speaker of the opening ceremony. You walk up the stage stairs to the white podium and look around. Rows upon rows of politicians, royalties and activists collected into one room, just like the 25 conferences before. You clear your throat.

 

“Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. This is our issue. We repeat the same things every year, every month, every day in policy rooms and scientific meetings. Why do we cement ourselves in this routine verbal action as Earth-loving advocates?” You pause to momentarily close your eyes.

 

You continue, “What more can I say? What more can I say? What more can I say? Keywords like drought, heat, sea levels, carbon, decisions, heart, empathy, youth action, children, children, children. Won’t somebody please think of the children? Oh stop it. Stop this routine charade of redundant communication. The theme of this conference is Earth to COP. Earth does not give a fuck about COP, or me, or you, or our families, friends and the nations we represent here today. Earth does not give a FUCK. Who are we, a species about 300,000 years old, a species so in our own heads that we actually believe we can speak on behalf of an entire planet? A planet that does not care whether we live or die, or sustain biodiversity or keep our shelters from crumbling under its infrastructure.”

 

“I’m tired. You’re tired. Whoever was here before you is also tired. People outside shouting at the doors are tired. What will we do today? One person had the courtesy of displaying the metric as simple as can be. 414 ppm. Over the last six years, we’ve reached new temperature records in part due to this number growing larger every year. This year, 2021, is no different, yes, sounds like a broken record. A record we continuously break every year. How do we decrease the concentration of carbon? The answer is simple. Market and taxation. Y’all are in government, you know how great this works. Make carbon a commodity to buy and sell, and tax those that surpass levels necessary for our survival. Market and taxation.”

 

As you say this solution, entourages of the US, EU, China and India walk in the room and take their respective seats. John Kerry, US special presidential envoy for climate, whispers to President Joe Biden, “Man, that person should really phase down.”

 

Alright, let’s phase out of this short story before I actually throw some shapes due to my frustration at climate change communication. Watching this year’s COP26 opening ceremony, a huge inspiration for much of my latest artistic works, I realized how much shame porn climate advocates dump onto the world’s decision makers every year thinking this will change their motivation to act. I agree that words are powerful, pictures even more so, sure, but repeating the same key points over and over again makes me smack my insignificant head. Anyway, switching to a more uplifting mood, hopefully you caught today’s expression, sneakily put into this anger monologue. But why does shattered music media prompt repetitive prose?

 

What’s the origin to the expression, “like a broken record”?

 

*Theme Music*

 

 

Most of this information was obtained from various articles discussing the origin to this expression. All sources will be mentioned in the description.

 

If there’s something I would like you to consider in this episode, or frankly every episode of this podcast, it’s the evolution of language. Take what you will, but my goal is to impart some appreciation for the bizarre origins of things we say every day. These will focus a lot on interesting words and phrases, since much of what makes language so interesting are the wordplay and context needed for it to make even remote sense.

 

The beauty of communication creates a spectrum from literal to metaphor. How we choose to articulate are influenced by factors inherent within personality, social norms, experience and goals. Words, whether phonetic, or visual or interpreted, help to comprehend our shared reality, but they need not be strict. Described by writer Jack Rosenthal in a 1998 New York Times Magazine article, “Words are not handcuffs. People make of them what they need to. In language, necessity is the mother of reinvention.” For instance, taking dialling a phone number. Most would consider pressing numerical buttons on a phone as the action for dialling a phone number. On the contrary, dialling referred to turning the plate or disc on old rotary phones, which shorted electrical circuits in the device signalling phone companies which specific contact you were trying to reach.

 

Let’s stick with the very meta concept of the evolution of communicative language. Who listening has logged precious minutes reading over important emails before sending? What about choosing which of your colleagues should be cc’d or bcc’d? Ever thought about where the terms cc, meaning carbon copy, or bcc, meaning blind carbon copy, originate from? When creating copies of texts written in pen or via a typewriter, carbon paper in which one side had a pigmented coating bound with wax that would leave an impression by the original source. Thus, blind carbon copies are to say that you are being sent a copy without informing the person or persons you are addressing. 

 

This traditional terminology is present in forms of art and expression as well. Pertinent to today’s expression, the music industry is fraught with this. Music albums used to refer to collections of audio recordings within a record disc. Nowadays, digital distribution of music through online purchasing, streaming services or playbacks on media sharing websites are the norm, where an album could be just a computer code representing a folder housing these audio files. Language, even within a forever adapting industry such as music, remains surprisingly timeless in its vocabulary. 

 

Then where does today’s expression come in? Like a broken record is an archetypical simile of this never-changing component of the industry that is always looking for the new sound, the novel voice, the trance that hooks our ears. Its influence even spreads into communication studies, where the broken-record response describes a conversational strategy that could be used in positive ways to reinforce arguments made, or negatively, like in certain political systems that use filibustering to prevent passing policies.

 

In the case of this podcast, the idiom, like a broken record, is described by Merriam-Webster Dictionary as, “to say that someone keeps saying the same thing over and over again”. Now, of course, the record in this case is referring to the musical record I’ve already described, or a collection of audio works that can be played on a phonograph. For all you youngins listening, the phonograph or record player is this machine that reads records to produce electromagnetic waves via the movement of magnets, signalling connected speakers to produce the desired sound. Records, I just learned, have grooves with three dimensional properties, read by a fine needle attached to a rod that moves inside an electromagnetic field within of the phonograph (didn’t think we were going to get science-y so soon, did you?). Some records are known for specific grooves in them, like fans of the Beatles might know their Sgt. Pepper album with the famous run-off groove. How a record like vinyl is created and works to convey music is incredibly intricate, and its not until you see it with microscopic detail that one could appreciate how intricate it truly is. If further interested, do check out Applied Science’s Youtube video in which he uses an electron microscope to create slow motion videos about media like vinyl and CDs.

 

Yet, for some writers like Medium blogger Jason Healey, this expression creates a sort of English conundrum, since broken or shattered records wouldn’t produce sound at all. As Healey states, “What then is worse? Repeatedly using an illogical expression to criticise another person for their repetition? Or is it the offender who is most at fault? Were they to complain less, could this be the strategy through which the expression goes the way of the Caspian tiger? […] For the conservative idiom-ist, the road to deliverance may be too thorny to travel.”

 

But alright, let’s get back to the origin at play here. Where does like a broken record come from? We already know that this idiom comes from typical vinyl records that have grooves in them which are interpreted by a phonograph’s needle (huh, why did that sound dirty?). The technology itself is what started this now ubiquitous expression. During it’s popular use in the 70s, records would be played constantly. Perhaps you had a specific song on the album that you would listen to more than others, in which the needle would be frequently used to read this groove. This, for records, leads to wear and tear, causing common use to mean the record becomes more scratched. It would be a shared experience in which needles would get caught within a constantly-played groove, causing the record to spin backwards and place the needle back a bit, sort of like a rewind, and replay a few seconds of the tune. One would have to manually skip this section or fix the record, otherwise buying a new one would be a lazy but necessary alternative.

 

And thus, I conclude this segment as a repetitive reiterator myself. In music and the technology we use to enjoy music, the language we use to describe this intersection is imprinted within the vernacular of our shared experience. Even globally, we all once shared the activity of buying a record at a store and jamming to it on the couch in the living room (not me, the oldest media I can recall using is the floppy disc). But like a broken record, we repeat phrases that many before us frequently stated, despite it not being relevant at this time. I guess that’s why language is so beautiful, because even with age, its grooves get deeper, and repeat itself during moments of our lives.

 

*Theme Music*

For my communications segment, I would like to talk about an artistic activity so impressive that I find extremely difficult to wrap my head around, despite dabbling in the art of writing myself. And that topic is hit song science.

 

Acclaimed Lebanese-American writer and author of the Prophet, Kahlil Gibran, once said, “Music is the language of the spirit. It opens the secret of life bringing peace, abolishing strife”. Now, I’m no spiritual man, rather I’m as materialistic and centred in a proven reality as one literalist can be. But yet, music does something to my senses that no other medium can offer, a medium that excites the auditory senses and triggers a cascade of experience. Perhaps you can see a harmonic tune, bringing you to smile with joy. Perhaps you can feel the melancholic crack in vocals, bringing you empathetic pain. These mixtures in the components of music are put together in specific order to elicit a worthwhile moment.

 

What we perceive through the art form of music is remarkable. Think of your favourite songs; the piano ballads of Elton John or John Legend, the vocal ranges of Adele or Alicia Keys, the guitar strumming from Ed Sheeran or Eric Clapton, the fist-bumping rhythm from Daft Punk or Avicii, the eccentricity of a Freddie Mercury or Prince performance. There is just about everything to love, everything from its conception to its organization to its delivery. We, as fans or as admirers of the craft, stand awestruck and applaud at their devoted talent and skill.

 

Personally, I’m heavily influenced by the rap scene. When I was growing up back in arguably one of the worst  -off neighbourhoods in Ottawa, Canada, rap and hip-hop were genres that dominated our music players (I suppose even I started with Walkmans, to CD players and finally the iPod). Thinking over the years, these genres are just a type of rhythmic verse, something like street poetry, conveying the hardships of living in communities that were just as much violent as they were wholesome. Other than the desire to fit into my student social circle, this is probably what spoke most to me. Remember, this is the same neighbourhood where I would walk home alone from school starting at the age of 6, the same neighbourhood where my father’s car was broken into several times and a fellow high school student’s brother was shot and killed in his own home. For the youth, it was hard, looking up to authority figures wondering whether this is the norm or if change will eventually come to fruition. Articulating these emotions in song, you’ve got something hard, soulful, impactful that vibrates down to your very bones. Hear a Kendrick Lamar classic and you’ll understand why he’s the first rapper to have been awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

 

Perhaps some of you are doubters as I swoon over something so pretentiously. Kevin, remember when you talked about ghostwriting in Season 3 Episode 2? What about music producers who sell their catchy beats to artists, like Kanye pre-College Dropout? What about the Max Martins of the world, coming up with one hit billboard 100 after the next? Are these, so called music artists, in it for this spiritual transcendence into the audio domain?

 

In actuality, I believe these people get it more than the rest of us, more than some artists themselves. The songwriter’s ability to conceptualize the song while also containing the classic elements of a story down to a science is incredible. And finally, through this long winded intro, we have come to the topic of this segment. What makes a hit song such a hit?

 

To start, maybe we need perspective from songwriters themselves. There are notable documentaries that offer some insight into the craft from musical idols. There’s the infamous scene in Jay-Z’s Fade to Black where the iconic producer Timbaland plays Jay-Z the beat to his now well known hit Dirt Off Your Shoulders for the first time, and it’s fascinating. From the candid reactions, to the off the cuff rap made in minutes, inspiration was lit in the rap god’s mind. In Ed Sheeran’s Songwriter, Sheeran conceptualizes songs for his upcoming album at the time, Divide. Stated in a Rolling Stones article about the documentary, Sheeran’s ambition is epitomized as he states, “If you don’t wanna be bigger than Adele, you’re in the wrong industry […] I don’t want to be the male Adele. I want to be Adele.” Perhaps not as rapid as the hip-hop scene, Adele herself takes much time and space to write most of her hit songs, taking 6 months to write “Hello” according to one Planet Radio article by writer Emma Dodds. Hell, the eccentricity and honest uprising of Billie Eilish’s fame, described in her documentary the World’s a Little Blurry, during a time when teenage depression is on the rise speaks volumes to the importance of her songwriter art, crafting a musical persona that resonates with young adults around the world.

 

I became interested in this subject after hearing about the research from Assistant Professor of Organizational Behaviour at INSEAD, Dr. Noah Askin. In his 2015 Tedx Talk, Askin states that “the songs that do best on the charts are not those that sound the most similar, but those that are actually optimally differentiated.” Think about the viral records on your local Top Hits radio station, or the bangers you hear at the weekend clubs. I bet there’s at least a small part of you that feels these songs sort of, meld together into a mish-mash of head bopping, fist-pumping dynamism. It therefore does make sense that the songs that stay on the charts the longest are the ones that, “sound similar to what else is going on at the time, but not too similar.” Analytics companies like Echonest, now owned by Spotify, have collected data on hit songs for years, collectively measuring 11 parameters: 1) Key, 2) Energy, 3) Tempo, 4) Speechiness, 5) Time Signature, 6) Acousticness, 7) Mode, 8) Valence, 9) Liveness, 10) Instrumentalness, and perhaps most importantly, 11) Danceability. Askin takes this a step further and developed an acoustic summary of these parameters, called the typicality score, that brings songs into the context of their time. Although at a baseline level listeners need to be welcomed into a known experience, it may then pay to hit them with something unique.

 

There’s even more research looking at the science of hit songs. One such researcher is Dr. Ali Fadlallah, earning a doctorate in Education Leadership at Harvard and owner of Rima Records, an independent record label that supports top performers in the music industry passionate about social change. Stated in his 2017 Tedx Talk, Fadlallah believes that hit songs are, “Masterful creations with massive influence. That’s why a big artist in front of a song, and a big budget behind it, fails, 9 out of 10 times, without true hit makers behind the scene”. He continues on analyzing hit songs with a focus on positivity, songs like Lorde’s Royals and Pharrell William’s Happy, both with over 800 million views on their Youtube music video. Perhaps the songs that tend to bring the world together, rather than destroy the bonds that bind us, are the hits that stick around and shape us for the better.

 

With all of this, perspectives from the actual songwriters themselves, or those who study and collect data on them, have to at the very least be thankful to the one who coined Hit Song Science. Mike McCready, entrepreneur and CEO of Music Xray, was the one who determined that hit songs could be predicted. According to his Wikipedia page, Mike McCready is most famous for, “using acoustic analysis software to analyze the underlying mathematical patterns in music”. His algorithm was able to predict the success of Norah Jones’ 2002 grammy winning album Come Away With Me. And if that’s possible, perhaps there’s some commonality within music that can help us determine what we should listen to, at least during this moment in our history. 

 

I could have went into this segment talking about music theory and how to create a new song. In reality, the problem with predicting art success is the premise itself, that true art is nothing more than the statistics we can record. Sure, there’s something evidently present within the songs of our times that make us feel, make us express as a conduit using our human brains. The stories told in trance-like melody make us smile, frown, scream, cry, clap, twerk, shuffle and breakdance. It just makes it even more amazing that songwriters are able to take this practically infinitely sized dataset and elevate their art to heights that create new frontiers in the music industry. It is this realization that I want to leave you with. Legendary rap artist Biggie Smalls once said, “Never let them know your next move”. Let’s stop anticipating what makes music great, and give songwriters the artistic freedom to match us with their experience.

 

*Theme Music*

For today’s episode, I’ll be interviewing someone who not only is on the verge of completing his PhD, but has also a keen ear for music, participating in the gigging lifestyle since his high school days.

 

He finished his bachelors degree in Human Health and Disease in Trinity College Dublin in 2018. Recently, he submitted his PhD thesis in March and is now preparing for his viva, while also starting an industry funded postdoctoral position. Importantly, he’s been gigging on and off with a 10-piece Motown band called 'The Papa Zitas' during his leaving cert, undergrad, PhD, and even now, with plenty of experience of balancing both gigging and the rest of his life.

 

Please welcome the spectacularly sound, Martin Sutton.

 

*Theme Music*

 

 

*INTERVIEW*

It still amazes me what many people in science have the capacity to do outside of the lab. There’s always so much hate about the academic process, along with the inability to cope with experiments, and less on the passion that drives us to do what we do, whether that be from within your institute or outside via your hobbies and interests. Perhaps you feel that you have no time for doing things other than your project, but there must be time allocated towards focusing on your morale and wellbeing. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed learning about records, songwriting and Motown. It’s important to highlight that people can be passionate about science and alternative things, otherwise this culture of the crash and burn of academia will remain unchanged. Regarding updates, damn, there’s been a lot. I went on two trips, one to London and one to Belfast! Good people, good fun all around. I had my mentorship program at URNCST, where I mentor undergrads on writing scientific papers, end with a (hopefully) great review article (we’ll see what the reviewers say). The Pint of Science festival was a huge success. And by the time of recording this, I am looking forward to the Dublin University’s Microbiological Society’s first ever focus meeting sponsored by Yakult Science. Now, I do remember incorrectly saying that the podcast was to return after the Christmas holidays, but life seems to find a way to populate one’s schedule. I aim to at least finish this season with the big prize by the end of the summer. With that said, thanks so much for listening, it really does truly mean a lot to me. Do remember to follow the podcast Instagram page for visual updates and sneak peaks, and of course, anyone following will be placed into the draw to win some Metaphorigins swag, I know now what it will end up being, on my 40th episode and Season Four Finale. Rate, subscribe, share, message, megaphone this episode to your family and friends. Tune in to the next episode of the season, but until then, stay skeptical but curious.

 

*Theme Music*