Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Art of the Power Hour

Drinking games have been a part of human culture since antiquity. I don't know if anyone's taken the trouble to trace their history from Ancient Greece / Tang Dynasty China up to the present, and I certainly won't attempt anything close to that feat here. I will attempt to talk about one of my favorite drinking games, one that relies heavily on technology and pop culture for a satisfying experience. I'm talking about the Power Hour, a fully customizable drinking game that seamlessly blends two of our most fun and enduring pastimes: getting together as a group to listen to music and getting together as a group to get drunk.

In case you're unfamiliar with the concept, a power hour, in its most basic form, includes an hour of music. At each minute, every participant is obliged to take a shot of beer. If done correctly, at the end of the proceedings, everyone should have consumed the equivalent of approximately five (5) beers: 60 minutes = 60 ounces, divided by 12 (the number of ounces in an average beer can). In the interest of accessibility (and of cutting down overhead), full 1-oz. shots need not be used every minute: participants can choose to simply take sips out of their beers rather than pour themselves out a shot every time. This allows the drinkers/listeners to tailor the experience to their own personal preferences/tolerances.

Now that we've gotten through the logistics of how much to drink and when, we can focus on the more interesting aspects of a power hour: the process behind deciding what music should accompany the drinking and putting together a good mix. As I see it, the art of developing a power hour can be broken down into three steps. The first and most important step is coming up with 60 different songs; regardless of what technology you use to pull it off, a good power hour must have 60 unique sound samples. The next step is deciding the order in which the songs will play. And the third step is putting it all together.

I'll talk about each of these steps in detail, together with some discussion of theory, after the jump.

As far as Step 1: Picking Songs goes, I always prefer a themed playlist to a non-themed one. The ability to customize the playlist allows the creator to choose the content and overall feel of the power hour. In my time, I have experienced playlists with themes ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. For example, the first power hour in which I ever participated (created, incidentally, by Charge-Shot!!!'s own Chris Holden) chronicled the history of Western music. It was a fun and educational journey through some of the most impressive and culturally influential compositions, with a music major as our guide. On the other side of that spectrum, I've enjoyed an hour remembering popular music of the 90's (created by our esteemed editor Andrew Cunningham) and one comprised fully of inside jokes throughout our time at college (another Holden creation).

Other themes explored by Chris include power ballads (breaking conventions by ending with "Freebird's" 13-minute guitar solo in its entirety), memorable themes from TV shows, and a History Hour, which celebrates 60 years of music by selecting one song from each decade starting in 1949 and ending with the present. What an age we live in, where one activity can be as social, entertaining, and educational as a Power Hour!

My personal catalog of power hour mixes includes one featuring some of my favorite movie scores, two following the entire career of The Beatles (split into one for their early years (up to and including Revolver) and one for their later years (starting with Sgt. Pepper)), one devoted to blues rock powerhouse Led Zeppelin, and one devoted to Canadian progressive trio Rush. My most recent mix celebrates the magic of Disney, featuring classic songs from their movies and attractions at their parks.

While focusing on strictly musical power hours, I've neglected to mention the more technologically advanced Video Power Hour, where minute-long video clips are edited together rather than songs. My first experience with video was a compilation of some of the best jokes from The Simpsons, put together by editor Andrew. These video hours tend to hold audience attention better than audio ones, but they also cut down on conversation to a considerable extent. My friends and I recently completed a Disney Video Hour created by a fellow called Al Yunk and posted on the Internet for easy viewing. (Despite not being able to find the last 10 minutes, we had a grand old time.)

Step 2: The Order is pretty self explanatory: you choose which order songs appear in the playlist. There are different philosophies behind selecting songs. Out of 60 songs, some are bound to be better quality than others, some will elicit more of an audience reaction than others, and some will be just plain filler. I consider it my responsibility as a power hour creator to arrange my songs to provide the best overall experience for my listeners.

To illustrate this point, I've prepared a graph showing song quality as a function of song number (where it appears on the playlist). The Red represents how I try to arrange my playlists, while The Blue corresponds to how Chris likes to structure his.

Chris's graph is more like a bell curve, mine is more like part of a sine wave. I like to start with a bang, then quickly build while the novelty of the hour is still strong. As the participants down more beer, they tend not to listen to the music quite as closely, side conversations pick up a bit, and it's okay to slip in some less interesting songs. Chris likes to start slow and build slowly, then taper off, following the idea that once you've started to lose your audience, there's no getting them back. I, on the other hand, as a firm believer in going out with a bang, try to get a little build up in song quality as we wind down towards the end of the playlist. This requires a couple of attention-grabbers close to the last quarter in order to pull the audience out of its funk, which isn't always effective.

There are ways to circumvent Step 2: if you complete a playlist for Step 1, then put that playlist on shuffle. Or if the order of your songs is predetermined, as it was for Chris's History Hour and my Beatles hours (I opted to put the songs in chronological order, making them somewhat of a history lesson as well). But for the most part, I'm an advocate of freewill regarding selecting an order.

Step 3: Putting It All Together is actually made up of several elements. The first is selecting which minute-long sample of the song to include in the mix. The easiest method - and sometimes the most effective one, if you're dealing with popular songs - is to just use the opening minute. This method has the benefit of being rather low-tech, if also kind of high-maintenance: all you really need to pull it off is a playlist and an egg timer/stopwatch.

If you don't want to spend the entire hour watching the clock and hitting "next song" every minute, you'll have to edit your mix together. Now, there is software available for downloading that will automatically turn a playlist into a power hour. But if you want to maintain total control of your drinking experience, you have to do it yourself.

Over the years, I've tried three different ways to edit power hours together: with iTunes, with QuickTime, and with GarageBand. Using the "Get Info" option in iTunes allows you to select the start/stop times for your songs, which makes it easy enough to select whichever minute you want. The drawback is that you have to play it using iTunes, which means via a computer or your iPod. The advantage to QuickTime is that it consolidates all your songs onto one track (or several, if you break it up into 10-12 minute long parts), which allows you to play it from your computer, iPod, or from a burned CD. This makes Power Hours more portable and adaptable. After I switch'd to Mac, I started using GarageBand, which has all the benefits of QuickTime, plus a more user-friendly interface (IMHO).

The last decision you have to make is whether or not to include a short "cue" that lets participants know when to drink. The cue is not necessary - people will instinctively know to take a shot/sip as soon as the song changes. However, I find that the addition of a cue provides drinkers with a less jarring period of transition in which to take their drink and prepare for the next song. It makes the mix a little bit longer than one hour, but I'd say it's worth it for maximum comfort and style.

These are the simple rules and guidelines I use when constructing Power Hour. Anyone can do it: all it takes is an idea, a little creativity, and a lot of patience (editing 60 songs together can get a little tedious until one gets the hang of it). But the result is more than worth all the effort: a cohesive mix of songs that not only provides a great social activity, but also makes for a great mix to which you can listen any time. So what are you waiting for? Don't delay: try making your very own Power Hour... TODAY!