FAQs About the Portal 2 Song

April 29th, 2011

Much to my delight and relief, people seem to be enjoying the song I did for Portal 2. There’s no question that Still Alive was a hard act to follow, not necessarily because the song was so great, but more because the overall experience of the game turned it into such a well-known and widely appreciated cultural moment. Thank goodness I didn’t totally blow it!

I’m getting lots of questions on Twitter and in emails, so this is an attempt to answer some of them in one fell swoop. Ready?

Can I buy this song anywhere?
Not as of this writing, and I don’t know when you will be able to. The song and the recording are owned by Valve, so I’m not at all involved with what happens to it next. I happen to know that they’re planning on putting out a sound track, more than likely it will be on iTunes and Amazon and other places just like the sound track for the first Portal. But I don’t know when that will be – I’ve heard them say “soon.”

What about Rock Band? A karaoke version? Source tracks for remixes?
See above – not up to me. I hope that Valve will do all these things though.

This is under Creative Commons like all your other stuff right? So I cover this song? Create a parody? Make a video?
It is not under Creative Commons. Technically you would have to get permission from Valve to do something with it. In the past they’ve not seemed to mind all the crazy things people did with Still Alive, so if I had to guess (and I do), I would say that as long as you weren’t profiting from it in some way, they’d generally be supportive of fan-created stuff. But this is not legal advice, and I certainly can’t give you (or refuse you) permission to do anything.

Are you going to release your own version with you singing, the way you did with Still Alive?
I might. In fact I have permission to do that from Valve. I’m not yet sure what form that would take – the new song is so much more dependent on the arrangement and all the electronics that I haven’t quite figured out another way to make it work. But you’ll be sure to know when that happens, because I will tell you. I am finishing up a new recording of Still Alive that I did in the studio with the new band, with guest vocalist Sara Quin from Tegan and Sara, keyboards from Loser’s Lounge superstar Joe McGinty, and professional thereminista Dorit Chrysler. That version will go on the new album, I don’t know yet if there will also be a version of the Portal 2 song.

Are you going to play this song live at shows?
Eventually. For now I think it’s a little too close to when the game was released. It’s debatable whether or not the song contains actual spoilers, but it is certainly true that hearing it outside the context of the game will be a different experience. So I want to make sure I’ve given people plenty of time to buy and play the game before I start forcing it on them at shows. I don’t know exactly when that will be, sort of going to play it by ear.

Did you play the game before you wrote the song?
No, they created the game based on a song I made up based on nothing. <–joke. Yes of course! I spoke at great length with the writers as they were finishing things up, and I had an early version of the game that I was able to play through. I thought a lot about GlaDOS and her new experiences, what she was experiencing in this story, and there is a lot of new stuff that comes to light. Much later when it is less spoilery I can talk with more specificity about what things mean and what I think is going on in her head. But certainly I tried very hard to hit the moving target that was the story of the game, and a big part of that was playing it – it’s really the only way to know how the player is going to feel by the end, what they’ll know, what they’ll expect, what will make them go aha!

Did you write any other music for the game?
No. The song that plays through that radio you find is by The National, all the great turret stuff is by Valve composer Mike Morasky.

How did you make this recording?
I wrote it on guitar, made some scratch tracks of synths and drums and things, sort of worked it out from there. The opening musical idea was inspired by a drum loop that Flansburgh sent me, part of a giant “inspiration pack” of drum loops to help kick start some songwriting for my album. It just seemed to fit what I was doing with the Portal song, so I tweaked it and stuffed it in. I took a demo version with my scratch vocal to Valve to go into a studio there and record Ellen McLain singing it. We did the processing of her voice back in the Valve offices. I took that track and all my instrument tracks back to the NYC studio where I had been working on my album, and John Flansburgh and Pat Dillett and I messed with the arrangement. So really it’s the same producer (Flansburgh) and sound engineer (Dillett) team I’ve been working with on the new album. We took out a track here and there, changed a sound here and there, mixed, EQ’d. It was Flansburgh’s idea to drop out the instruments on “Oh, did you think I meant you?” which still gives me shivers.

I think that’s most of the main questions, but I’ll update here if I come across more. Thanks for all the positive feedback everyone, I feel very lucky to once again be involved with something as wonderful as Portal 2.

34 Responses to “FAQs About the Portal 2 Song”

  1. Evan Edinger says:

    Thanks for this! It answered most of my inquiries!

  2. quintopia says:

    Thanks for answering these questions without spoilering anything. I haven’t gotten a chance to play yet!

  3. vidstudent says:

    1. Thanks again. I haven’t gotten to your song yet, then – I thought Exile was you with you singing (my bad). Almost at the end, and hope to hear the song soon.

    2. Looking forward to new albums so much. :-)

  4. i poop sunshine says:

    Great song! Love it, very catchy it’s in my head all the time! Thanks for the good work

  5. Studley says:

    All very interesting information, thanks for sharing! I’m still hoping the song might crop up during your London show, even if it’s only in redacted form :D

    In fact, my only question is related to one of the existing questions! I didn’t know there was a version of “Still Alive” with your vocals on it – where can I buy/get that from?

  6. Sara says:

    Studley: There are actually two versions of “Still Alive” with JoCo vocals: one on his Best. Concert. Ever. live CD/DVD, and one on Valve’s Orange Box soundtrack.

    Of course, nowhere is it terribly obvious where to buy these things. You can find purchase links to Best. Concert. Ever here:
    http://www.jonathancoulton.com/bce/
    Or on iTunes: http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/best-concert-ever/id313635379
    Or at any Jonathan Coulton show, provided he hasn’t sold out yet. (I do recommend getting the DVD, not just the mp3s. It’s a lot of fun.)

    The only link I could find for the Orange Box OST is through Amazon:
    http://www.amazon.com/The-Orange-Box-Original-Soundtrack/dp/B0011V1W9U

    And Jonathan: You might want to do something about the fact that your website makes it *really* hard to find the purchase link for BCE. I knew what I was looking for and it still took a while.

  7. Danny says:

    “I’m still hoping the song might crop up during your London show”

    Very VERY seconded, would be a real treat for the assortment of portal fans im bringing along…I dont think its that spoilery, although ill admit the song works a lot better if youve played the game.

    “I didn’t know there was a version of “Still Alive” with your vocals on it – where can I buy/get that from?”

    Theres versions on youtube, i think in the portal soundtrack and also i think its in audiosurf.

  8. Sean says:

    I feel very lucky as well that you were involved in Portal 2. “Still Alive” is a favorite in my extended family – on a recent visit to my parents’ house I started singing it and both of my sons, my girlfriend, my sister, and my nephews and niece all joined in – resulting in some very bemused expressions from my folks, who had NO idea what the heck THAT was all about…when I finished Portal 2 last weekend both of my boys ran into the living room just to watch the credits and hear the new song. There were smiles all around!

  9. Aaron B. says:

    Thank you very much for that FAQ. I was wondering if that radio song was you. For anyone wondering the track is called “Exile Vilify” and it’s by The Nationals like the man says! Thanks again JoCo, you rock!

  10. Dack says:

    I take it the fact you don’t know whether you’ll record a version with just you means that there are no concrete plans for a “J.C. Mix” on the Portal 2 OST à la Orange Box Soundtrack? :(

  11. Emtu says:

    Awesome to hear that Flans had a direct hand in the song. I’ve been a huge fan of the Johns for years.

    Also, as for where to get the Orange Box Soundtrack (with both versions of Still Alive) – it’s included for free with Audiosurf, which is only $4 more than the OB OST on Amazon, and includes a great game to boot.

  12. MichaelH says:

    I like that this seems to be more of a stand alone song that Still Alive. Still Alive was so iconic and great because it was so intimitely linked to the game, but that means it can only resonate on that level. Whereas the new one registers as a break up/end of relationship song aswell, so you could listen to it with others who have never touched Portal, and they would probably enjoy it and not need a ten minute conversation on why the song is so funny.

    Was that deliberate?

  13. Phish says:

    I have to agree with Sara above. The DVD is impossible to find. Why isn’t it listed in the store or with your albums?

  14. DCB says:

    Much as I loved Still Alive, I’m gonna go ahead and say that this new one is my favourite song in any video game ever. If I collected all the things I love most in a song and stapled them all together, it’d come out sounding pretty much like this. Can’t wait for it to come out.

  15. ricky says:

    I am so excited for a version of still alive sung by sara quinn.

  16. JoCo says:

    @MichaelH: Not really, just tried to write what GLaDOS would say.

    @Phish: oversight, laziness. Used to be on the very front page for a while before the cruise happened, and when I took it down I just never put it in its home with the rest of the albums. Also, online physical sales have never been a huge part of my business, and since I don’t handle the digital on BCE (What Are Records does), I never noticed.

  17. Fata Morgana says:

    Thank you for making a post about Portal 2! I have been hungry for information from all the creative minds behind the game, and so far have remained hungry because no one is (seemingly) saying anything. At first I didn’t think that Want you Gone was as good as Still Alive, but the more I listen to it, the more great I think it is. I don’t think it can ever top Still Alive for me, because that moment at the end of the game was really incredible and unexpected. This time I *was* expecting a JoCo song so it took away some of the impact.

    Great work, great song, and thank you for giving some making-of information!

  18. MLBurt says:

    Love the new song. As far as I’m concerned, it’s at least as good as the first (there’ll always be the association between Still Alive and the first game, though, which will always lend it something that a second song would never really be able to have, anyway). I probably won’t be able to get half a bus of people to spontaneously sing this song like me and a few friends did with Still Alive (seriously, one of if not the coolest moment(s) of my life).

    The part of me that’s a wimp–the one that likes a little happy sap with his psychological brainspinning–desperately hopes that the lyric about “little Caroline” being “in here too” means she’s not entirely dead. That made me sad in the weirdest, most real way.

  19. Yair says:

    MLBurt: I reckon the ‘goodbye my only friend’s bit was addressed to Carloine, and that’d probably mean she’s gone.. but given GlaDOS IS an AI, she probably has her backed up + UPS somewhere =P

    I awkwardly enjoyed the [MESSAGE REDACTED] bit, figuring it was a reference to Chiron Beta Prime..

    I wonder if JoCo had anything to do with that reference, though..

  20. Aarom says:

    I like the part where he got to play Portal 2 before anyone else AND got to call it research for a project. :P

  21. Well, I just finished Portal 2. I don’t think I’ve ever been so satisfied and thrilled with a game ending! Everything, including the song, was awesome.

    It must be really amazing to be involved in such a massive and outstanding project.

    My mind is still spinning… can’t wait for Valve to release the soundtrack!

  22. Since there was a “J.C. Mix” of “Still Alive” released on the Orange Box soundtrack, do you have any idea if Valve might do the same thing for this song?

  23. Chris says:

    Any chance you could post the lyrics for the “when i was a potato” chorus that got scrapped?

  24. JoCo says:

    @chris: nope, don’t even think they ever got written down, or if they did I have no idea where they ended up. Don’t worry, they weren’t good.

  25. JoCo says:

    @Totz: Haven’t heard anything on this front.

  26. Whizbang says:

    I think in the Portal 2 end credits song, you created the ultimate breakup ballad.

    Was that where you were working from?

  27. WaffleBlaster says:

    Great job on the song Jonathan, thoroughly enjoyed it. My town was recently torn apart during the enormous tornado outbreak that ravaged the south, and your music, along with the masterpiece that Valve has created called Portal 2, never cease to bring a smile to my face even with so much destruction surrounding me. Keep making wonderful music and brightening my day!

  28. This isn’t related to the topic at hand, but I just watched both of your “JoCo Cruise Crazy” shows via YouTube. Are you aware that you performed exactly 42 songs between the two shows and all of them were unique? (I’m not counting the Fancy Pants Parade since that was more of an event than a proper song performance, especially since you skipped the final verse.) Hopefully you’re a hoopy enough frood to get the significance of that number…

  29. JoCo says:

    @Whizbang: Yes definitely, this was meant to be a breakup song. I actually think about it as a breakup song on multiple levels (he said mysteriously).

  30. Lucky says:

    You made the perfect masterpiece needed by Valve for its notable game.
    Like for the first chapter, the ending score gives all the needed satisfaction, but this time reenforced by a sort of infinite sadness.

    No, you definitevely “didn’t blow it”, and you have successfully detailed – again – the incredible GLaDOS character (this time supported by the surreal turret opera too).

    Thank you. Can’t stop to listen it, needed an extended version :)

  31. Eloram7 says:

    Coolness!! I went to your concert at Birchmere in Alexandria yesterday! (May 6 2011) it was awesome! If you remember me and my friends, we were the only eleven year old girls there and you signed the shirts we made. Follow me on twitter jonathancoulton so I can show u the pic to jog ur memory

  32. dara006 says:

    My son and I were blown away by the ending to Portal. It was the greatest boss screen pay-off ever. When we discovered Code Monkey, Skullcrusher Mountain, Re: Your Brains, etc. we became lifelong JC devotees. When I discovered (after the fact) that I missed you playing Ohiocon in the same conference center where I had to attend the Ohio Tax Conference, I was crushed. ( I have to speak at that every year, please come back.)

    We finished Portal 2 last night and it was bedlam seconds after Wheatley was defeated. THE SONG! THE SONG!!! “Better than Portal, mom.” was the review. Humming “Now I only want you gone . . .” as we did the dishes later was the proof of the pudding. Thank-you for all the courage it takes to share your talent on a daily basis.

  33. Giggleloop says:

    Just (finally!) finished Portal 2 last night, & wanted to say I absolutely loved your new song. :) And on behalf of people who take longer to play games (I believe the term “über casual” springs instantly to mind), I wanted to tell you thanks for continuing to ask for feedback via Twitter as to whether or not we think it’s okay to play the new song live yet. That’s pretty awesome of you.

    Portal 2 now becomes the SECOND console video game I’ve ever completed (the first being Heavy Rain). (I played some of Portal but traded off with my husband about halfway through, so I don’t count it)

  34. crazydiamond says:

    love it.

    i am in a ceasing to exist black hole lately and only catching up on stuff from months gone by here, along with the redux. sorry i missed the window to comment on the milwaukee ticket contest, not because i could have gone to the show, but because i only WISH (as you indicated) you were the boss of me, or SOMEONE would be, because maybe then i could be slightly less ineffective occasionally. i’d make a great minion, but a grown up? not so much…

    <3