Now, I have written before about the art of the cover song (and my own theories). So this is not an entry about that. Instead, I am interested in the way that technology and the modern media has changed the relationship between the learning musician and the covered song.
For instance, reality competition shows (American Idol; The Voice) have incentivized (even monetized) cover songs in a way that just didn’t exist when I was younger (apart from the karaoke stylings of Star Search). Everyone who can carry a tune has an audition song. Audiences have become accustomed to discussions of fidelity vs. originality in performances for years.
But I am not even interested in the mass media aspect. What I am interested in is the personal relationship with the song, with the reasons someone learns specific songs and the reasons someone shares that song with other people. I know that when I was younger, I definitely learned songs with the explicit intention of impressing a girl (or two or more). Yes, I learned songs because I loved them, but I also learned songs that were cool so if the opportunity arose to play said songs for other people I might derive some proximal coolness.
But these occasions were few and far between when I was a teenager. Occasionally, I could play for a friend at my house or after school or at a party or when my band played. So, the opportunities to impress and to embarrass were far fewer. They were rarer and thus each one was worth more.
Or something like that.
Today, youths (and non-youths) have youtube. As a quasi-luddite, I don’t spend much time watching videos on youtube. I have long found the interface annoying and most of the videos not worth my time. As a result, I am a bit slow and stupid when it comes to youtube trends. The other day, however, I was trying to calm my daughter and decided to put on some music for her. iTunes had, typically, encountered some fatal error and shut down so I searched for songs on youtube.
Lo and behold, youtube is filled with amateurs performing covers of my favorite songs. That this came as a surprise to me should illustrate how ignorant and naïve I can be. Less surprising is how thoroughly engrossed I became in the entire phenomenon. There are videos of professionals (or near-professionals) covering other professionals and live rarities up the wazoo. What really interests me: the amateurs doing their thing.
I have been browsing through youtube covers of some of my favorite songs following no specific method or pattern. I have found consummate future professionals, vulnerable youngsters and a lot of real crap. What strikes me from watching these videos are two things.
First, most of the performers seem to bask in their absolute love for the song they are performing. Their choice to present this song at this time is a testament to its meaning to them. Learning the music and words to a song isn’t a simple proposition. Figuring out how to perform the song in a way that features your strengths and covers your weaknesses is exponentially more difficult. It takes self-knowledge and honest.
Second, and this is my greatest obsession, I can’t help but mulling over the motivations behind the decision to (1) make and (2) post these videos. Is this the equivalent of going to a party with a guitar hoping someone will ask you to play a song? Is this like playing on a street corner or in a coffee house? The range of emotional signals provided by these video posters is fascinating but, what’s more, it is also harrowing.
The honesty. The dedication. The vulnerable desire for acceptance and praise. I can’t take it. I want them all to be good. I want them all to succeed. But I also want them to surprise me. I want to be entertained. Is this what the internet has done to us? Have we all become potential entertainment for someone else? (And this is asked by a man who writes a blog. Talk about a total lack of self-awareness).
So, this may or may not be a new running feature. We’ll see how it goes. Below are some cover songs from youtube that I like. If you like them, let the performer know. I suspect that he or she will want to.
Let’s start with something a bit more typical of some of the youtube posts. A very young and sweet- seeming girl does a cute cover of TMBG’s “She’s Actual Size”.
I think she’s just trying to figure out if anyone really likes her. She’s a young geekling, a geekette; hopefully she knows that things get easier and better as you get older.
Of course, sometimes these videos feature duets instead of solo acts. These can reveal interesting dynamics and contrasts. In this cover of The Postal Service’s “Nothing Better”:
The male singer over enunciates, but the female vocal is sweet enough to make me cry.
In the Postal Service category, for another typical motif of the youtube cover video see this version of “Such Great Heights”.
This guy looks likes someone’s dad or a guy who works at Best Buy. But look at the true love in his eyes. When he hits the higher note on “Come Down now” his voice sounds really pure. His strumming is a little cluttered, but the whole effect works.
The metacover (cover of a cover) of Iron and Wine’s version of the same song is a bit sad:
…Ok, it actually makes me want to get in a bath tub and slit my wrists (a la The Rules of Attraction). But the girl looks so ingenuous, so dedicated to this moment I can’t mock the intentional evocation of sadness and angst. Someone let her know, it gets better.
This same girl gives us additional reason to pause when she does a nice little version of Feist’s “1234”
Speaking of young, ingenuous and just heart-rending. This girl announces that she hasn’t brushed her teeth yet and then gives a pretty nice rendition of Mates of State’s “My Only Offer.” It is a bit rushed, but her voice’s tone is sweet and the total effect is a bit harrowing. There is a sour note at the end, but who can complain when someone has bared herself so clearly to the world?