The Cover Song: Repetition. Imitation. Innovation.

“The author is a modern character, no doubt produced by our society…discovering the prestige of the individual, or, as we say more nobly, of the “human person”. Hence, it is logical that in literary matters it should be positivism, crown and conclusion of capitalist ideology, which has granted the greatest importance to the author’s “person.”” – Roland Barthes (from The Death of the Author)
Nihil sub sole novum, Ecclesiastes

Years ago a roommate (the Historian) and I got in a furious argument about Lauryn Hill’s cover of Frankie Valli’s 1967 hit “Can’t Take My Eyes off of You” (a ‘hidden’ track on the U.S. release of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)). The Historian lamented both the lack of originality and the lameness of the cover in comparison to the ‘original’. Now, apart from the fact that Valli didn’t even write the song (Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio did, which complicates any claim of originality), Hill’s version, far from being a slavish imitation, is, I contended, a unique and worthwhile exercise that reflects her musical genre and time period and also enters into a long-standing tradition in art and literature. By updating the old, she created something new. And, as I added as an afterthought, originality is a false premise to begin with.

While my roommate retreated from his extreme “only the original and unique is good” position, he did not, lamentably, learn to love Hill’s version of the song. He has, however, come to see the importance of the cover song in popular music. Music is one area where we cherish repetition and imitation. Classical music and opera constantly revisit familiar territory; Jazz performance is built on a foundation of standards; Rap and Hip Hop made sampling at modern art form; and the history of Rock n’ Roll has the cover song as a staple of any new artist’s introduction.

Indeed, early canonical artists like Elvis and the Beatles were, at the beginning, cover artists (of course, some of this has to do with commercial viability; the rest of this has to do with re-packaging black music for white audiences). Anyone who has been in a band knows that you need cover songs to keep people listening to you and that learning and performing them is an essential part of musical and artistic development.

Somewhere along the way the cover song tarnished a bit. I suspect that part of this is a modern hang-up about “authorship” and “texts”; I suspect even further that once popular music was transported from its performance context where ‘authority’ resides in the current iteration (the performance) of the song rather than some dusty and fixed constant we started to be confused about its status.

Bear with me on this one. In classical music performances and live jazz shows, the money is for the performers—the commodity is in the moment. Since the dominant form of popular music has conventionally been the single played by the DJ and bought at the record store, the commodity is the fixed ‘text’ rather than the live performance or even the ‘transcript’ of the live performance. So, one explanation for the denigration of the cover song is that technological and cultural change facilitated a move away from a performance culture to prize the fixed recording instead.

Another explanation, and this one may be even more of a stretch, is that culturally we prize originality in artistic production because we overvalue ‘genius’. Some explanations for this phenomenon that I have encountered suggest that in a Christianized world we have followed the analogy author : text :: God : creation and that this implicit analogy has led us to devalue reinvention and repetition in favor of the divine original genius model. Another idea is that in a culture that so thoroughly praises the work of individual geniuses rather than the collective forces of human society, there is a certain psychological pressure on individuals to believe in this notion of ‘the genius’ with the secret and desperate hope that they might be one.

In truth, even the most innovative work is built on something that came before. In the ancient world, this idea permeates poetry. Telemachus claims in Homer’s Odyssey that men are always searching after the newest song—implying in some way that his song is new even as it builds on conventional and inherited language and motifs. In accepting a traditional form but claiming a different spirit, the Augustan poet Horace famously describes his poetry as “Roman wine in a Greek vase”. Imitation takes so many forms and is, like repetition, essentially paradoxical. By occurring in a different time, by having the ‘original’ behind it and in the mind of the observer/audience, a copy is never just a copy. The old is already something new. And nothing is ever truly new.

One important thing to say about cover songs: in the right condition, the ability of a song to be transformed and re-performed is a testament to its beauty. The Athenian philosopher Plato gave the world a problematic and interesting theory of “Ideas” or the “Forms” (explained in part in his Republic). In this theory, only the most enlightened may have access to the world of the ‘real’. What most of us see are shadows (in his famous caves) and copies of the ideal forms of things (which exist on another plane). Covers, to make an enormous stretch, are, to my mind, each individual copies or discrete iterations that represent the ideal potential of a great song. Any song that is successful by different artists in different genres from different times has been proved to be at the least appealing and, at the most, transcendent.

All of this verbosity is a final step in the argument I had so many years before and a necessary (for me, maybe not for you) preface to what I plan to do later, which is, to write about more cover songs.

Here’s one that freaks my brother out. I don’t know how well I knew the song “Landslide” originally performed by Fleetwood Mac (1975) when I heard the Smashing Pumpkins’ 1994 B-side. A friend of mine put the song on a mix tape and I have a distinct memory of what and where I was driving (a Ford LTD station wagon 3 miles from my high school) and my reaction (I wept). The feel and cadence of that version is wholly different from the ‘original’ and from the later version by the Dixie Chicks. There is something about Billy Corgan’s breaking voice and the stripped down instrumental that is at once emotionally harrowing while also being true to the musical aesthetics of the time. Stevie Nicks (and the Dixie Chicks) drive me crazy.

In truth, as a guy, the maleness of Corgan’s voice probably facilitated my acceptance of the song—it made it easier for me to identify with/as the subject of the message.  But, most importantly, that the song can be loved in these three very different forms, that it has been adapted to the musical taste of three very different decades, is a testament to the brilliance and the beauty of the song. But what is the song? Is it the notes on the page? Is it Nicks’ original conception? Or does it exist, like one of Plato’s Forms, somewhere in the aether, among and between all of its potential versions  waiting to be instantiated  or substantiated by some new voice at some different time?

To continue the argument…what are your favorite cover songs? What songs do you enjoy playing the most? And, brother, will you ever forgive me for preferring Corgan to Nicks?

3 comments on “The Cover Song: Repetition. Imitation. Innovation.

  1. 2bitmonkey says:

    I love both the smashing pumpkins version and the Fleetwood Mac version equally and differently. Landslide is probably my favorite Smashing song, which is strange to say about a cover.

    I don’t know what my favorite cover is, but one I always enjoy is the National’s cover of Psychadelic Furs “Pretty in Pink”. They did it for a daytrotter session so you can stream it online. It’s amazing how true to the original it is, yet it still sounds like a quintessentially National song.

    • theelderj says:

      Great catch on the Furs’ number. That’s really the test, right? A great cover brings into relief what is unique about the song and the performer.

      I totally agree about the smashing pumpkins. I still can’t hear their “Landslide” without almost breaking down.

  2. […] was the year that I dropped the transmission on the Ford LTD station wagon; but it is still filled with memories of music playing in that car. I can see the road I was […]

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