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.

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Sunshine On the Radio: Variations on a Theme with Ron Carter

I was about to drive home today in the oppressive heat of my adopted state and when I flipped on my car the radio was set to the local jazz station. This station plays mostly instrumental pieces, heavy on standards and classics with some great programs that highlight new jazz, Brazilian jazz etc. from time to time. So, I was a little surprised when the piece playing was just an upright bass.

Ron Carter stretches, rocks, rolls and massages out of “You Are my Only Sunshine” a timeless lesson in the relationship between a standard, a musician, and the audience. I can’t stop listening to or thinking about this number.

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Written Better Elsewhere: Mumford and Sons vs. Frightened Rabbit

So, my good friend, Another J, just let me know about a piece on the Deconstructing blog discussing earnestness, indie rock, and the difference between Mumford & Sons and Frightened Rabbit. (“Deconstructing: Frightened Rabbit, Macklemore, and the Perils of Earnestness”).  I like the post, not the least because it taps into the debate my brother and I have been having about Mumford & Sons (he doesn’t like them; I do, a lot, and then less) but also because it compares the band to Frightened Rabbit, a great group I only recently learned about and have been struggling to figure out how to write about.

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Nothing to F With: Singing Praises for the Wu Tang Clan

My brother, in keeping with his resolution to bring more concern for hip-hop in the new year, has recently sung the praises of Enter the Wu-Tang Clan (36 Chambers), the debut album from the unforgettable Wu Tang Clan. I don’t write today to disagree with him. Instead, I write to support and to strengthen his claims. To say that this album is influential and iconoclastic doesn’t quite make the point.wutangblinditem

This album was released in 1993 and established a new sound and aesthetic for mainstream hip-hop. But the fact is that I had no clue that any of this was going on because I (1) had turned off the radio and (2) wouldn’t listen to hip-hop seriously for another half-dozen years. When I finally came to love this album nearly a decade after it was released, what made me appreciate it might be different from why my brother liked it.

But, to digress for a moment, my brother does leave unanswered some important questions about the attraction of hip-hop where we grew up. Now, I for one think it is foolish to insist that a community will only appreciate art created by people like them, but a remarkable thing happened in the 1990s as rap went mainstream that I can best illustrate with a brief anecdote. During my freshman year of high school, the senior class made their ‘class song’ something by Metallica (I can’t remember which one). My class? They voted for the Dr. Dre produced “No Diggity” by Blackstreet.

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Bond Under Covers

(Note: We are happy to bring another guest post from  the pseudonymous Historian and Professor Mortis, a dead film resuscitator, conversational flaneur, and all-around master of media. Enjoy. And pray he writes again!)


I grew up in a house full of James Bond fans.  My older brother was the most fanatical, but we would go as a family to see the new ones in the theater, and we watched them together when they aired on TV.  Before I saw the films, I heard all the theme songs.  How?  My brother owned an LP of Bond themes.  A cherished childhood memory is dancing along to From Russia with Love in my parents living room, misinterpreting the lyrics as “the masher with love” (imaging a henchman with a potato masher instead of a hand, like Jaws had steel teeth).  I still love Bond movies, and I still love their theme songs, and their covers.  That’s right, covers (and you believed TheElderJ when he said that I hate covers, didn’t you?).

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An Apology to Drummers


In the short-lived but classic show Freaks and Geeks, the character Nick Andropolis (Jason Segal) wants to be a drummer. He plays along to Rush’s “The Spirit of Radio” as his father looks on in disgust. Later on, when he leaves his house and stays briefly with the Weir family, Papa Weir takes his drumming passion seriously—he arranges for him to take lessons and blows his mind when he plays some big band and jazz records for him.

Nick cannot even conceive of how to make the sounds that the professional drummers are making. He is a self-taught drummer more interested in the spectacle and the noise. He does not follow through with the lessons. He eventually moves back home.

And there, in a nutshell, is a story too many of us may believe about drummers: amateur, talentless, noise-machines with the exception of a few real artists who are still merely backing musicians for great pianists, guitarists, horn players, etc.

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Review of Francois Noudelmann, “The Philosopher’s Touch: Sartre, Nietzsche, and Barthes at the Piano” | Inside Higher Ed

At a time when fewer youths are learning music in school and we gut arts’ budgets, maybe we should remember that music is for more than entertainment.

As my brother and I often try to show, the music we listen to makes us contemplate not just sound, but the world that sound inhabits and the place we have within it.

But we’re not terribly original in this…perhaps just a bit intense in the way we approach it. The ancient greek philosopher Pythagoras believed saw mathematics as a language that could explain or express the world he found around him–Plato drew on this and saw music not just as a great way to train the minds of his elite, but also as a way to understand the world. Harmony, for Plato, and the ratios embedded in music, were part of the secret fabric of reality.

Interested in the connection between philosophy and music  or the connection between deep thought and musical thought? Here’s a neat review of a book that looks at some famous thinkers and their music habits…

Review of Francois Noudelmann, “The Philosopher’s Touch: Sartre, Nietzsche, and Barthes at the Piano” | Inside Higher Ed.

Philosophers love music. there. Oh, and musicians sometimes like philosophers too.


And since we’re talking about philsophers and music, I cannot resist this old Monty Python tune: