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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Cover Songs: Pink Moons and Psycho Killers

In the past, I have spent a good deal of time talking about cover songs. I have mused about what it means to call a song the same song in different performances; I have tried to provide a typology of a cover-song; I have even dabbled in ‘arranged-marriages’ of sorts as I have tried to pair impossible, dream combinations of songs and performers.

One thing I have not talked about is the fact that certain songs should never be covered. Now, I know that such wide-open generalizations are inevitably proved false (you know, with all those monkeys working away on all those typewriters….), but I think there are songs that are so indelibly and unalterably bound to their performers that they should never be assayed by someone else.

What got me thinking about this? Last night my children politely requested their nightly dance party (at almost 3 and almost 1.5 years, they actually screamed for it, but I digress). I turned on the television to Music Choice’s (sadly and pathetically) default Adult Alternative station and the following abomination filled the air:

I don’t really know who Teddy Thompson and Krystle Warren are and I am so incensed that I will not even bother to check them out Wikipedia. (How’s that for some false indignation?) Here’s the thing: “Pink Moon”, Nick Drake’s brief, ethereal and ephemeral anti-anthem, works because of its (1) simplicity, (2) beauty, and (3) brevity, all of which are made possible by the solo combination of Drake’s eerie/breathy voice and his iconoclastic finger-picking.  When the spare piano notes come in, their vibrattoed-brevity brings that solitary sense into relief like the light of the moon in a darkened sky.

This cover is earnest—the performers obviously love the song, but they just do too much. The two voices deprive the song of its solitary space; the extra instrumentation clutters up the sound; and the repetitions lengthen the time past its key feature: the almost orgasmic (if subdued) brevity that leaves you wanting more.

And isn’t that the central story of Nick Drake’s music and his life? The lack—the wanting, and the ultimate space of hope and disappointment left at the end?

The next morning, my good friend and sometime-commenter on this blog (who keeps threatening to write a post…) asked me about a song we used to cover when we were in a band, “Psycho Killer” by the talking heads. See, the band just released an earlier version of this song with a damn cello in it.

This version, I must admit, actually seems to reside somewhere between the 1977 version and the live version–it doesn’t seem to have the same stilted pace of the album version. It also seems to anticipate a little bit of the life of the much later live performance. When it comes down to it, though, the cello isn’t that noticeable or radical.

Now, here’s the problem with “Psycho Killer”. (If it is really a problem at all.) The version I grew up knowing (and ultimately the one our band covered) was actually from the live performance that became the sensation Stop Making Sense. In that live version, David Byrne walks on to the stage and presses play on a sound machine to produce the beat—he performs the song at a pace much faster than the album version for the most part alone.

The band slowly integrates into the music as the concert builds on. By the end of a few songs the stage is filled and the air vibrates with some of the most dynamic and symphonic sound to ever come out of lower Manhattan.  The album version of the song, however, is slower, almost sloppy even though recorded, and ultimately unsatisfying if you heard the concert version first.

Now, in between the original recording and the performance was over half a decade. Anyone who has performed the same song for a year, much less seven, knows that songs develop as if they are in fact alive: they mature and become more complex; sometimes they lose vibrancy and urgency. But what is important is that they, like the performer and the audience, change.

So, perhaps some of my resistance to hearing another version of this song and part of our cultural attachment to individual versions of songs is that they offer us the false promise of sameness—the recorded song stays the same, it doesn’t develop, it is like a photograph or a video: it is a fossilized version of something that once was. The song lives on forever. Psychologically, isn’t this an attractive flouting of the fact that we will not do the same?

Still Killing?

Still Killing?

The trick of this, though, is that the experience of the song has changed because we as listeners are no longer the same and we live with the earlier experiences of hearing the song as part of our memory and our associations with that piece.

Now, “Psycho Killer” is a song whose power rests not in its particular beauty or in the simplicity of its articulation but in its message and structure, does lend itself to different reinterpretations. One of our favorite bands, Bishop Allen, does a fine and light job of it here ( I do appreciate the nearly manic pace of this cover and the humorous intro-patter; the slight change in phrasing isn’t as effective; the overall effect, though, seems to channel more of the punk-era aesthetic that the Talking Heads came out of). And the original version of the song above shows us some of the surprising depth that can be plumbed merely by adding in new instrumentation or varying the pace.

The lyrics of the song also lend themselves to pointed reinterpretation—where one version of the song is plaintive protest, another is mocking jest. What would this song be in the mouth of someone more earnest? What if a Bob Dylan or Bright Eyes performed this song? (There’s my impossible recover request: Bob Dylan, performing “Psycho Killer”,  five years before it was written in Washington, D.C. during the unfolding of the Watergate Scandal. Don’t ask. Just imagine.)

Of course, it is not only a simple song that is hard to perform. At times, the more complex a song gets, the more it depends on a dangerous tension between execution and failure. One of my favorite Talking Heads songs, “Nothing But Flowers”, works only when performed with a paradoxical severe levity.

I love this song. And, when I heard it performed live by another one of my favorite bands, Guster, I thought I was going to die of happiness. And, for at least a minute of the song, I was filled with joy. But, slowly, the sound started to wash over me and I realized how it seemed only half-way there, like something essential was missing.

So, the moral of the story? (Wait, there was a story?) Cover songs are hard and delicate work. An artist needs to make the song his or her own without losing whatever is essential to the song’s core.

I think. Maybe. While I figure it out, here’s another cover to mull over:

Repetition is the death of Art (?)

You say I need a job,
I’ve got my own business.
You want to know what I do?
none of your fucking business.
But now I’m lying here
knowing that business had a name,
But now I’m a number
1 2 3 repeater “Repeater”, Fugazi

One of the cornerstones of popular music is repetition. From the basic strong structure (verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus) to the chords themselves, pop music is built upon the re-deployment of basic musical themes, motifs and lyrics. This isn’t just about rock n ’roll—the riffs and standards of jazz or the basic  progressions of blues are hewn from the same material.

(We can debate the origins if you’d like. Work songs? Spirituals? Any single genealogy will fail to be as wide-ranging as I anticipate below.)

Repetition, however, has a dodgy reputation among modern philosophers—especially when it comes to forms of popular culture. Theodor Adorno, for example, sees repetition as a feature of industrialization, as an indication of lost individualism, as a preface to the lock-step march of fascist armies. Other theorists, following the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, see repetition as “idiotic enjoyment”.

So, from a philosophical perspective, the prominence of repetition in popular music is either a low-brow reflex of the industrial age (even in our art forms we are on the assembly line or marching to war!) or an unconscious extension of basic pleasure seeking principles (which is, admittedly, an over-simplification).

Ugh. Does it have to be this way?

As I have tried to write about before, repetition is far more complicated than we like to admit. First of all, repetition, from a reception standpoint, is problematic (even if you hear the same words twice with the same melody, your experience of the first iteration alters your reception of the second.)

But, more importantly, the prejudice against repetition (or at least the dim view I’ve selectively presented) is artistically and, for lack of a better word, historically, misplaced. Repetition isn’t slavish: from our earliest poetic forms cross-culturally we learn that repetition (of words, themes, even entire narratives) helps to build more complex and resonant works. Indeed, it is only through repetition that symbols, sounds and words aggregate meaning.

But, and here is the squishy part of my response, repetition is so thoroughly the standard condition of human life between the poles of birth and death that it is foolish to dismiss its appearance in popular art forms as the mechanization of popular culture or a widespread embrace of idiotic joy. Every minute is filled with repetitions: breath, blinking, moving. Each human day is a series of mundane repetitions broken up only rarely by new routines and the unexpected. Perhaps repetition in music is merely a reflection of this essential feature of human life. Shouldn’t art be in some way an extension of regular life either as an expression or organic outgrowth of that which occurs or a reaction to what isn’t there (an expression of absence)?

Pop music, then, built so thoroughly from repetitions of different kinds, showcases this human tendency. There are, if we want to go back to a darker reading, of course, market-based advantages to this. A song that introduces you to a chorus and has you singing along by the end of the first or at least by the third iteration is more likely to keep your attention, to drive advertising dollars, to translate into record purchases. Repetition is thus also the bedrock of commercialization.

But, to turn away from the negative, again, repetition is also a fine way to develop the most essential of artistic measures, the contrast. Why have a bridge in a song at all? What does it do? Would a guitar lick or solo mean anything without a repetitive chord progression behind it? What about drum flairs or variations? Variation cannot exist without regularity, without repetition.

Of course, if repetition is the status quo of pop, then it doesn’t necessarily work all the time. And, if it is the expectation, then by defying expectation certain songs or artists can achieve surprising effects. To explore this, let’s consider one band’s songs as evidence of the success of non-repetition and the horror of repetition misused.

 

 

On the  album Transatlanticism, Death Cab for Cutie includes several songs that break basic expectations. One that uses repetition and non-repetition to great effect is “Passenger Seat”. The song is built around a basic piano lick with the vocals narrating a ride home (there is ambient sound behind the single-key and chord progression, but the body of the song is piano and voice). The narration builds to what seems like a chorus as additional vocal tracks join Gibbard: “ ‘do they collide?’ /I ask and you smile.” Pop music has the audience primed to expect this to be the chorus, to be repeated again (the melody is repeated for the next line). We are, happily, disappointed.

It is what happens next in the position of the bridge where we find repetition and non-repetition combine. Gibbard sings “when you feel embarrassed then I’ll be your pride” and then repeats the same melody with “when you need directions then I’ll be the guide” except on the second “be” he varies the melody and rises up into his falsetto—a variation that takes a simply, but poignantly put, sentiment and renders it unforgettable. I still get chills every time I hear it.

This moment is made possible by the repetition of the music, many of the same notes, and by the close variation of these lines (the anaphora of “when you…then I’ll be” combines well with the similar sounds in “feel” and the rhyme “pride/guide”). A lesser artist, moreover, might make the mistake of milking that final moment, of repeating the lines and the melody that are so effective at the end. Gibbard does not. He lets the lines hang. He leaves the audience expecting and wanting more.

So here, I suggest, we find a song that uses various types of repetitions against the additional backdrop of millions of repetitions of pop formulae to set up and then defy audience expectations. By defying the expectation of repetition, Death Cab for Cutie makes the song more likely to be repeated entire; it creates a new desire in its listeners that can only be fulfilled by additional iterations.

Or something like that.

Gibbard is a lesser artist on a later album. I will write very little about this case, because I still find the whole album to be a capital crime against good taste.

 

 

On Narrow Stairs, the early track “I will Possess Your Heart” starts out with ambient noise and piano, only to devolve over a repetitive bass line into a long non-repetitive, slowly building, musical feint. By the time we get to the lyrics, we expect big things. But, this song disappoints. The repeated lyrics are interspersed with a vocative “love” and the most repeated line in the song, “I will possess your heart”, turns over again and again until you (or at least I) hate it.

Again, there are plenty of times where a repeated phrase that seems annoying at first listen wins you over. (Earlier I mentioned Rihanna’s repeated “ella”; think also of the inane “Poker face” which wins through a combination of melody and rhythm despite the awkwardness of the lyrics.) In this line, Gibbard falls far short of his own standards. What does it mean to possess one’s heart? Is the singer some sort of a mass murderer who collects the organs of unwilling paramours? In seriousness, I know this is a metaphor, but it is a bad one. Something about possessive love of this sort is unsettling, almost menacing. Without a catchy melody or an attractive beat, the sentiment is a strange one to choose to repeat. Sometimes, one writes bad lyrics. Cover it up by not repeating them!

I am sure that the song merits more consideration than that, but the repeated title is just too grating, it makes me want to reject the entire album (and I only listened to it twice after hearing this song).

And, as usual, I have probably gone on too long. Have I made any sense about repetition or do I need to return to this again? Are there songs that you wish repeated something or you think repeat too much, brother?

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.

Continue reading