Music is weird

“Music’s weird,” Cristyn commented over breakfast.

We’d been talking about the YouTube show Blind Covers. They give a band the lyrics of a song they’ve never heard, the band has an hour to work out some music, and then the band performs a song with those lyrics. The show ends with the band listening to the original version.

The experience of watching the show depends on whether or not I’m familiar with the original. In the most recent episode, Triangle Fire (a band I hadn’t heard of) performed their version of American Girls (a song I’d never heard). After watching it, I found a video of Counting Crows’ original version of the song. Having heard Triangle Fire first, the latter was kind of disappointing.

The question at breakfast was whether this was really a cover. It would be one thing if Triangle Fire had listened to the Counting Crows song and decided to make changes to the instrumental lines and phrasing, but all they had to go on were the words. Cristyn commented that composers doing similar things would call them different settings of the same lyrics or text. But this isn’t composed music, and the versioning practices of rock mostly revolve around covering.

When people hear that we wrote a paper about cover songs, they usually ask how we define “cover”. Often they have some particular problem case in mind, and they want to know how we’d classify it. In our paper, however, we take as a cover whatever audiences and critics are willing to count. It would be a fool’s errand to try to provide a precise analysis.

Nevertheless, the categories of our paper can be applied here. Triangle Fire is clearly playing a different song than Counting Crows. If we still want to call it a cover, it’s what we call a transformative cover. A feature of transformative covers is that they can be evaluated either on their own or in relation to the original. (On its own: pretty good. In relation to the original: better, I think.)

Here’s another odd case: Weezer recently released a collection of covers called the Teal Album. One of the tracks is a cover of Tears For Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World. In an appearance on the Jimmy Kimmel show promoting the album, Weezer performed the song along with the members of Tears for Fears. Kimmel introduces it as “their cover” and the video title lists it as “Weezer ft. Tears for Fears”— but is it really a cover?

2 thoughts on “Music is weird”

  1. “But this isn’t composed music.” What do you mean by that? Do you mean that rock musicians don’t usually write out their music in any more precise form than chord charts? If so, I don’t think that’s a very good standard by which to measure “composition.” On the one hand, lots of rock musicians exist who write out parts for all instruments in meticulous detail (My Brightest Diamond is a good example of this approach, and a favourite band of mine); on the other, I really don’t think music needs to take a written form to be called a “composition.” A written form is not the end product of a composition: the resulting piece of music, remade with each performance, is.

    (By the way, I’m a big fan of your logic textbook — teaching from it for the third time next term! — which is how I found myself here. :) )

  2. One factor is whether there’s a precisely written score before the piece is performed, and another is whether there’s a clear division of labor between the composer and the performer. But there’s also a cultural difference— people tend to talk about rock music differently than they do classical or art music. Rock musicians are described as “song writers” rather than as “composers”.

    It’s that linguistic difference I was getting at here. The term “cover” only makes sense in (roughly) the context of rock music. Jazz and composed art music have different versioning practice and different ways of talking.

    (I’m glad you’re getting use out of forall x!)

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