How it might have ended

I’m sorting through some old documents, and I came across an unused draft for the Epilogue of my book A Philosophy of Cover Songs.1 This draft was a bit ponderous, but I still like the last line.

Alternate Epilogue

November 11, 2021

A referee for the paper which formed the basis of Chapter 4 recommended rejecting it, because my collaborators and I made too many distinctions. What the referee wanted was a single account that applied to all musical versioning practices. This reflects one conception of philosophy, on which it is about fundamental reality and eternal truths.

My account in this book has certainly not been so broad or so deep. Cover songs, in the sense I have discussed here, have only existed for about 75 years. They require that recording technology be a standard way for music to be transmitted but also that recorded tracks be treated as canonical instances of songs. This has held for rock music as long as there has been rock, but also for pop, country, and lots of other contemporary music. Covers have been an important part of music in the time they have existed. They have shaped the musical experience of most musicians and audiences alive today.

As I pointed out, however, the cover is not central for jazz. Because of the importance of improvisation in jazz, a recording typically serves as documentation of a performance rather than as a work in its own right. It also does not typically hold for electronic dance music (EDM). A typical product in EDM is not a new version of a song for which there is a canonical track, but instead a remix of an earlier track. Although I mentioned the difference between covers and remixes in Chapter 6, there is certainly more to be said.

Although I have talked some about hip hop, it is complicated for the reasons that both jazz and EDM are. It has both improvisation (in rapping) and remixing (in sampling).

Certainly parts of my account could be extended to cover other genres, but more work would be required. The details matter. Music is embedded in our culture and our lives in ways that thwart sweeping generalizations. One does not understand music by considering the most fundamental structures of reality, and a grand unified theory of musical versioning would miss much that is important.

One might wonder whether practices like sampling will overtake enough of popular music that covers will cease to be the important thing that they have been in the last 75 years. Years from now, perhaps this book will just be a strange relic recounting how old timers thought about music in the late 1900s and early 2000s. If so, I hope that “A Philosophy of Harmonies Downloaded Directly Into Your Brain” at least mentions me in a footnote.

  1. I blogged about the actual epilogue when the book was still in draft. And it’s Open Access, so you can read the whole thing for free.

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