One thing about cover songs is that there are a lot of weird edge cases. And so people ask What does your account say about… some oddity that they have in mind. For example: What does your account say about Tom McGovern’s video where he plays John Melloncamp’s “Jack and Diane” but replaces the usual lyrics with permutations of the phrase “suckin’ on a chili dog”?
I’ve mentioned in passing a few times that I’m writing a book on the philosophy of cover songs. I now have a complete draft, which moves it to the rock tumbler stage in which I roll around the prose to remove rough edges and add polish.
Andrew Kania poses what he calls the striking cover paradox. The idea is that there could be a series of covers, each making small changes to the one before it, so that the final product sounds nothing at all like the original.
Today I attended part of a regular seminar series at Uppsala University. An upside of a dire times is that it was on Zoom, so I was able to just drop in. The talk was by Brandon Polite on The Fine Art of Sonic Duplication.
Polite discussed artists remaking their own tracks for licensing reasons, the paradigmatic examples being Def Leppard (who remade a few tracks so as to squeeze their record label for a better deal) and Taylor Swift (who is in the process of remaking her first six albums so as to crush misogyny and master her destiny). These are cases I’ve also been thinking about recently, so it was interesting to hear his take on them. The questions from the Uppsala folks were also top notch.
John Stuart Mill makes an argument that there will come a time— if it has not been reached already— when all the great works of music have already been written. He writes:
The octave consists only of five tones and two semi-tones, which can be put together in only a limited number of ways, of which but a small proportion are beautiful: most of these, it seemed to me, must have been already discovered, and there could not be room for a long succession of Mozarts and Webers, to strike out, as these had done, entirely new and surpassingly rich veins of musical beauty.
His idea is that there are only a finite number of notes which can be combined in only a finite number of ways. Many of the ways will be awful. Of those that are not, many have already been discovered and documented by great composers.
Although Mill only addresses instrumental music, we could extend the argument to songs. Any lyrics which can be written down with an alphabet are built from a finite number of letters which can be combined in only a finite number of ways. Many possible lyrics will be bad. Of those that are not, many have already been written— and each new song further reduces the remaining number of unwritten songs. So there will come a time when all of the great songs have been written.
Last month on Twitter, Helen De Cruz asked what the motivation is to work up an idea into a paper or book, rather than letting them remain as musings, scribbled notes, or blog posts.
My initial answer, “Whim.” I added, “Not in a fleeting sense, though. There are some papers that I just find myself writing, and I guess those are the ones.”
The thing I currently find myself writing is a book on the philosophy of cover songs, tentatively titled Philosophy of Cover Songs. Although there’s a path that got me to this point, there is no real deliberation in it. The alternatives would be either to struggle to write something else (and so get less written) or to wander off to some other activity (and so write nothing).
In the Guardian, Sean Monahan offers a skeptical take on the metaverse. That’s not a term I heard before, but it was coined by Neal Stephenson in 1992— evidently because he wanted a synonym for cyberspace that didn’t sound like too much of a William Gibson knockoff.
Mark Zuckerberg evidently thinks that the metaverse is the next big thing. Discussing an interview with Zuckerberg, Casey Newton at the Verge offers a parenthetical joke: “The metaverse being unavailable to us at press time, we used Zoom.”
So far as I can tell, though, the metaverse is just supposed to be an on-line there which has the structure of a social and practical space. Thinking that will be a mind-splitting development misses the fact that we’ve had it for decades already. Back in 2000, I argued that internet chat rooms created virtual social spaces that were largely independent of physical space.
Some people have argued that the phenomenon of cover songs is inexorably bound up with racism— white musicians lifting black music. For example, Don McClean wrote that “A ‘cover’ version of a song is a racist tool.” I don’t think so. Here’s part of what I say in a current draft…
…although covers were sometimes used as racist tools, racism is not intrinsic to the concept of a cover as such. As Michael Coyle puts it, crossover covering of R&B hits by white artists “exploited racist inequality but did not arise because of it.” The word cover originally had a sense of coverage which was not in itself tied to race, and covers in that sense continued.