Polite conversation

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.

A screenshot of the talk. I’ve blurred out the folks from Uppsala, because I’m not sure about protocol.

Torment and interpolations

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.

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Hey, mister banjo

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.

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Same words, different meaning

I’ve been thinking a lot about cover versions lately. A cover is typically the same song as the original version. Even if the words are changed a little, the broader meaning is the same. An example I’ve used before is Willie Nelson’s cover of Paul Simon’s “Graceland.” Where Simon sings about “a girl from New York City”, Nelson makes it “a girl from Austin Texas.”

Yet there are also cases in which the very same lyrics can mean something different, because of a change in who sings them. Consider some examples.

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Footnote to an allusion

In an earlier post, I overthought the Paul Simon line “I was living in London with the girl from the song before.” In an earlier draft of that post, I quoted more of the song.

Good intention: I copied and pasted from a lyrics site, to avoid making a typo.

Poor execution: The site I copied from had “the summer before” as the lyric!

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The magic of allusion

I’ve been thinking about allusion recently, specifically the claim that “it is impossible to properly appreciate an allusion without considering what it is an allusion to.”1

Of course, it is impossible to understand an allusion in a semantic sense if you don’t know what it’s alluding to. But that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to properly appreciate it in an aesthetic or artistic sense.

Take this example, from the Paul Simon song “The Late Great Johnny Ace”:

I was living in London
With the girl from the song before2

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