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.Continue reading “Striking covers”
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.Continue reading “Torment and interpolations”
At the risk of jinxing it, I’ve posted a late draft of Appreciating Covers.
I coauthored it with Cristyn Magnus, Christy Mag Uidhir, and Ron McClamrock, giving it the longest list of coauthors on any of my papers so far.
EDIT: There was initially a problem with the link. Should be fixed now.
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…
Continue reading “Hey, mister banjo”
…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.
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.Continue reading “Same words, different meaning”
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!Continue reading “Footnote to an 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”:
Continue reading “The magic of allusion”
I was living in London
With the girl from the song before2
In a post at Cover Me, Riley Haas describes Depeche Mode’s 1990 song Personal Jesus as having “sex appeal with a sinister undercurrent of dominance and submission.” Michelle Kash, whose cover is featured in the post, “said she aimed to turn it from a song about a man dominating every aspect of a woman’s life to a song about sexual freedom.”
There’s breathy sex appeal in the original, sure, but I had always thought of that as just Depeche Mode being Depeche Mode. They could write a song about standing in line at the Orange Julius, and it would have sex appeal and an undercurrent of D&S.Continue reading “Personal interpretation”
This week of posting my favorite holiday songs concludes with one that’s only tenuously a holiday song.
“Greensleeves” has an alternate set of lyrics which are about baby Jesus, making it a Christmas song. But the original lyrics are just more fun to sing, so let’s sing those instead. It has a million verses, but everyone can sing the chorus.