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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
“Good King Wenceslas” (YouTube) is a song I learned in elementary school. The narrative is actually pretty weird. A king’s magical powers are downplayed in favor of extolling charity and sharing.
What sells it for me is the extra verse, which I saw years later in an episode of Phineas&Ferb (Wiki). Buford Von Stomm, in order to establish that he knows the whole story, gives us this:
The words were by an English guy. The music, Scandinavian. Wenceslas was five-foot-six. He kept his face unshaven. Though just a duke throughout his life, He always ruled so justly His kingly title was conferred Upon him posthumously.
“It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” (Wikipedia/YouTube) is another grim carol from 19th-century America. It has that distinctively Unitarian sensibility of cosmic optimism tempered with awareness that people are typically terrible.