24 April 2005

Wherefore cover?

The issue of transcription and arrangement has been in my head recently (working on the Yes and Who songs, listening to Petra Hayden's remake of Who songs, and listening to Yes's different versions of their own songs), so Confidential Report's recent entry on cover songs was a timely coincidence. He points to a CBC article that attempts to come to terms with the concept.

I'm not sure what to think about covers. The original article makes a few sweeping statements indicting bands that become known only for a cover song but then absolves The Beatles and and The Rolling Stones. The author defends them first by saying they were at least open about their sources (which other bands aren't?) and then by labeling those songs as handled with genuine reverence and respect. What's a disrespectful handling? Satirizing is defended earlier in the article; his only complaints are either lack of originality or originality manifest in the form of irony (Cake's "I Will Survive"). His final statement, [a] cover makes for a convenient stop-gap until inspiration strikes again, seems to me ultimately unfair. What band releases more than a few covers throughout their career? How does he know that those covers are a result of writers' block?

Calling Cake's "I Will Survive" belittling ignores the absurdity of the original. I don't care how popular it was or is: has he not listened recently to the rhapsodic soliloquy at the beginning that just let's-face-it cannot be taken seriously. Its over-the-top-ness paired with the studio sheen of disco was ironic before the so called scourge of irony hit the publics' consciousness.

All bands start out as cover bands. You learn by quoting, and you quote those artists you most respect. Just as painters study and copy the masters, bands learn by copying the music they most appreciate. In The Beatles' era, those copies would more often make it to bands' initial releases, but many have found inspiration in others' music regardless of whether it's their first or tenth release. Where does the comparison across the arts break down? Mature painters or sculptors generally don't copy others' works--the closest they come is with the re-interpretation of mythological scenes. The same goes for authors. Film directors create "remakes" that can be seen as an equivalent to musical covers. Personally, I always wanted to see filmmakers create movies based on the exact script of other films (a la Gus Van Sant's Psycho [IMDB], which I unfortunately have not yet seen). This would bring them more in line with theater directors who must wrestle with Shakespeare's or Miller's exact words in order to find their own voice. What is different about pop music?

Pop musicians straddle creation and performance. They can be forgiven for uninspired material if they are charismatic performers, or they can be praised for their skillful songwriting if they have no stage presence. The fact that they're both composer and performer makes them unique (what percentage of directors write 100% of their movies?). It's odd that the other gods of our culture--actors--are never criticized because they don't also write plays or movies.

I'm still not sure what to think about covers.

[ posted by sstrader on 24 April 2005 at 6:03:59 PM in Music ]