See Infra

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Tag Archives: John Legend

Irreverent Bastards and Covers (Part I)

I’m still working on a lengthy meditation on what exactly qualifies as “culture.” It is going about as well as you would expect. The difficulty of writing on such a nebulous topic is made only worse by the constant distraction of interesting ideas and writers I encounter on a daily basis. So, you dear reader, get to serve as my pensieve as I clear a little space up for other thoughts.

I am not, despite my many pretensions, under the illusion I am a musical expert. I am not even a music enthusiast. I am among the very least trained of amateur listeners and that is the way I like it. For one thing, I can enjoy little indie acts on YouTube without thinking too hard about who they are, who they sound like, or how admiting to liking that music will make me appear before my peers. One of those acts is Lauren O’Connell (her YouTube channel can be found here) and it turns out, she also occasionally blogs about the responsibilities of artists performing covers.

Some anonymous person on the internet commented on O’Connel’s cover of “The House of the Rising Sun” thusly

Only masters of music should TRY this song. When you hear Nina Simone and Odetta cover this song. You understand the monster of a song you are trying to play. The Animals, Bob Dylan and Leadbelly have tried and have all failed.

As a musician; I would never play this song. If you can’t make it better, then you shouldn’t even try. Or don’t post it at least.

O’Connell is having none of it

I used to apply that “untouchable songs” rule to myself. However, after several years of covering songs, writing songs, listening to lots of music, and undergoing the occasional artistic crisis, I decided that it’s better to live and work without that particular hangup.

So as you may have gathered, I take issue with the idea that someone shouldn’t even try to cover something that’s previously been done well if they can’t “make it better.” The implication that someone doesn’t have the right to attempt a particular artistic statement is problematic. […]

Fortunately, in this century, most of us don’t have to worry about our works actually being censored by the powers that be. But I think an attitude of censorship within the artistic community might be worse. It’s not about expression being kept underground. It’s about expression never happening in the first place.

I firmly believe that in order to be great, one must first be fucking awful. […]Right now, you should be a cocky, irreverent bastard. […] Crash and burn.

I’m torn between embracing O’Connell’s exhortation of creative daring and the natural caution that some songs and versions cannot, and ought not be topped. As a music listener, I spend most of my time listening to college kids sing a capella, folk songs, and whatever Pandora manages to slip in while I listen to those genres. As a result, I listen to an enormous number of covers, which I of course enjoy. The best are the literate covers that reach back, back in our cultural memory and musical history: popular songs by pop artists get reworked, made different, elevated to something greater than what they are. But even when it is just a bunch of college kids having fun singing the latest pop hit, there is something about the stripped down nature of most covers that I prefer to their high production value originals.

Sometimes, sometimes, you encounter a song that genuinely amazes – a bit of popular music that transcends the hit-making machine that is the music industry. Take Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”. Adele has what all agree is an astonishing voice, both from the quality of her vocal technique and in the emotional depth of her singing. I can’t even imagine anyone singing Adele’s songs, like Adele, and better than Adele in anyway. If an angel descended from heaven in and opened his mouth to sing the song that fully realizes the Kingdom of God and I heard the first notes of Rolling in the Deep, I’d wince for fear the angel embarrassing himself. Just listen to Adele sing it!

This of course, does not stop artists from trying their very damnedest to cover it, and I’ve heard a lot of attempts to go head-to-head with Adele that fell short. Most of them aren’t bad, but they aren’t great either. I usually feel in some small way enriched after listening to music I enjoy. After listening one of these good but not good enough covers, I feel impoverished. It is in this sense that some music becomes untouchable, and “Rolling in the Deep” seems like as good a candidate for thou-shalt-not-cover as any. Despite everything I just said, one of my favorite covers is John Legend’s rendition of “Rolling in the Deep.” Legend’s voice is glorious and spiritual. Legend distills Adele’s riff on American roots music down, down into a haunting and soulful piece of music. Give it a listen.

Is Legend’s cover a violation of the untouchable songs rule submitted by the commentator? Maybe, maybe not. On one hand it is a cover of a great song that even the most virtuotic singers frequently fail to honor. On the other hand, Legend’s version is different from the original, not merely an inferior copy. His approach to it is not an attempt at imitation of Adele, or to out do Adele, but a lateral interpretation of the music.

Are transformative covers made more likely by encouraging artists to freely cover, imitate, and to be cocky and irreverent bastards? Or are they the product of strong social barriers put up by other musicians around so called great music? Do we want to tweak the mix? How many bad attempts at Rolling in the Deep by college students does John Legend’s cover justify?

As odd as it might sound, this dilemma is made possible by one of the few redeeming features of our contemporary copyright regime. Come back to this space Friday for part II, where we’ll look at how copyright law encourages covers and what this all has to do with free speech.

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