"And maybe we got lost in translation
Maybe I asked for too much"
— Taylor Swift, All Too Well
One of the daily features of my life during the pandemic has been a little webcast called “In Lieu of Fun” which is hosted by Ben Wittes of Lawfare and Kate Klonick, professor from St. John Law School who of late is best known for her expertise on the Facebook Oversight Board. While many of these discussions are law or national security centric (the latter being a bailiwick of Mr. Wittes), that hasn’t stopped the discussions for which there is a guest brought in from Kate or Ben’s circle of acquaintances and which have happened nearly everyday for over the year, from covering a wide variety of topics, including corvids, the Scotts language, and hunting morels. The tag line of the show is “We’re not allowed to have fun anymore, but in lieu of fun…” and then an introduction to the days topic. It’s been a fun little community that has developed and a reprieve from the doldrums of otherwise isolated days.
An on going running gag (and there have been more than a few) is that the “mystery guest” feature they have on Sundays will always result in the appearance from Taylor Swift, for whom neither of the hosts has any particular affinity or knowledge. But we do have at least one dedicated fan in the audience, and in lieu of Ms. Swift herself, Ms. Klonick brought on our resident Taylor Swift expert.
One of the features of the webcast is audience questions, and being a more than occasional performer, the one I posed was “What Taylor Swift song should I cover?” Alas, no sooner had I posted this question than did Janine, our expert, profess her dislike of covers. Although I did not get “raptured” in to ask my question, I did follow up via Twitter that I would “fight her on this point” to which she responded “If I like the song, an inherently worse artist covering it just makes me angry! I want to hear the real thing!” and some rando weighed in that "most covers are a waste of time…99.9% of time the originals are better.” In addition, of a list of various artists that included the Beatles, there was no cover this rando preferred to the original (somewhat oblivious to the Beatles own history performing covers, some of which, such as Twist and Shout, have become definitive versions). Rather than create a long series of tweets, I figured I would turn my attention to this long neglected blog for more extended musing on the subject.
As a songwriter, I would actually much rather perform my own original material, and prior to the pandemic I was able to indulge this penchant at length in front of an audience that I didn’t have to work especially hard to round up, as they would come down to the various hotel lobbies I haunted for the free wine at happy hour rather that to explicitly see me. I was an adornment, musical wallpaper, and there was no obligation for them to notice me nor for me to go out of my way to cater to them. They were there to drink and socialize and maybe be entertained, or at least not annoyed.
This was all the result of a program called Local Vocals, which I’ve mentioned before on this this blog, and was an excellent opportunity to exercise one’s performance muscles. Being in front of a live audience is like anything else, the more you do it, the better you get. And not having the pressure of being focal point is incredibly freeing. You can experiment and focus your attentions on the few people who are engaged — given these were hotels, there was a consistent contingent of travelers from Europe and Australia who were generally more appreciative of a live performer.
There is also nothing like performing under these circumstances as performer to find that if you do want an audience’s attention (especially for the purpose of extracting tips), play something they know. The dirty little secret of music is that it’s not about instant hits (although initial impressions do count) — it’s much more about repetition and personal engagement. You like a song more the more you hear it. And familiarity of well known billboard charting hit does a lot to ingratiate an unknown performer to an unfamiliar audience.
This principle is of course applicable in the online realm as well, which is why many an up and coming artist will create a YouTube video of themselves performing a song by a better known artist in order to start garnering a following. It’s friendlier to the algorithm and helps acclimatize new listeners to the timbre of a performer’s voice and their particular stylings. Of course it’s not just for the purpose of engaging an audience that a performer might choose to play another artist’s song. In addition to helping musicians improve their musicianship, performing another person’s work is also a learning experience for the songwriter — really inhabiting someone else’s approach to song can teach you a lot about the craft. Or they might just like and appreciate the song and want to share it and how they experience it.
The notion that musical artists would perform only their own original material is itself a relatively recent phenomenon, and has has much to do with the potential for publishing royalties as it does any sort of artistic purity. But there is an equally hallowed tradition of performers performing “standards” — especially in the world of jazz — and putting one’s own imprimatur on a well known work was just as valued as being able to write a good line or come up with a clever rhyme. And I've met many performers who genuinely love simply to perform and embrace playing the material of others.
Performers can, through their talent and sheer personality. make a song their own. Blossom Dearie was revered by no less than Miles Davis for her interpretations of standards and show tunes like “Surrey With the Fringe on Top.” For her girlish vocals and masterful piano playing, her interpretations would be distinctive — but she also had a way of taking song and putting a new spin on it, such as her sultry, slow burn on the the usually jaunty “Tea for Two.” It’s also not unknown for a “cover” to become more well known than the so called “original” — witness Jimi Hendrix’s take on Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” which even the bard from Hibbing thought of as more definitive. And there is a whole universe of Dylan covers out there.
Furthermore, one should not confuse the art of recording with the art of performing. Honing your abilities to perform will undoubtedly pay dividends in the recording studio, but there’s also a reason why top musicians can do well for themselves as session players. The skillset for performing under stage lights versus the red light of the studio certainly overlap, but they are not unsubtly different disciplines. And the skills and effort that go into producing record go well beyond simply sitting down in front of microphone and playing. Don’t confuse loving a particular recording for loving a particular song. The recording is but a single instantiation of a work of art that can take on many different forms. For the programming minded, the song is the class, the rendition — be it live or on record — is the instance.
Performance and interpretation are art forms in themselves. While the bones of song are its words, melody and harmony (and even those are malleable, especially for the jazz performer), how it is fleshed out with tempo, accompaniment and variations in dynamics allow songs to live so many different lives that you might not immediately recognize them — or perhaps you find new meaning or are moved in a way you hadn’t expected. But that’s the thing about music that’s kind of amazing, even in a different key, at a different tempo, with different instrumentation, a song is still recognizably a song.
In the live context a performance can be influenced by the presence and energy go the audience, in addition to all the interaction that goes on within a band. Even in the recorded context, the end result is a function of all those involved (including mixing and master engineers as well musicians), not just a given singer songwriter. And while there are savants who are able to record all the parts to an album, the end result is still reflection of who they were when they were engaged in act of creation.
Some of the aspects of a songs expression are contingent on real world constraints. The key a singer is comfortable in will dictate certain parameters. The range and variety of available instruments plays a role as well. But there are still choices to be made, and what are the best choices are far from definitive. Should it be 120 beats per minute or 124? Sort of arbitrary. There are the conventions of a particular idiom of course — what style shall we play it in? From the audience’s perspective, if it’s all consistent with a known genre, that will feel more coherent and cohesive. Ultimately, however, anyone who says it “has to be” a certain way has some other agenda or need (it may just be indicative of a personality type). Part of the art is the choices made, and some of those are made in the moment (sometimes out of serendipity). A song lives in the moment and the space in which it’s performed. There may be a collective assertion as to the “definitive” version of a given song, but that’s a sociological phenomenon that is more tribal in nature than anything else. I’m sure anthropology, psychology, and any number of other disciplines have or could produce PhD theses on the subject. It’s sort of an odd ideal that is limited to the realm of song — no one ever says only Shakespeare should perform Hamlet or that no one else should ever play another game of baseball after a particularly phenomenal and thrilling game.
From an artists stand point, being covered is kind of an amazing experience… hence my on going effort with the EGPhests — hopefully those will be back once normality resumes. In addition to the numerous performances that were gifted to me as part of my birthday celebration, I have been graced with a few artists who have gone so far as to record their take on one of my songs, such as Mr. Shawn Byron’s version of Lighthouse at the Edge of the World. If there’s an aspect that defines a “good song” it’s a certain amount of universality, for both listen and performer — so for my compatriots to indulge me to this degree is a (hopefully healthy) validation. It’s one thing for someone to say they like your song. It’s another thing for someone to take that heap or words and chords and make it their own, to imbue it with their own persona, to consider each word and note as one that they would express. What emphasizes will they put where? What meaning and experience can they bring a line? They might re-harmonize it entirely. Is a song really song unless someone else is able to make it their own? Maybe until then it’s just a diary entry with musical accompaniment.
Anyway, I feel like Janine’s assertions of frustration with takes by an “inherently worse artist” and that one version of the song is “the real thing” come with some assumptions, and I simply don’t agree with them. It might be comforting to believe that there is a single definitive take more pure than all the others because it is closest to a given artist’s vision, but I can tell you the latter point is kinda BS and overall the notion belies the nature of the song, which is more akin to the script for a play that can be performed on many different stages by many different companies. The notion that one is inherently "less real" than another is a bit dismissive. Even the performances of the originating artist vary. Certainly a lot of effort (and money) goes into perfecting a given recording, but sometimes I think the preciousness about the outcome is a salve for the wound that comes from only being able to choose one of all the other directions that could have been taken along the way. More over a song can be held by musician and non-musician alike in their hearts, sung along with when it comes on the radio or when out walking, perhaps far from the earshot of others, but still with gusto.
A cover could certainly be “bad” in that it could be executed in away that is deficient from a purely technical standpoint — though a listener can be quite lenient if the performance has some “soul” to it. There’s a lot of tragedy imbued Billie Holiday’s final album “The Lady In Satin” — even though she herself is far from in top form, the performances are striking. And it’s entirely possible a listener may not connect with a given artist’s take — and yes, expectations about how it’s “supposed to be” can play a role — but at a certain point the issue isn’t the performer and what they’re giving, but the what the audience is willing to take in. The familiarity of a known quantity — a song the listener and the performer share — is a way of trying to bridge the gap and find common ground in the hopes of forging a larger connection (not to mention having a lingua franca with other musicians with whom one might be performing). If that common ground is considered too sacrosanct to tread upon, will that audience be willing to meet the artist on their own?
Of course none of this means you’ll catch me playing a lot of covers… you won’t find me in a bar on Broadway in Nashville amidst all the rampaging bridal showers playing all the top hits from the radio… but an occasional one ain’t so bad.
The extended musings of a songwriter.