Thursday, August 28, 2008

(Under) Cover

In the discourse about popular music, you’ll find that that the re-recorded version of a song previously recorded by an earlier artist is referred to as the “cover version” or, more often, “cover.” The implications of the word “cover” merit exploring. If you explore the issue in depth, then you’ll find that the word “cover” is a contranym or an antilogy—a word that is its own antonym (it is what it is not). A cover is an open response, a challenge made, to the received understanding of a previously existing musical text, but it also conceals (hides), and also protects (to ward off damage or injury). Hence the existence of the “cover version” invokes one of the many sets of oppositions animating popular music criticism, in particular the opposition between original and copy. What this means is that the original recording must be regarded as definitive (authentic), while any subsequent version must be considered a copy (a simulacrum, or a “fake”). But there are any number of other implications of the word “cover,” one of which means to efface or erase the original: to do a “cover version” is “cover up” (hide) a previous version. It has been argued that white rock musicians (e.g., Elvis Presley) covered (hid) “the blackness” of the songs they made famous to white listeners. A case in point would be Elvis’s cover of “Tutti Frutti,” made more palatable in his version to white listeners than Little Richard’s raunchier (first) version. Did Elvis’s version also efface the meaning of the song title in Italian, “all fruits,” one meaning of which is bisexuality? Is this what is meant by “cover,” as in hide, to obscure?

Viewed less pejoratively, that is, more benignly, the cover version is the re-interpretation of song previously recorded by another artist. But why is the “cover version” always singled-out or announced as a copy, that is, stigmatized as debased, as a duplicate? Why should anyone care? The paradox is, Americans generally have always privileged the re-interpretation, the re-invention, of an existing work. That is, since the Jazz Era, the improvisation—the artistic response—has been valued higher than the composer (the source of intentionality, the origin). Popular music privileges improvisation, while classical music privileges the composer. In other words, American popular music since the Jazz Era has valued idiom (style) over strict adherence to any pre-existing text.

The history of rock has numerous examples of the “cover” effacing the original (first) version. Where does one begin? Where does one stop?

Elvis Presley – That’s All Right (Mama)
The Beatles – Ain’t She Sweet
John Lennon – Stand By Me
Ringo Starr – You’re Sixteen
The Carpenters – Ticket to Ride
U2 – Helter Skelter
Jimi Hendrix – All Along the Watchtower
The Byrds – Mr. Tambourine Man
Jos̩ Feliciano РLight My Fire
Van Morrison – It’s All in the Game
Shadows of Knight – Gloria
The Blues Brothers – Soul Man
Carl Carlton – Everlasting Love
Vanilla Fudge – You Keep Me Hangin’ On
Van Halen – You Really Got Me

No comments: