Friday, July 18, 2008

Your cover is a weapon

This Slate piece on Jay-Z's performance of a cover of Wonderwall as part of a dispute with Oasis about the legitimacy of rap music is yet another instance of copying as critique. Tori Amos did it in Strange Little Girls, remaking men's songs about women; Jay-Z, Jonah Weiner argues, "weaponized" the cover by butchering it. (Judge for yourself here.) He continues:

Jay-Z's sarcastic "Wonderwall" illustrates a deeper truth about cross-genre covers in general (indie boys covering teen starlets, lounge lizards covering metalheads, bookish singer-songwriters covering R&B Casanovas, etc.): These songs often contain a thorny tangle of value judgments, power dynamics, and aesthetic agendas. Unlike polyglot MP3 blogs, mash-ups, and the iPod's shuffle function—all of which enable exhilarating collisions and unlikely harmonies between different sounds, reflecting a digital-era erosion of musical boundaries—cross-genre covers don't necessarily reflect anything so utopian. The seemingly neutral act of singing someone else's song can function as an argument, a slap, a grenade toss.

... Snobbery animates many cross-genre covers. Alanis Morrissette's best song in years was her 2007 re-envisioning of the Black Eyed Peas' giddily inane "My Humps."
That something is critical, of course, doesn't make it right or good. It just makes it critical:

A band as ridiculous as Oasis can sustain—deserves, even—all sorts of mockery. By contrast, there can be something smug and unseemly about indie-rock jabs at big-money pop. One wonders why Ben Gibbard bothered with his live cover of Avril Lavigne's "Complicated" if he was going to snicker so much throughout it. "No, no, it's a serious song!" he shouts in false protest when the crowd snickers, too. With his band Death Cab for Cutie, Gibbard spares no syllable in his quest to detail even the most trivial emotional state; his goal here seems to be to fault Lavigne for failing to bring the same nuance to her pubescent social drama. "The thing about that song I love is, I don't really understand what's so complicated!" he says to rapturous laughter when the cover is done. "It seems pretty cut-and-dry!" There's something genuinely admiring in parts of his performance, but it's smothered by a greasy layer of condescension.

.... Even homage ... can involve a form of snobbery. For a while, the British rock group Travis included a cover of Britney Spears' "Hit Me Baby One More Time" in its set list. Travis' version wasn't mocking, but—intentionally or not—the cover carried a patronizing subtext: that the ProTooled pop ditty needs an honest-to-goodness rocker to ride along, scrub away the deadening Top 40 luster, and exhume the fine song hidden beneath. Rather than break down aesthetic prejudices, such covers can reinforce them, implying that the so-called frivolous pop song has value but that this value is only revealed and affirmed in an "authentic," rock-based iteration.

It's hard enough to identify criticism, especially in the current media environment. Staying away from good/bad or fair/unfair judgments of the copier is difficult, but important in any fair use assessment.

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