The Sincerest Form of Flattery.

Someone told me that the Pet Shop Boys version of Brenda Lee's* "You Are Always on my Mind" was, and I'm quoting, "a sonic abortion, a crime against music that should never have been committed." I felt similar things about Madonna's version of "American Pie," and a number of other cover tunes. Plenty of really erudite people said such things about The Wind Done Gone."

This is fundamentally bad thinking.

No matter your opinion of a given artist or their medium, nothing should be off limits. Artistically, everything should be permitted. This is not to comment on the ultimate quality of the work; some of these remakes are just plain shitty, but that doesn't mean that there isn't value in creating them. To make such evaluations is tantamount to believing in objective taste, which is pretty foolish when you think about it.

What's interesting to me is that these feelings appear oddly specific to music and movies. When someone makes a parody of the Mona Lisa or re-interprets Shakespeare, we don't get all wibbly about it, but every cover of a song more than fifteen years old meets nothing but derision from critics. Why is "Stairway to Heaven" untouchable but we can rework Romeo & Juliet with impunity?

Nothing is sacred in this regard and we need to get over it.

*The version that you know is probably Elvis Presley's from 1972 or Willie Nelson's from 1982.

1 comment:

Geoffingeorgia said...

I take your point, but might point out that songs (and movies) are things we attach more personal weight to than paintings. We live in a rapidly accelerating culture and tend to latch onto thins that capture a certain zeitgeist. When someone else comes along and tries to superimpose THEIR version onto our memory, we buck.

Not to say that there aren't wonderful covers of songs. Usually I prefer covers of Rolling Stones songs to the originals. And certainly Me First & The Gimme Gimmes have made another career of covering hits from the 60s - 90s, though they dramatically change the tempo and musical style (and often a few lyrics)

Movies are, perhaps, more victim to this phenomenon, being visual in nature.
I think, often, the sentiment starts with, "WHY remake something just because it was popular?"
In art, the point is usually to make a new statement, wherein the original source is necessarily relevant to understanding, or else to make an opposing view entirely; whereas with music and film, it's almost always done, simply to profit off the popularity of the original, adding nothing significant. If you can show me a few examples where pure profit wasn't the main motive, I'm all ears.