You know what, writing prompt? I don’t feel like being objective today. You heard me. I don’t feel like attempting to quantify what makes a song “better,” then supporting my arguments with evidence.
Sure, there are covers that feel so more genuine, so more harrowing when covered by another artist that the original pales in comparison. The age and experience in Johnny Cash’s voice as he covers “Hurt” by NIN. Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah,” originally by Leonard Cohen, sounding so much more fragile and plaintive somehow. Gary Jules’ “Mad World,” no longer couching the melancholy in upbeat New-Wavery.
And sure, there are covers that I’ve been surprised to learn were covers at all. Otis Redding did “Respect” before Aretha Franklin? Manfred Mann’s “The Mighty Quinn” was written by Bob Dylan, who called it “Quinn The Eskimo?!”
Not to mention the things I thought were originals, but were actually traditional folk songs! The Animals sure weren’t the first to cover “House of the Rising Sun.” And the origins of “Stagger Lee” are long lost to the mists of time, but I’d always figured Lloyd Price wrote it up one day. Then there are even more ancient things, like Dead Can Dance’s “Saltarello,” which dates back to 14th Century Italy, and In Extremo’s “Herr Mannelig,” which is Probably Swedish and Probably Old, and nothing else seems forthcoming. I learned of their folk-song nature before I’d heard them, before, so I’ve known them as nothing but covers. However, it’s a particular delight to hear them, and to know that this same melody has been played over and over for hundreds of years now. I’m awful at music, but I’m irrationally tempted to make my own version of them, just to be some small, if unfortunate, part of that tradition.
But you know what? It’s cold out there. It’s cold, and it’s dark, and the world is dumb, and right now, I think that “better” means “more fun.”
Even then, it’s hard to narrow it down. But there are two that come to mind tonight.
The Presidents of the United States of America has a version of “Video Killed The Radio Star” that I played to death in college. It’s louder, faster, and just… fun. It wasn’t the first mp3 I ever heard – though, given the history of its original, it would have been nicely appropriate. But it was one of those songs where simply having it stuck in my head seemed to turn the entire day up a few notches. The world itself seemed brighter and louder and sillier. I’m not about to weigh it against the original on any objective merits – but I will say that having the original stuck in my head didn’t give me nearly so much oomph.
Similarly, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes’ take on “Who Put The Bomp?” Not only did it seem to give me a +3 to Stamina and Will Saves, as it were, but it was one of my first experiences in sharing music with other people and taking delight in their enjoyment.
The dorm I lived in had an annual outdoor event, replete with burgers and ice cream, chalk to draw on the sidewalks, bubbles, bounce houses, and an assortment of live music and DJery. It happened in spring – not the fickle early spring, but late spring, the first time of the year when you knew it was only going to get warmer and sunnier, no more ice and slush. The daffodils were trying to headbutt their way out of the mulch, the trees were trying to take leaf, and you could sense that summer was coming – but, somehow, the approach of finals didn’t seem so near. It was a genuine festival atmosphere.
I hadn’t been all that participatory in… well, anything, the entire time, to be honest – but the person DJing mentioned that if anybody had a song they wanted to hear, and he didn’t have it, all we had to do was bring it out on a flash drive or something and he’d fire it up. So – feeling awkward all the way about doing things and being seen and saying words – I brought him this song, and he played it. The people who’d been dancing kept dancing. Some people started dancing who hadn’t been dancing before. I don’t think any minds were blown or anything. But for being someone who was clinging so tenuously to the periphery of all things social – for being someone who had a hard time justifying going outside that day, or any day – for being someone who felt they should be neither seen nor heard nor remotely impactful on anyone else’s life to any degree… seeing anyone smile or seem remotely happy about a song I’d shared was a new and electrifying joy.
I could wonder what it is about these songs that brings them to mind right now. Perhaps it’s just that they remind me of college, and springtime, and daring to go out in the world – if just so far as downtown or the mall. Those glimmers of freedom, the way I felt I could cultivate a different sense of self. That music could be reinvented, and maybe so could I.
Maybe it’s that I wonder if I, now, am better than what I used to be. If it’s enough to just feel better, happier, more socially adjusted — or if objective success was really more important all along. If I was wrong to feel so bad about myself then, but even more wrong to feel remotely okay about myself now. It’s cold and it’s dark, and the world is dumb, and if I try to think seriously about anything more than a week or so away I kind of want to puke out my heart, and sometimes it feels like everything I have ever done was an utter unforgivable mistake, and I’m only allowed to still exist because of some cosmic bureaucratic error.
But maybe it’s not as if I have to rewrite everything in my life in order to make it acceptable. Maybe it’s not as if I have to somehow unmake all of it and do something completely different and Other, with all the fear of change that would bring about. Maybe it’s more like hoping for a cover version. With some of the voices in a little more harmony, the tempo a little more to my liking, the vocals a bit bolder, the instruments less tinny. The song’s really already there, and maybe it’s even a good one – it’s just the current performance that doesn’t suit my style. It could be that there’s not enough emotive range, or enough of a sense of history, or enough awareness of the ways it’s already evolved.
But, even if all my life’s juxtapositions seem baffling and absurd right now… maybe that just makes it funny. If only to other people. Still, if it puts a grin on someone else’s face, gets stuck in their head in a pleasant way, harmonizes well with them, helps them sing their own song… perhaps that’s more important.
We’re all in this noise together, after all.