We can probably trace the phenomenon of “white flight” back to the passage of the National Housing Act of 1934, which brought the Federal Housing Administration into fruition. The FHA was the first federal agency in American history to give that much of a governmental backing to the private housing enterprise, and with that support came the necessary infrastructure provision to build outside of major cities, where that infrastructure had already been well established.
After the Great Depression, the postwar housing boom of the 1940s and 1950s gave suburban shelter to returning GIs and their growing families. One advertisement of the time shows a young white couple looking off into one of these bright, clean, sprawling landscapes, with the text above them reading “After war can come total living.” The power of marketing cannot be understated – the people who fled the cities were no doubt influenced heavily by the wealth of such imagery – but urban policy, disinvestment, and institutional racism among housing lenders were heavily responsible as well. Cut to: the 1960s.
I look at the children of the Baby Boom, the so-called hippies and those otherwise caught up in the ‘60s cultural moment, as well-meaning but naïve. They embraced the automobile, for example, as a symbol of freedom and fantasy-fulfillment, all the while decrying the corporate culture and advertising mojo that built up the car’s iconic status in the first place.
Their views toward the city often mirrored those of their parents and older siblings, despite cities’ ostensibly left-wing implications. When they lived in Los Angeles, it was high above the urban center, in Laurel Canyon or Topanga or the Santa Monica Mountains. When they read publications such as The Whole Earth Catalog, they learned about pioneer-style self-sufficiency and going “back to the land.” Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” wanted to get us “back to the garden.” Incidentally, the town of Woodstock (not to be confused with the actual festival site) is close to the Catskills, famous for being the vacation community where New York City families of the earlier twentieth century would flock in order to flee their cramped urban apartments in the summertime. Baby boomers were doing the same fleeing, even following the same geographical pattern as their parents.
The Mamas and the Papas, residents of Laurel Canyon like Joni Mitchell, made a whole cottage industry out of songs that thumbed a nose at urban grit, “California Dreamin’” being the obvious one. “Safe in My Garden” prefers the calm of the Canyon to the “hassles with the heat” down in Hollywood, while “Twelve-Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon)” begins with a plaintive tale of leaving New York City (“everything there was dark and dirty”).
There were similar contributions from countrypolitan, country rock, and Christian rock – all of which occupied a comparative grey area when it came to ‘60s and ‘70s rebellion. Country music, historically, takes a certain pride in NOT sharing the values of the big city, but it was at this time that Nashville was becoming the industry powerhouse it is today, and we also saw country musicians hitting the coasts to try to make it, the way their peers in rock and pop and rhythm and blues had.
In “Hollywood Humpty Dumpty,” an industry-malaise sister song to Albert Hammond’s “It Never Rains in Southern California,” Mac Davis “believed in the fairytale … but the only fairy [he] found in town was the fairy in the Hollywood jail.” In the “city” where Henson Cargill lamented living in “City Boy, Country Born,” children skinny-dip in the Hudson River and mothers feed their kids instant coffee. John Ylvisaker, a rockin’ Christian hipster that Mojo magazine called “the Dylan of the bible scene,” sang that “the city ain’t nothin’ but a place to be shut in and hide from the eyes of the world.”
The Runaways used to open their shows with “California Paradise.” The midtempo rocker established the mythology, the particular 1970s American dream of hedonistic freedom that the band of teenage girls repped and peddled: fast cars, fast women, salty winds. Kim Fowley calls the song the female response to the Beach Boys’ “California Girls.” “It’s a great album cut for rock critics and masturbating youth,” their ever quotable producer, etc., says.
The Runaways at once were those California girls, and they were not. The members all hailed from various pockets of the Los Angeles basin – the Valley, the OC, Long Beach. But they weren’t exactly the “cutest” objects of the brothers Wilson throbbing fantasy. By the time the Runaways recorded “California Paradise,” in the Beach Boys’ studio, Brothers, for their second album, Queens of Noise, they were firmly their own subjects, writing their own fantasies – or ironies. After all, by the mid ‘70s, beach blanket bingo had turned into Babylon bacchanal, more dystopic than utopian. Cherie Currie missed a few days of the Queens sessions in order to abort the child with which she had been impregnated by the Runaways’ manager, Scott Anderson. Listen to the way she hisses “paradise – it’s so nice.” Those are the sibilants of a snake; they’re vaudevillian boos.
I spent the last few years immersed in the sometimes inspiring, sometimes horrific history of the Runaways. It was an intense personal journey in some ways: I was returning to my own California girl roots. I’m a relatively rare species, a third-generation Californian, though my parents fled the smog and Reagan when I was 4. Around the same time the Runaways were traveling the world, singing about busting out of jail, I was becoming a teenager trapped in the heartland. The Golden State represented my own romanticized past and exotic other. We’d go back and visit relatives, and at night, my cousin Cathy – two earth years and 100 light years ahead of me – and I would sneak out and walk the streets of Van Nuys, looking for adventure. Maybe I’m glad I never found the Sugar Shack, the infamous teen disco where the Runaways allegedly found Currie. Or maybe I’m jealous.
It took me four decades to come home — Back to the garden. And I have to admit, in our beachside villa, we live a very Californian paradiscal existence. The sunshine never ends – except for the daily fog. Paradises are always fantasies. The Runaways were smart enough to know that at sweet 16 – and sing about it anyways.
If you look at Billboard’s top-selling albums of the year 2012 you may be surprised to find, in the eighth spot, Tuskegee, the duets record that paired Lionel Richie with country stars in new renditions of hits from Richie’s back catalogue—covers, if you will, of Richie, by Richie, with help from the likes of Blake Shelton and Darius Rucker and Little Big Town and, lord help us, Rascal Flatts, who mauled “Dancing on the Ceiling” in that special way that only Rascal Flatts can maul. And, of course, there was this song, “Endless Love,” a No. 1 smash in 1981, in Richie’s original duet with Diana Ross, whose place is taken on Tuskegee by another diva with a slight voice, Shania Twain.
The success of Tuskegee was eye-opening on a couple of counts, at least for me, highlighting the genetic links between Lionel Richie and the kind of adult contemporary balladeering that has found a home in Nashville over the past few decades—a trend that may have begun, come to think of it, with “Lady,” the Richie song that Kenny Rodgers took to the top of country charts in 1980. Tuskegee also underscored the subtle twang in Richie’s work (think of a song like “Stuck on You”); but mostly, the album reminded me, with a force that took me by surprise, that Lionel Richie is totally fucking awesome, and even if Tuskegee was basically a crass cash-grab, tossing a little mandolin and banjo and pedal steel at Richie’s greatest hits to sell them again—well, who cares, because any chance to luxuriate in Richie’s boudoir is a chance I’ll take.
Richie is the biggest American pop star of the 1980s who is, you might say, not-quite-canonized. Commercially speaking, he’s up there with Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, and Springsteen. But he’s not charismatic like they are; nor, unlike those other 80s legends, has he gotten anywhere near the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Richie is a demure star, genteel in both his art and his affect. His songs are extravagant, reveling in grand emotions and lavish melodicism, but Richie presents himself with courtly restraint. Courtly is indeed the word with Lionel—“Lady, I’m your knight in shining armor, and I love you,” he wrote in that big Kenny Rodgers hit—and you can hear him being a gentleman on “Endless Love,” making the relatively straight and colorless singing of both Ross in the original and Twain here sound great, enfolding them in his plush, precise harmony vocals. In any case, the point of a song like “Endless Love” isn’t to grandstand vocally, but to ride the cresting and tumbling waves of Richie’s tune. He is a supreme writer of High Schlock melodies; his only rival in the category is the Stevie Wonder of “Ribbon in the Sky” and “All in Love Is Fair,” and forced to choose, I’d take Lionel.
“Endless Love” is, for me, Richie’s greatest song. If you pull the song apart you find it has a conventional form: a verse, a kind of pre-chorus, and a chorus. But the song conceals its structure, presenting itself as a series of crescendos, a ravishing flow of melody and harmony, which makes sense—the melodic rapture, like the romantic and sexual rapture it thematizes, is endless, boundless, untrammeled. As for the lyrics: they’re typical of Richie, who’s one and only subject was love, and who’s one and only way of expressing it was by pressing the point. He’s pop’s master of tautology, or at least of the charmingly gratuitous repetition. To Lionel Richie, you’re not just a lady: you’re once, twice, three times a lady. And we must never forget the full title of his 1983 hit, with the greatest parenthesis in 80s pop: “All Night Long (All Night).” Richie loves love, but more than that he loves saying I love you, and he loves saying how much he loves saying I love you. The elaborately gallant knight-errant pledge of devotion: that’s what gets Lionel Richie off. Consider a couplet from “Hello”: “I long to see the sunlight in your hair/And tell you time and time again how much I care.” Or these lines from “Lady”: “Girl, tell me only this/That I’ll have your heart for always/And you want me by your side/Whispering the words, ‘I’ll always love you.’” Or this famous chorus: “Say you, say me/Say it for always/Naturally.”
I’m fortunate to have woman in my life who not only is brilliant and beautiful but who loves Lionel Richie the way I do: endlessly. And so—maybe this is a critical karaoke first—I want to send out a long distance dedication to Lauren, back in Brooklyn. Lauren, no one can deny the love I have inside. And I give it all to you: my love, my love, my love—my endless love.
I will advocate for the title of best cover song fitting in with the theme of the conference to be awarded to Rachid Taha’s 2004 interpretation of The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah”, appropriately titled “Rock el Casbah”.
Rachid Taha is of Algerian birth and descent, though he emigrated to France when at the age of 10, more than 40 years ago. Though often incorrectly categorized as a raï singer in that messy arena known as “world music”, his music is a mishmosh of all the influences in his life – his area of origin, his long-time homeland, his experiences, his interests and passions. There’s lore attached to Rachid Taha and the origins of “Rock the Casbah”, of his handing a cassette of his Algerian/French fusion rock band to The Clash when they were in Paris for a show in 1981, and then hearing “Rock the Casbah” on the radio months later.
Whether he directly influenced the creation of the song or not is not the most compelling draw. What’s interesting here is how the song represents an artist’s intention getting away from them, and how a thing gets co-opted in a way that makes it unrecognizable to its creator. Joe Strummer had been devastated when the genial lyrics he’d written, and the song The Clash played with humor and charm, were co-opted by the military in the first Gulf War. He was reported to have wept when he saw photographs of a bomb ready to be dropped on Baghdad inscribed with his lyrics. Fast-forward a decade, and the song was placed on a Clear Channel “Do-Not-Play” list in the months following 9/11. And a few short years after that, the National Review places “Rock the Casbah” on their list of “Top 50 Conservative Rock Songs“, citing its popularity with troops for its place at number 20.
When you create something and put it out in the world, what you intended can evolve or devolve into something unrecognizable. Who could have predicted that Prince could be made better, but covers by Sinead O’Connor and Crooked Fingers and James McNew make a strong argument that the covers progressed the songs, evolved their nature. And in the reverse, something good-natured becomes the soundtrack for pumping up soldiers to rain anonymous death on civilian homes below. Even how this song’s lyrics are misheard indicates a mindset: Neo-conservative, hawkish types favor the refrain “sharia don’t like it/ rock the Casbah, rock the Casbah”, because it supports their worldview that everything and everyone tainted by Islamic philosophy or history is suspect. Whereas the actual lyrics “shareef [the ruler] don’t like it” pins the power and blame on individuals, how they interpret, how they govern.
The happy ending of this story is that the creation came full circle, to Rachid Taha’s interpretation, and his sharing the stage with Brian Eno and The Clash’s Mick Jones at an anti-war show in 2005. The Rachid Taha version is more directly political, telling a story of the power of ordinary people in overcoming the great might of military and autocratic rule, not by overthrow, but by gathering collectively and bringing the rulers around to their side, with a really great song.
The song isn’t just political, it’s clever, good-humored, and catchy. And if you want them to be, the lyrics are only mildly political, in an unoffensive way – like a “Good Wife” character carrying Jimmy Carter’s book on Israeli/Palestinian issues across the screen for a noticeable moment. Intriguing to those who want it to be, and, for everyone else, a minor quirk in something that is totally awesome.
1966. SoCal. This is the lead track on the only album by The Deep Six: “six” for the number of band members and “deep” likely means “not just another surfer band.” Maybe the name signals a presentiment that if anyone listened to the band for long, it would be deep sixed. It should have turned out better, with crème de la crème session players like Larry Knechtel, Glen Campbell and the legendary Carol Kaye. And who knew that, before his stint in Buffalo Springfield, Jim Messina was a member of The Deep Six? But it all went horribly wrong, like The Mamas and Papas on acid, and a bad batch at that.
Slowing tempos down can conduce to melancholia, as we saw with Dump’s “1999” and “Paint It Black” seems tailor-made for just that strategy. Isn’t the original rather too fast for its downbeat lyrics: black this, black that, all of it so depressed and depressing. Maybe The Deep Six understood the song better than the Stones? But after the first languid verses by the female lead, the tune takes a fatal turn with a cheery chorus of “Hey-Hey-Hey”s bearing no conceivable or organic relation to the original or, worse, the first part of the cover. Usually to be manic-depressive is to oscillate between those two poles. Here it’s both, incoherently, at the same time.
Still, slowing down the tempo had potential, as realized, say, in Cat Power’s cover of “Satisfaction”. But in also retarding the words The Deep Six proffer some parsing out fit for an atrocity exhibition. Bad phrasing is one of my pet peeve in covers, as here in the enunciation of the slow, doubly stressed “HAP-PENS in “it just happens every day”. It was already a bit of a problem that Jagger had to say “I could not FORE-SEE this thing happening to you.” It’s not as if anybody does or can expect song phrasing to line up one-for-one with regular speech. One marvels at how great singers dilate on a single note or syllable. Small and large variations in phrasing are prominent in covers because there’s a tendency not simply to reproduce the original at that level, unlike chord changes or lyrics with which one rarely messes. The Deep Six’s downbeat strategy breaks down words usually light in their combination of stressed and unstressed syllables into sequences of clunkier monosyllables (for which the extreme example is Alexander Pope’s “And ten low words oft creep in one dull line”). This and other travesties make one long for the brilliance of The Feelies’ unnerving version of “Paint It Black” where they took a fast song and made it faster.
Song #2: Dump: “1999”
This is a cover by James McNew, the bass player and much more for Yo La Tengo. Less famously, he records by himself under the name “Dump”. Yo La Tengo is not one band among others in terms of cover songs, having done countless ones, from the Kinks to Cat Stevens, not least on their aptly named album Fakebook. Their multiple styles are self-consciously eclectic and the cover is only the most extreme and extensive of their citational modes. In one song the singer says to a friend: “maybe it’s just like you, one day I’ll forget every hit song America ever had,” as if there’s an imperative to remember them all. Or better: to be able to cover them all. Yo La Tengo often participates in a fund-raising drive for one of their local radio stations by gamely attempting to cover off the cuff any song a caller-donor wants to hear. The results are not too shabby and sometimes dazzling.
The version of “1999” you’re half-listening to responds to the original first recorded in 1982 by the artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince. The original is a remarkably upbeat dance number – literally a party song – that became a signature hit for him. Then along comes James McNew, a decade and a half later in 1998, recording (in his basement, they say) his delirious rendition of “1999” to be the lead track on an entire album of Prince covers called “That Skinny Motherfucker with the High Voice?,” a phrase from a song off The Black Album referring to Prince himself.
“Sue me if I go too fast …” Prince challenges his audience. But you can already tell there’s little chance that James McNew would be sued even by Prince’s litigious lawyers. The original features a more or less forced euphoria, a carpe diem scenario, where, sensing the eve of destruction, Prince figures: Why not party like it’s 1999? The world is ending anyway. But when these words and sounds pass from the hip, black rising superstar in 1982 to the unglamorous, not-so-slim, average white guy in 1998 and the tempo is slowed down drastically, euphoria turns to melancholy. The instrumental parts are dragged out and skewed sonically, adopting a far more apocalyptic, if depressed, tone than its source. It’s the end of the world as we know it and Dump doesn’t feel nearly as fine as Prince did. Dump takes an anxious song and makes it sadder: life is just a party, parties weren’t meant to last, and this party of the millennium will have been a bust. It’s not so clear Dump was even invited to the party.
The sense of time and history in both versions of the song is bound up with certain complications of “tempo-rality” figured in the elusive date 1999. Dates are enigmatic enough to begin with and then all the more so when enunciated in a song, a song that is designed to be repeated and could in principle be repeated infinitely, like a broken record. The work of art both dates and un-dates itself: Adorno chides narrow historicism for thinking a work of art can be consigned to the moment of its production. It never has just one date – it has two at a minimum. “To write history,” Benjamin said, “means giving dates their physiognomy.” Prince certainly does that with “1999” and so too does James McNew but differently. The cover comes along and “dates,” in effect and retroactively, the source. You might notice that McNew slightly alters Prince’s lyrics from “we’re going to party like it’s 1999” to “we’re going to party: 1999”. No longer just like it, in the song it’s now suddenly 1999. A literature professor of mine used to ask, helpfully, in class: “What time is it in the poem?” Morris Day in 1982 also asked on his album of that year “What Time Is It?” Cover songs make you ask and try to answer just this question.
So what is this 1999? In 1982 the date 1999 sounds like a figure for the end, on the cusp of 2 thousand zero zero, the millennium as end-time. Then, shockingly, for Dump, it’s literally 1999. But it’s hard to keep this 1999 in its historical place. 1999 is on “repeat”. Is it the same 1999 in Dump’s re-working the moment of the song? What is the force of this “1999” in 1982, 1998, 1999, 2001 (when Dump’s version was released on CD). Is it 1999 when listened to now? I don’t really know the answer to these questions but we can say at least that we’re dealing with “the long 1999,” whatever that year or figure portends. It’s certainly not something confined to the circumscribed year we first tend to imagine. Dump’s “1999” shakes up our sense of what that time is.
Like all good covers, Dump’s rendition of “1999”destabilizes retroactively the original. A strong cover makes you think—this is the effect of Nina Simone so often—that the original could have been otherwise. The good cover certainly helps canonize the original—it was worth repeating, worth covering, after all–but at the same time it makes the original tremble, all of a sudden less etched in stone or vinyl or electrons than before. It’s not like every cover song, if structured like a revolution, is going to party like it’s 1789 but it does arrest history momentarily, jolting us momentarily into a moment of the past. At the same time, it is a leap, not a series of steps, forward, rendering history mobile and precarious.
Dump’s 7-minute recasting of “1999” leaves off of any of singing Prince’s words half way through the song. The extended outré outro, lasting a full three minutes, begins with a kind of crazed organ-synth fantasia, with lots of interference, noise, and feedback and then the small number of instruments gradually gets smaller and the sounds sparer until we are left with only the drum-machine-like loop, even now as we approach the end of the world and the song. More with a whimper than a bang. It’s not clear that anyone is playing anything.
Still, it has been Prince and the revolution, from the start and then once again. Can we not say with confidence that if there is a prince, sooner or later there will be a revolution?
“Opening Remarks for Critical Karaoke Covers”
by Ian Balfour
I’ll offer some brief remarks that don’t necessarily speak for everyone on the roundtable but that try to get at the interest of the cover song for thinking about music and mobility in history. I’ll slide after a while into the first example, which, though it won’t be everyone’s idea of the greatest cover ever, might conjure some of the salient issues or crystallize something of the genius of the mode, not without a rather grand proposal about the cover song as a kind of little revolution.
Our roundtable doesn’t aim to present a unified field theory of the cover song. Indeed we’re privileging examples, which don’t easily stand in for the whole shebang. Joshua Clover suggested that we take as our examples the greatest and worst of the bunch, which should have the virtue of marking out, in their exposure to and of extremities, the horizons of the strange, resonant thing that is the cover song.
Covers are by definition secondary and derivative. You could be forgiven for wondering: “why bother with them when there’s so still so much to do with originals?”, to say nothing of attending to the pressing issues of the day. But I hope to intimate how covers can show us something of how music and history work – before the fun starts with the examples from others.
Covers do a lot of different things: they imitate, they critique, they ironize, they render homage, they acknowledge debts, they revel in the power or beauty of a prior song. Every single instance of a cover is mobile and crosses boundaries of some sort: genders, genres, races, decades, eras, cultures, continents. Covers are particularly good for summoning up not just the original songs on which they are modeled but moments associated with it: a summer or love, a winter of discontent, a time when there was a riot was going on. Covers make and re-make history.
In the first instance, and historically, covers are designed to make money. “Capital records,” as it were. Or capital re-cords. Capital records what it imagines will sell and that includes covers. It’s calculated gambling about what will turn a profit, even the modest profit that might come from padding an album or affixing a B-side to an A-side. (This is not to say that that the profit-motive precludes products from being great works of art. One might even say: on the contrary.) The eye is on the prize of hit and record companies often raced each other to get a certain cover on the charts. There are, of course, non-commercial forms related to the cover song or with an affinity to it, from someone performing a song in the privacy of a garage or basement to karaoke to the wanna-be moneymakers in the cogs of the machine of American Idol or The Voice. But we are concerned with recorded or publicly-performed-for-money cover songs. These we consider distinct from ‘standards’, songs that go through countless renditions and for which the source is either lost in the mists of time or a matter of indifference. The cover song is a charged, pointed response to an original (though sometimes there are also intervening covers to deal with). With an eye to profit, the cover—especially a good cover of a good original—arguably has a leg up on original material by virtue of the recognition factor, the in-principle- pleasurable repetition with a difference afforded by a new version of something already enjoyed in a different mode. We like to hear good things again and again, and that includes the displaced originals that are covers. In what might be called “the golden age” of the cover–the late 50s to mid 60s–white rock and pop took off, not least on the backs of all kinds of black music cravenly or lovingly lifted and delivered to new audiences (though often “received” without any clear sense of the originals). “I look all white but my dad was black,” sing The Who in “Substitute”.
Our examples lean decidedly to pop songs, broadly understood, but a wish list for “covers studies” would include good accounts of what exactly constitutes, across the broadest range genres and subgenres across the world (drone, raga, klezmer, you name it) core elements of originals that need to be retained for a cover to be a cover. This would involve us in matters of historical complexity and metaphysical niceties, for the very identity of the cover song wavers between what it is, as if for all time and everyone and how it actually works for musicians and listeners, to say nothing of producers and record execs, who “know” the original and have an attitude to it, that is, between the idea or ideal of the cover and the contingencies of how different people experience it differently.
I want to propose, maybe a little perversely, that Walter Benjamin’s theory of history can help us understand the texture and dynamics of cover songs. Benjamin brushed against the grain of centuries of habits of thought by newly conceiving of history as structured not as continuous causal sequences of one damn thing after another but rather as instances of charged relations of one moment to another, between a given present and a given past, entailing a kind of leap from one to the other. This goes for the thinking and the writing and even the acting of history. History moves. History is on the move but it also manifests in the screeching to a halt of movement, in a strike, in a pause to think or catch one’s breath, in a photograph or, to cite Benjamin, “the reach for the emergency brake”. And then it moves again. Attentive to the first pages of Marx’s “Eighteenth Brumaire”, Benjamin finds Marx there adducing the tendency of revolutionary discourse and even action to cite and draw strength from a single loaded moment of the past. In this configuration, revolutions—revolutions per moment, so to speak—emerge not as rare things almost off the scale of history but as the its very paradigm. One might have thought that if ever an event were so completely of its own moment—because it marks a radical rupture with the past—it would be a revolution. But Benjamin sees the revolution as a model of how history in general works, as the freighted articulation of one moment with another. If history then is structured as the charged citation (Benjamin’s word) of one moment in another, it doesn’t take much effort to see how the cover song fits neatly into this pattern. The cover, in thoroughgoing fashion, cites at a somewhat advanced or at least later moment in time an earlier song or number, an action that sets the past in motion all over again, repetition with a difference. It jolts us back, partly, into a past moment but in the present. It performs in extreme fashion what history is really doing without so often being recognized as such.
Listeners and Listenesses. You’re about to hear the battle of the century. It opposes the whole freakin’ world against…Zone Libre, Casey, and B James. HA! That’s right. First blow, did you feel it? The French West Indian rapper Casey and her crew of rap artists and rock musicians are about to rip….your…face…off… Huh!
Listen to that voice…. That “Pah!” is the growl of Casey on “Aiguise-moi ÇA” (Sharpen me THIS), the last track of the 2011 album Les Contes du chaos [Tales of Chaos]. That cut throat is what the track is all about. It’s about “facing the dropping quality of discs and assholes with no talent who just sit and calculate the risks.” It’s about being ferocious and voracious, getting fed up and going off. It’s about caressing fools with a “foot to the thorax.” It’s about razors, flame-throwers, and nails; it’s about going medieval, animal, and monstrous; and it’s about you: you losing your face your body your throat your stuff, to her and her crew while they rip and shred “you” to pieces.
With these self-proclaimed musical hooligans, Paris isn’t a City of Lights, it’s a City of Fights, or better yet a Series of Fights, battles in the dark “zones” in France–the ones that like to set things off every now and again.
Et s’ils ont croisé dans le bordel leurs deux musiques entre elles
Gros batard de guitare et de cité dortoire
C’est qu’ils adorent bien s’occuper de leur clientèle,
So come, give your throat so they can sharpen their scalpels.
“Sharpen me THIS” calls for occasions like “you” to continue its gestures of critical cutting and invective intervening. Dig into the skin of this thick groove, or let it cut through you. Get scared, or just get pissed. It’s okay. It’s good to rage sometimes! It’s the only way you’re making it through the zone. Now, don’t get it twisted; the way these niggas in Paris go gorillas (huh?) and mark their path to the bottom ain’t like Jay-Z and Kanye’s ego trip to the top. Then again, in both cases, “the zone” is a space of masculine dominance where someone is “Liable to go Michael, take your pick, Jackson, Tyson, Jordon…” Well you know the rest. But that’s just it; Casey’s vocal breakdown disrupts the same old script of generic dominance.
For Casey and the lot, it’s not about just getting off on you and your stuff and your city, it’s about them dragging you to their dark place where you can get your body and your face cut up and destroyed in a critical knife fight.
And if they crossed in a whore house two musical styles from hell
Fat guitars rockin rap right through the projects
It’s because they adore taking care of their clientèle
So come, donne ta gorge qu’ils aiguisent leur scalpels.
Listen. I know you’re scarred and scared. Me too. This is confusing. This isn’t sound of Parisian vacation you wanted. You’d always thought French was such a pretty language. You were thinking more “J’ai deux amours” and Paris Je t’aime. You wanted a little candle lit ratatouille with Amélie, oui oui? Mais non. Ah well, c’est la vie. That’s just the way it goes. That’s right. That’s not the trip to Paris you’re in for. But don’t worry about it. [French accent:] It’s okay! Like Michael said, “You are not alone. I am here with you.” But you and Michael are not the only ones gettin’ cut up in the mix. Casey, aka the Beast, aka the Creature of Failure, is in that dark place with you too!
For Casey, la musique c’est le Sweetest Tabou. “une haine saine que elle assène sur le papier” (a healthy hate she punches on the page). She spits a beastly rage as a refusal to submit to raced and gendered conditions of recognition that function within liberal discourses of civility and humanism. She’ll find her own conditions for embodiment (off you, thank you very much). The cover art for Libérez la bête gives an iconography of this monstrous performance strategy. The image is fragmented by a collage, but also by what looks like broken glass from the picture frame itself; the whole thing seems splattered with blood. Violence has been done to the form in the image and to the form of the image. The “scene of subjection” has had problems of containment and contamination. For Casey breaking down what it means to be black or woman or French are key. In other words, you can’t see this black female masculinity…
Well, here we are. The break. This is the zone. This is where you find yourself now, not just in the cut, you’re facing the cut, your face is the cut, the blind spot, the rupture, the breach. People are about to no longer recognize you. Unconventional practices of reading and writing are about to cut you up beyond all social recognition.
As Audre Lorde says, “The image is fire.” You can’t see Casey’s masculine voice, so let me break it down for you like she does. As she explains in an interview, now she knows how to se péter la voix, to blow up her voice. She uses the challenge of live performance with rock musicians as an occasion to break down the voice while simultaneously pushing her sound to new level of intensity. What I’m saying is this black beast rocks your ever-loving world.
And this is it. Shout out to Jose Muñoz, he said there’d be people “choreograph[ing] and execut[ing] their own metaphoric dances in front of the flaming black lagoon, stamping out fires with grace […] building worlds,” so we all knew it would end like this.
This is the part where you get tore up.
Broken down like voilà.
Now, for “you,” listeners and listenesses, I’m afraid it’s game over.
Or is it game on…?
I first heard “Girl You Know It’s True” when I was nine, in 1989, one year after the song’s European release. The friend who played it for me was the epitome of 1980s tween femininity; she had crimped blond hair and regularly wore stirrup pants. She also had her own cassette player. I had none of those things because my mother was German, and was therefore opposed to popular culture and all other things pleasurable in life. So I went next door to L____’s house to simulate sex between her Barbies while listening to Milli Vanilli. For me, these activities were failed attempts at synchronization: ever behind the times, I struggled to keep pace with contemporaneity.
At the time, contemporaneity was the new jack swing style of Milli Vanilli, whose own synchronization project would soon go painfully awry. But before the breaking of the so-called “lip-synch scandal,” Rob and Fab mouthed and danced their way in unison from the screens of boxy TV sets into hearts nationwide. They also hailed from Germany, though not from the same white peasant stock as my mother. Rob was half German and half African-American, raised in Munich, and Fab arrived in Deutschland as an adult, via France and Guadeloupe, where he was born. Frank Farian, the group’s sketchy white German producer, would later be painted as the Aryan Svengali who puppeteered Rob and Fab’s postcolonial bodies to world stardom. But while they were exploited, their framing as mere puppets presents an offensive misreading of their pivotal roles in the awesomely kitschy extravaganza that was Milli Vanilli.
When I finally glimpsed the video for “Girl You Know It’s True” (at L____’s house, owing to my mother’s cable ban), I entered the ranks of fandom. Sporting braided extensions whipped from side-to-side in time with the beat, and primary-colored, square-shouldered, oversized blazers above spandex manpris, the hunky yet undeniably fagacious duo enacted a hybridized pirate-chic to which I was drawn—as I was also drawn to Hammer pants—without knowing why. Replete with poorly executed breakdance moves, chest-bumping, and ample high-fives, Rob and Fab’s highly aestheticized, overdetermined performance inspired me. And impossible as it would have been for a mousy, diminutive white girl like me to pull it off, I wanted to be like them, to rock that hair and those manpris, with all of the problematic assumptions that that desire entailed.
When L____ told me that Rob and Fab had, in her words, “lied,” and that most of their singing had been performed by someone else, I was in a quandary. Lying was wrong, and yet the audiovisual experience of Milli Vanilli was undeniably pleasurable. Was I to stop listening and looking as a result of this unwelcome revelation? The consensus was yes, and Rob and Fab were undone. The unmasking of the Milli Vanilli “lip-synch scandal” was the moment when I learned to hide my own immorality—to fold certain pleasures into myself while condemning them on the outside. This proto-Nietzschean cycle of violence would define my relation to popular music for nearly two decades. Only within the last five years have I begun to listen, with a new ear, to the 80s music that I trained myself to reject as a teenager. In other words, “I sat back and thought about the things we used to” listen to, and I realized that they “really mean a lot to me,” truth be damned.
I’m going to need your help, EMP. It’s been a long conference, but when I throw my hand in the air like this, I’m only going to do it twice, I need you all to throw your hands in the air too, maybe even wave them side to side. It’s like we’re covering a concert. OK? To work!
A terrible cover by its nature needs you to know and have strong feelings about the original; it exploits these mercilessly, makes a mockery of that on which it entirely depends. Hands in the air, Seattle!
This is why we can’t have nice things. Eazy-E’s “Boyz N Tha Hood” ends, as Jeff Chang notes, with a fantasy restaging of the tragic episode wherein Jonathan Jackson — having taken hostages in trying to secure the release of the Soledad Brothers, including his own brother George — is gunned down outside the Marin County Courthouse. The Dynamite Hack cover omits this final episode, of course, omits the Panthers and the historical secret, so as to caricature some lesser feature. That surely is the formula for history’s worst covers: First time as tragedy, second time as farce. With the narrative and historical hook excised, all that’s left is empty race-play, an ironic registration of hiphop’s suburbanization circa 2000: Look everybody, we’re saying gangster shit! But we took out the beat and replaced it with a melody! It’s almost ingratiating in the facile ambiguity of its idea. It is hard to tell if this is a joke about alt rock, or just…alt rock. A joke about white people, or just…white people. Either way it’s not funny. Hands up!
[a capella break]
…And that’s where the awful magic happens. Having indecently solicited our complicity, solicited our ironic distance from the cover’s ironic distance, it burns it all away; you recognize, if you’re the white male audience, how not ok it is to say reached back like a pimp and I slapped the ho. How it was never ok, how we cannot get away with that shit. And we see how we always needed the irony, even back with the original, how we needed a set of racial fantasies to have somehow made that okay, all those times you sang along before. I don’t really think it does this on purpose. It’s not critique, it’s farce. But it changes the original, sort of ruins it, transmutes tragedy to farce, and for that it shall not be forgiven.
“Critique of the Goth Program” (Song #2: Johnny Cash’s “Hurt”)
A great cover is dialectical: it abolishes the original while preserving its kernel in the very act of negation. Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” rescues that earlier invention even as we realize immediately that no one will ever again listen to Nine Inch Nails version.
What is the original’s greatness? Miserablism, I guess. But absolute: the junkie pathos on offer makes other pop pathos seem trivial: “What have I become, my sweetest friend? Everyone I know goes away in the end.” But that’s just a start, moving from there to empires of dirt and then the abyss of the chorus, “I will let you down, I will make you hurt.”
Trent’s imageset is Biblical, drawing on its endless transformations. But catastrophe here is the reverse: the song chimes louder, more insistent, but it never transforms.
“You are someone else, but I am still right here.” Everyone is going away; our singer will fail them all. It’s the fucking first half of Free Bird, the slow half, not just in tempo but tenor. But it refuses the temptation Free Bird cannot resist. There will be no turnaround, no acceleration, no guitar solo, no redemption. Lord I can’t change. It holds to that, brilliantly.
It’s doubly brilliant then to cover the song, to change it. But what changes? Not much. It’s more acoustic, albeit the chromed acoustic of millennial Rick Rubin. The vocal is further forward, less processed. The old man’s voice shakes, cracks, falls away — more natural. No, that’s not quite it. The mix pushes the song into the body, into the decaying materiality of Johnny Cash’s corrupt seventy-year old flesh. And it’s then we hear that Trent’s original was all idea. To hear this is to hear everything. We needn’t doubt the sincerity of Trent’s misery to understand, in a sudden and profane illumination, that it is conjured, amplified, a concept. He could change, that’s the thing. And that was always the thing with goth miserablism, even at its limit — not that it is in any way false, but that it’s all idea, agonistics of the Beautiful Soul, an idealist rejection of the world and the way we have to be in it.
Not Cash. He’s dead in six months. When he says “I am still right here” we know here not the throne, it’s the grave. There will be no turnaround, no acceleration, no guitar solo, no redemption. “Hurt” begins its history as an idealist song of death-in-life. The cover discloses its materialist core — makes the death-in-life true. But we have one last reversal. If Cash is a dead man singing, the cover makes the song finally live — for it is idealism that is itself a kind of death-in-life. To set idealism on its feet, to make it matter, is always the form and the promise of change, not of resurrection but of revolution.
With the two songs I have chosen – best and worst – I’m thinking about (and perhaps too invested in) R&B love songs. Here, with Dirty Projectors’ cover of Usher’s 2012 single “Climax” recorded live in a studio, I’m thinking about Shana Redmond’s presentation “Extramarital in Outer Space: Marvin Gaye’s Interkinesis” on Marvin Gaye’s album Here, My Dear and her citation of Usher’s Confessions as within the particular subgenre of a kind of R&B performance of heterosexual black masculinity as exposure in vulnerability, anger, and regret. It seems like Looking 4 Myself, the album on which “Climax” is released, is another confession, but to himself rather than another lover. To listen to “Climax” performed by Usher, the song is not only a slow burn, but also a confession that a relationship is over, has already burnt down. This kind of R&B confessional space is breached in the cover, it is sung without the scandal and thrill of exposure.
With the Dirty Projectors cover, we are given the kinds of intricate harmonies they are known for, accompanied by a tinny drum loop. Their vocal acrobatics and the dryness of the drum machine track give the kinds of dimension and movement to a failing relationship that the song itself does not perform. Their vocal arrangements are about layering on and over flat surfaces, of thickening and reaching for the vocal horizon, whereas the song itself, with the sparse and spacious Diplo track and the release of Usher’s soft falsetto voice is about falling from the climax, and then dwelling where he has fallen in its after-shock.
The original song’s drama comes from the arrangement and collaboration between Diplo’s production and Usher’s voice that gives us the sense of the climax as that which has already happened before the song even began, so that now we are left with the devastation and exhaustion that comes after great (break-up?) sex that might never happen again. Meanwhile Dirty Projectors’ vocals, in their thickness foreclose even the possibility of reaching the climax. They reach for the after-shock (that vocal horizon), but instead we are stuck listening to a prelude that does not lead anywhere. The cover song becomes the awkward moment of “now what” with the realization that the climax will never arrive, or the moment after sex when the climax had not been reached. In other words, this is the worst cover song ever.
Song #2: Jessie Ware and Benzel: If You Love Me
I want to start talking about Jessie Ware’s cover of Brownstone’s 1994 single “If You Love Me” by reading out loud the only available biography of the cover’s producers, who go by the name BenZel:
“BenZel is Umi Takahashi (15) and Yoko Watanabe (16). Originally from Osaka; Umi and Yoko both travelled to New York through their local foreign exchange program. They met in early 2012 through an online message board about ankle socks and quickly discovered they each had a profound appreciation for 90’s R&B and J. Dilla. After many failed attempts to create a hypoallergenic ankle sock, they decided to put their efforts toward other creative ventures. Following hours of soul searching; they decided to start BenZel…they’ve been working on it since yesterday.” (https://soundcloud.com/officialbenzel)
In reading this biography after being totally seduced by the best cover song ever, it all becomes a mystery and a tease of and through collaboration between Ware, BenZel, and Brownstone. BenZel’s beautiful and brimming track includes Brownstone’s original back-up vocals that are sampled and re-used in the chorus as the punch line, or the push to Ware’s pleads, “If you love me (say it), If you trust me (do it), If you want me (show it), If you need me (prove it).” Brownstone’s vocals back up Ware’s claims, in a disapproving, scolding tone matched with Ware’s softer requests and demands.
The two songs I’ve chosen to present are both “indie” covers of R&B love songs (or heart break, but then every love song to a certain extent is always already about heart break). This particular formulation of the cover song is of interest to me because it opens up certain kinds of relations, romantic and otherwise that inform, limit, and/or expand the conditions of possibility for what Karen Tongson called in her presentation, “‘In the Style Of…’: On Karaoke and Crossing Over,” “the crisis of the copy.”
This crisis is two-fold: The crisis of how race and gender are made knowable or unknowable sonically, how the ability to hear race and gender and the ways it aligns with or strays from genre becomes an integral part of the aesthetic judgment of the best or worst cover song.
In addition, the cover of a love song is itself a crisis, insofar as the one or ones covering the song are performing a desire for closeness, but the cover song itself inevitably is about distance, about marking and measuring one’s distance from the original. This is not to say that this crisis is necessarily a bad or sad thing. Here I’m thinking about the work of Jean-Luc Nancy on listening and the idea that Being is figured by listening, and not about being alone in singularity, but about being-with as the singularly plural. For Nancy, this being-with is not about closeness and proximity, but rather about an intimacy in spacing out and luxuriating in the distances between, say, a song’s original and its cover. So the cover of a love song, then, is like the ultimate love song: it is the practice of listening, of inhabiting the spaces between the original song and the cover, and the original artist and the artists doing the covering. A cover song then does not cover by stifling, but rather by holding from afar, of feeling presence in distance.