“On the Negro Question” (Song #1: Dynamite Hack’s “Boyz N Tha Hood”)
Written by Joshua Clover
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.