“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.

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