Sunday, 14 December 2008

Reinterpreting The Classics

I don't imagine it will surprise anyone to learn that I don't follow X-Factor. I have a deep psychological aversion to any show that can plausibly have the word "reality" attached to it. I've mentioned before how a great deal of people who demand more realism in their television don't really know what the hell they're talking about, and this kind of show is the absolute nadir of that tendency. Watching the humiliation of an actual living person, seeing their tics and idiosyncrasies broadcast across the nation for the approval of the general populace, seems an act of outrageous voyeurism. And yes, the contestants are theoretically complicit, in that they all volunteered, but I know enough about television to realise that what they think they've signed up to and what actually ends up being broadcast is unlikely to be particularly similar. [1]

Having metaphorically washed my hands of such things, then, it took the Guardian to tell me that the winner of this series of X-Factor is releasing Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah as a single in a bid for the Christmas number one.

Covers are an awkward business. There is a prevailing theory amongst music buffs that certain songs are simply to sacrosanct to be re-recorded by anyone ever. I've always thought that this was too simplistic an outlook. No doubt this is partially because it is almost unheard of for me to not prefer the first version of a given song I hear, no matter how bastardised it has become by consecutive iterations. I almost came to blows with Vomiting Mike over whether Kirsty MacColl's version of A New England is better than the Bragg original. I shall maintain to my dying day that it is, but I attribute it entirely to hearing her version first, and then finding the original to be fairly spare and stiff.

Sometimes people just attach to songs like ducklings do to the first living thing they see. If there was ever an art form designed to totally bypass rationality and take up residence in your emotions, it's music [2]. Thus, passions tend to run high over this sort of stuff, so it's arguable that there isn't much objective reason to care when someone shuffles into view and massacres one of your favourites.

On the other hand, though, I think sometimes there's more to the issue. I remember another argument with Vomiting Mike, in which he put forward the idea that no artist should ever receive money for their work, as anything as grubby as financial reward would inevitably taint the resulting work. Now, obviously, that's a totally ludicrous position to take (and in fairness to VM, this was a discussion held a decade ago and I doubt he still clings to the idea), but the outcome of the conversation is that a distinction should be made between people who are paid for their art, and people who create art in exchange for money.

This is not by any means an original idea, and it's one that is shared by some artists themselves. Congenital bastard and misery factory Lawrence Miles has lamented more than once the fact that he had to write The Adventuress of Henrietta Street purely in order to receive the money. It's hard to blame someone for whoring out their talent as an alternative to starvation, but Miles' dissatisfaction hailed from the fact that he hadn't woken up one day desperate to write the story, but because he woke up wanting something to eat, and thought he could slap something together in exchange for a tin of beans (which isn't to say he skimped on the book, by any means).

Intention matters. Needing to write a song to deal with tragedy is light-years away from wanting to write a song so that people will recognise you in the street. Sure, talent and ambition are not directly correlated (though they are sometimes indirectly linked), and some truly wonderful songs have been born entirely through someone deciding they're going to take on the world. In such cases, though, it's possible that the level of attitude involved in being, say, the Gallagher brothers, bleeds into and suffuses their work, that it is character that informs the song rather than the tawdry ambition. Needless to say, the characters themselves might be total bastards, but the trick still seems to work.

Here's the thing, though; you can't pull that trick off with a cover version. Taking a song from one side of the getting money for art/making art for money divide and applying it to the other genuinely is something that bothers me. I haven't heard Burke's take on the song, and for all I know it would cause me to weep openly at its sheer beauty, but it remains a short cut to achieving fame without actually producing anything of your own. In that sense, of course, it's a microcosm of the entire So You Think You're America's New Top Catwalk Idol sub-genre, an attempt to reach the big leagues whilst standing on the shoulder of as many giants as is humanly possible. [3]

Of course, it's just as possible that I don't really give a shit about singers, I only care about songs. Or that Simon Cowell is such an exceptional example of a shitty human being that everything he is involved with becomes tainted. It's a rich tapestry.

[1] This is another reason why the "reality" label is bullshit. The people behind X-Factor, or Pop Idol, or IACGMOOH, or any of the other pandemic of such shows, are paid to make a show that is entertaining. An unswervingly accurate portrayal of everyone featured in such programmes is not only very difficult to achieve, it's often antithetical to that goal.

[2] This is one of the big problems with writing prose. It can take pages of words and months of work to get across a message that a poem can manage in a few verses, and a song can manage in a single chorus. Also, if you spend a few days writing a song, and it turns out to be shit, it's no great loss. Spending years of your life putting a novel together and then realising it's total bobbins is a fairly demoralising experience. Maybe I should finally learn to play more than three chords on my acoustic guitar.

[3] I guess technically that would be two.

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