Under the Covers Under the Influence

Laura Eve Engel

Feb 21, 2011

As someone who does some musical arranging but no original songwriting to speak of, I've been thinking a little bit lately about the weird, interstitial territory of the cover song. Sure, we're all active readers and writers, and on our better days we're aware of the ways in which aspects of what we read and love can sneak into our dark revising rooms as easily as a bad light-through-the-blinds metaphor sneaks into our earliest drafts. (Oops.) On our better better days, we harness that sneaking and call it homage. We call it influence. We feel, semi-consciously, both at the mercy and in possession of some mystery that we have encountered in someone else's art and recognized, instantly, as that thing we want. But we're not thieves. We don't want to make someone else's art. We want to make the feeling we get when we experience that art, want that feeling to exist in the world at the other end of our own work. Maybe. That's all well and good for a poet, and I'd never Xerox another person's poem and call it mine. But when I arrange other artists' songs, I come to feel a sense of ownership over them that's both tough to explain and powerful, as tough-to-explain things often are. It makes me wonder, is there a writing version of the odd, unrequited intimacy a cover artist shares with someone else's art, intimacy that borders perhaps on invasion and could, if you're fancy enough, result in one party paying the other off? A cursory glance at Wikipedia tells me the term "cover version" wasn't even coined until the 60s; that calling something a cover instead of an original had more to do with the second version's ability to compete commercially with the first; that a relatively small corner of music's history cares about how to figure royalties and who can dig deep into their trough of music trivia and come up with which version is, in fact, the original (and send you into a shame-spiral when you swear on your tattered copy of Dream Songs that Iron & Wine wrote that sweet acoustic ditty in "Garden State"). At any rate, being compelled enough by a piece of music to create your own version of it has long been the way music worked, and it's certainly what we have to thank for any tune that was written before Edison and still exists today. Maybe what I love about covers is how they cause inflation in the market of hipster currency by devaluing that ubiquitous word "derivative." Nobody cares if a cover is derivative. Influence is explicitly on display, celebrated, and implicit in that celebration is a celebration of tradition, innovation and sheer geeky fandom. It's a celebration that tells our most anxious, possessive art-maker parts to shut up and just listen to all the forms our love of a thing can take. How influence is okay. It is. One of my favorite descriptions of art-making is one in which the artist surveys actively the art that already exists and then tries to put out into the world what she needs but cannot find there. I like this description because of its emphasis on the necessity of the act, but maybe the way it also seems to value originality above a lot of other things makes the artist a host for anxieties concerning adequacy and newness. Maybe it sends a person--maybe unwisely--to scout out her idiosyncrasies and turn them into voice. Maybe it drowns the real voice out. Listening to any well-done cover, I'm reminded, if only for a handful of minutes, of what good comes when love of music is heaped on love of music. Arranging music, I'm challenged by the idea that I can pursue as intimate a relationship with the books I love as the one I have with an artist whose chords and lyrics I've stolen nearly wholesale and tried to make mine. Covers may inhabit an artistic grey area. We may not be able to "cover" our favorite poems, or if we can, they may still get buried among the B-sides. Just the same, we can't be blamed for envying music its longest traditions, and trying. A cover I've been loving recently: Cat Power, "Naked, If I Want To," from The Covers Record (2000). And the original: Moby Grape, "Naked, If I Want To," from Moby Grape (1967).