When you watch a movie that’s a re-make of an older movie (which was also probably adapted from a musical adaptation of a novel) – do you ever mope and wonder if anything out there is original anymore? Is there really nothing new under the sun? I like to be cynical and sleep bitterly in this camp from time to time, sure that our collective imaginations are being mercilessly wiped away by some Never Ending Story-esque of a Nothing. “This is all that’s left of Fantasia!?” But then I consider the very concept of originality and I start to chuckle a little. Because, in some way, aren’t we all to our very cores just a copy of a copy of a copy – replicas of a sort? If so, does the act of appropriating warrant hysteria at the loss of originality? Or, can we marvel at the ability of a replica to creatively redirect us to The Source of true imagination and authorship?
In recent years, mash-up musicians like Girl Talk have forced us as listeners (and Intellectual Property Attorneys), to address this question of originality. Can you take something that already was and make it new? Perhaps you look at the art culture of the ‘80s and tsk disapprovingly at artists like Sherrie Levine where, in her exhibit entitled “After Walker Evans,” she merely re-photographed Evans’ famous images, then hung them on the wall and called them her own. Maybe you wanted to hurl when Richard Prince’s 1975 Untitled (Cowboy), a simple re-photograph of a famous Marlboro Man add, sold for one million dollars in a 2005 auction at Christie’s. But artists like Levine and Prince work with the sole purpose of questioning the idea of authorship and originality. As an artist myself, there’s something infuriatingly lazy about their work – but also something entirely true to point. Who is the author? What makes a work of art (or anything for that matter) mine?
Long has the debate raged as to whether or not there is anything truly new or original anymore…as if there once was such a thing. Critics like Roland Barthes have even commented that the truth of writing is that “the writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original.” Basically, in writing, we are copycatting the marks of an alphabet to create words that form sentences and thoughts. Barthes was sort of a bummer.
But let’s deconstruct for a moment. If I paint, did I bind the canvas? Mix and bottle my paints? Grow a pear tree with which to organize my still life model? No. If I am a photographer, whether Walker Evans or Sherrie Levine, did I mix the fixer? Build my camera? The film? Create the light? The subject? No. The truth is, everything is composed of something else. The process of creating always, under every circumstance, involves taking something that is and making it into something else that is new. In that way, nothing is new. And yet, everything is new isn’t it?
What is the root of our compulsion to imitate?
Repetition binds us to a thing. Think about saying “I love you.” If it’s true, you never say it once to a person. You say it over and over again. Repetition gives us momentum. Someone once said that to make an impression, you repeat the point three times. Not two times. Not four times. Thrice. Repetition allows us to look at a thing with renewed vision and appreciation. Just think about newborn babies.
Walter Benjamin warned of the loss of aura, of special-ness, in artwork due to the evils of reproduction. But I can’t get on board. There is something in an imitation that is spectacular because it’s an imitation. Just think about a great cover song (Please, please, listen to this video of Lissie covering Kid Cudi’s “Pursuit of Happiness”…pardon the profanity).
I know Easter is supposed to be my favorite holiday, but it’s always been Christmas for me. I love getting presents, giving presents, and the quiet and mysterious fruition of a great promise that was centuries in the making. In the spirit of Christmas in July, a season when the ultimate “cover” came to bear (for the under-caffeinated, I’m talking about Jesus in the image of God), I wanted to mention some of my favorite cover songs. Songs that took an original and completely made it new for me. They are, each of them, awesome transformation stories that point towards The One who came to make all things new – even me, a rough and messy counterfeit (repeat x3).
In no particular order (and I know there are holes in this list):
1. Passion Pit’s cover of “Dreams” by the Cranberries
2. The Animals covering “House of the Rising Sun” originally recorded by Tom Ashley and Gwen Foster
3. Lissie’s cover of “Pursuit of Happiness” by Kid Cudi
4. Mumford and Sons cover of “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel
5. Ryan Adams cover of “Wonderwall” by Oasis
6. Jeff Buckley covering “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen
7. Johnny Cash covering “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails
8. White Lies “Bigger Than Us” music video is obviously pointing towards E.T. and I can’t not beg you to go watch it.
9. Phish covering “Loving Cup” by the Rolling Stones
10. The Fugees covering “Killing Me Softly” originally recorded by Lori Lieberman
11. UB40’s cover of “Red Red Wine” by Neil Diamond (I know you thought it was Bob Marley, and I’m sorry (not sorry) but I freaking love this song)
12. Cat Power’s cover of “I Found a Reason” by Lou Reed
13. D.H.T. covering “Listen to Your Heart” by Roxette
P.S. In case you’re wondering, according to NPR, the song “La Di Da Di” by Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick is the most covered song of all time.