A short story in book-review form by Jorge Luis Borges, called “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” describes a work by the (fictional) author Pierre Menard, a new version of the prototypical novel El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha by Cervantes. “A new version” isn’t precisely accurate, actually; Menard has not just rewritten the novel, or translated it, but reconstructed it exactly, word for word, in the 17th Century Spanish language in which it was originally composed. According to Borges’s “review,” Menard’s Quixote, despite being completely identical to Cervantes’s, is the superior work. After all, of course Cervantes is going to write in 17th Century Spanish, for example, as it was the language he spoke; but for Menard, a 20th Century Frenchman, to write a novel in 17th Century Spanish gives it a whole different, far richer, meaning. Cervantes was depicting a world that he himself actually lived in. That’s easy. But Menard has written a work of historical fiction that’s astounding in its accuracy and attention to detail – surely that’s the more impressive accomplishment!
Obviously Borges is writing satire here, but he’s talking about a real issue: he’s anticipating certain kinds of post-modern literary theory like Roland Barthes’ “Death of the Author” or Reader Response Theory, where authorial intent and the material circumstances of the creation of a work don’t matter at all, and it’s only in the reading of the work that its meaning is assigned. It’s arguable whether or not Borges is supporting or rejecting such an idea – it could be read both ways (appropriately enough), and other writings of his seem to contradict any reading of this one anyway. But I tend to think that, despite the fact that obviously Pierre Menard’s Quixote is not a real book, the possibility that it could have been has a lot of interesting implications.
While not an identical copy, for example, an original production of Hamlet at the Globe theatre would have in important ways been a totally different thing than, say, the 2000 film version of Hamlet starring Ethan Hawke. Similarly, the phenomenon of “cover” songs is by no means new – it’s actually only relatively recently that the public expects popular musicians to be singer/songwriters – but if we take a look at how different bands’ versions of the same songs differ from each other, we can draw out the circumstances that show how authorial intent and cultural context is in fact extremely relevant to the meaning of a text.
What directed my mind to this originally was the release of a digital EP by former Dresden Dolls frontwoman Amanda Palmer: “Amanda Palmer Performs the Popular Hits of Radiohead on her Magical Ukulele,” which is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. What really struck me about these songs – though most particularly about her two versions of “Creep” – were how very different they are from Radiohead’s originals, and not just in the obvious ways. Palmer here isn’t going out of her way, Menard-like, to create a one-to-one correspondence between her song and Radiohead’s so clearly they won’t be exactly the same, but more than the differences that come from the, well, differences between Palmer’s and Radiohead’s songs, the fascinating thing is the differences that come out of the similarities of the two. It’s the same song, and yet what it means when Thom Yorke sings it in 1993 is so utterly distinct from what it means when Amanda Palmer sings it in 2010 that it really shines a light on many of the same issues of meaning and interpretation in art that Borges was addressing when talking about Pierre Menard.
To start us off, “Creep” is a very famous song. When it debuted in 1993 it was both celebrated and scorned for being that sort of unabashedly sincere self-loathing music that grungers like Nirvana and Alice In Chains were producing, and no matter what Thom Yorke says about it today there’s still not a drop of irony detectable in his performance (unlike, say, Beck’s “Loser,” which everyone took at face value at the time but in hindsight is pretty clearly a joke). Even Yorke’s bandmates were uncomfortable with the tone of “Creep”; those blasts of violent guitar noise before the chorus has been explained as guitarist Johnny Greenwood trying to screw up the song because he hated it. To this day, Radiohead almost never perform “Creep” even though – because? – it’s probably their most well-known, and most earnestly literal, song.
Skip ahead to 2010 and Amanda Palmer doesn’t simply do a straight-ahead, which is to say unironic, version of “Creep.” The EP’s very artwork attests to the fact that she’s attempting to make herself look a little bit ridiculous, with its Ronco-Original-Superhits-Compilation-style title and visuals. At the beginning of the Twenty-First Century, one is simply not permitted to take oneself completely seriously, and Palmer knows it. Using the ukulele is part of that, as plenty of people consider it an inherently silly instrument and associate it with the levity of things like Vaudeville and Tiny Tim, so the idea of using it to play these emotionally heavy songs is likely to elicit a smirk – at least at first. But then you actually listen to it. Palmer, protected by her irony-armour, is now free to sing the song in a completely sincere way, which her seemingly incongruous use of ukulele now enhances rather than undermines. She’s not the first person to do this, but it works.
So then here begin the real divergences between Radiohead’s and Amanda Palmer’s “Creep.” When Thom Yorke sings it (or sang it, since he doesn’t really sing it anymore), it’s the story of an awkward college-age man in love with a woman, but who feels as if he’s completely beneath her notice. For a lot of us, it was easy to relate, which is one of the reasons it was such a huge hit. When Amanda Palmer sings it, though, it’s not the same at all. Palmer’s “Creep” is sung by an attractive woman in her mid-thirties who in her ten years as a professional, though independent, musician is nowhere near as well-known and popular as Radiohead became virtually overnight when this song first hit the airwaves (remember airwaves?).
Palmer’s “Creep” isn’t a song of romantic longing; it’s a song about her insecurities as a musician. When Thom Yorke sings “When you were here before, I couldn’t look you in the eye,” he’s referring to a woman with whom he’s in love. When Palmer sings the very same line, she’s talking about the audience who have come to see her perform and are expecting something good, something she’s not sure she can actually deliver. The EP’s two versions of the track make this quite apparent: the first, studio version, subtitled “Hungover at Soundcheck in Berlin,” opens with Palmer sobbing, “This is the saddest room I’ve ever played to. Nobody came to my show. But you’re here.” The second version, a recording of a live performance in Prague, gives us the added bonus of being able to hear the audience’s reactions, which helps us gauge what exactly is being communicated. Palmer begins strumming out the song’s opening on her magical ukulele, and before she even starts singing there are laughs of recognition from the crowd. They know that song. Of course they know that song, and here’s Amanda Palmer, playing it on a ukulele.
The first thing they notice is how weird that is, and there’s that automatic ironic distancing thing that allows them to step back and do a little deconstruction. After the first verse and just before the chorus, when she does the same dead-note plucking that Johnny Greenwood does on his guitar in the original, there’s another burst of laughing and cheering from the crowd for the same reason. When Radiohead plays (or played) “Creep,” the crowd definitely would react, but certainly not by laughing. Palmer goes on to sing the song completely straight. And yet it means something totally different, something that’s very obvious to the crowd as the performance goes on; when she sings the line “What the hell am I doing here?”, we can hear someone in the crowd shout, “We love you!” They know she’s not talking to a crush who’s too good for her, she’s talking to them. And they want to reassure her. In the next bit of the song, when she sings the line “She’s running out the door” in a crazy falsetto rivalling even Thom Yorke’s, the crowd rewards her with cheers just for taking the risk. And when she then goes on to hold a note on the word “run” for way too long – fully ten seconds, actually, compared to the six seconds that Yorke holds the note for in the original, not to mention that Palmer is singing an entire octave higher than Yorke – the crowd again erupts. In the final chorus, when her voice cracks on a relatively easy note, she giggles, and the crowd laughs with her. The fact that she messes up during this song – just a little, and not even at one of the vocally difficult parts – actually works perfectly, adds a moment of further honesty in just the right place to lock in the message between Palmer and the audience. Contrast this with what happened once when Thom Yorke messed up during a performance of “Talk Show Host” in Toronto in 1998: where Palmer laughs off her mistake, Thom Yorke does two false starts on the song, then furiously punches the microphone and spits, “What are the words?”
Radiohead’s relationship to their songs, and their fans, is different than Palmer’s to hers; they all know this; and the observing the communication between artist and audience shows just how well their songs’ meanings come across. The song is the same, but the vastly different contexts of the singers makes the meaning change entirely. In a certain sense, Palmer singing a Radiohead song about romantic longing but making it about musical insecurities is more effective than Palmer simply writing a new song about musical insecurities in the first place. Because Palmer knows that her audience is likely already to have a built-in familiarity with Radiohead’s songs, she can use this to convey her meaning at least in part by taking advantage of the gap between the context of the original song and that of her reproduction. At the risk of belabouring the point, let’s take a quick look at a couple of other cover songs that do the same thing – use a contextual contrast as a tool for communication by making us aware of a metacultural discourse going on in popular music.
“Bring The Pain” by Wu-Tang Clan member Method Man is in most ways a pretty standard rap track. It’s a good song but lyrically it isn’t about very much – a lot of rap has been criticized for this, about being more concerned with rhythm, rhyme and wordplay above actual content, and certainly that’s not always true, but in this case it mostly is. To the extent that “Bring The Pain” is about anything, it’s about how good a rapper Method Man thinks he is. Which, poetically, is perfectly valid and definitely has its precedents; plenty of the Romantic poets spent a lot of time praising themselves and their own abilities, both artistic and, uh, let’s say “erotic.” But in terms of authorship issues, the original version of the song probably doesn’t have as much to be said about it as “Creep” did.
But then let’s look at the same song performed by Mindless Self Indulgence:
Aside from the much richer production, the actual content of the song is heavily complicated by being performed by anyone other than Method Man in general, and MSI in particular. Ignoring for a moment the fact that out-of-genre (often ironic) covers are such an established phenomenon at this point that it might qualify as a genre in itself, if its author is now considered to be MSI frontman James “Little Jimmy Urine” Euringer, suddenly it’s a rather unironic paean instead of a purely self-congratulatory piece, obviously because for all the praise being heaped upon Method Man and Wu-Tang, Method Man himself is no longer the one doing the actual heaping.
That’s not the most interesting part, though. Basically all the discourse around MSI’s version of the song has been focused on whether or not a “white” band is culturally permitted to use the word “nigger,” which occurs numerous times in the song. The N-word is hotly contested semantic territory, with many people, both black and white, contending that it ought never to be used by anyone, either black or white. But there is in general the consensus that even if black people are “allowed” to use it, white people are not. So the white singer of MSI has been attacked for racism, despite the fact that he’s merely quoting the words of a black rapper which in their original context, for all the difficulties surrounding the word’s use, has a strong precedent in hip hop and in most cases can’t be considered evidence of anti-black prejudice.
That discussion is far too complicated to go into here [Though it’ll be great flame-bait for the comments! Thanks for that! —Ed.], and MSI are definitely not the first band to court controversy in this way, but the issue is that MSI, by earnestly reproducing “Bring The Pain” seemingly not for ironic reasons but because they genuinely liked the song, call attention to the gap between the literal meaning and the cultural significance of a song performed by an African-American and the very same song performed by a Caucasian. For MSI’s part, in the liner notes (remember liner notes?) to the album that followed their cover of “Bring The Pain,” they don’t address the controversy directly, but they do include a quote from Lenny Bruce which seems to sum up their attitude: “It’s the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness.”
“Hurt” as written and performed by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails comes as the denouement of the 1994 album The Downward Spiral, a work that’s heavily concerned with…well, hurting. As much of NIN’s oeuvre is, The Downward Spiral is largely concerned with raging against the heavens and leaping into the depths of despair. It came out only a month before the death of Kurt Cobain, and the darkness of the times is very audible in it — but it’s a largely adolescent sort of darkness. Reznor’s “Hurt” is a confessional about depression, much like, say, Robert Frost’s “Acquainted With The Night.” But Frost’s poem was composed when the poet was in his fifties after having suffered many tragedies that would have crippled anyone: first losing his father to tuberculosis at age 11, living in poverty as a child before losing his mother fifteen years later, having to commit his younger sister to a mental hospital, and seeing a son and a daughter die (Frost would eventually outlive four of his six children). Reznor, on the other hand, while a child of divorce, was raised by his loving grandmother who didn’t herself pass away until several years later, and while he yearned to escape the small town of his youth, he admits that his childhood was certainly not a miserable one. By age 29, when The Downward Spiral was released, his art was critically acclaimed and he had major financial success. Reznor’s “Hurt” is by no means insincere, and indeed is a touching song, but while both “Hurt” and “Acquainted With the Night” are suicidal meditations with many common sentiments, in a certain sense if you’re not yourself mired in that same pit, you might be tempted to ask Trent Reznor what exactly he’s got to complain about.
But now listen to (and watch) Johnny Cash perform the same song. Where Reznor’s “Hurt,” though certainly genuine, seems more like the result of a chemical imbalance, when channelled through Johnny Cash, the pain now feels borne of genuine world-weariness. Knowing who Cash is, and his history, everything he suffered throughout his life, makes his version of “Hurt” a much more profound experience than Reznor’s, more akin to Frost’s “Acquainted With The Night.”
To name a few: Johnny Cash lived through the depression, and had his beloved older brother killed by a saw in the mill where he worked; he later enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and was deployed to Germany for three years; his drug and alcohol abuse led to a divorce from his first wife and a suicide attempt; in his later years his health sharply declined, he underwent heart surgery and had what he described as a near-death experience, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and had his lungs damaged by severe pneumonia. Cash was seventy years old when he recorded “Hurt,” and the gravitas of his performance of the song, particularly when paired with the visuals from throughout his life in the video and his own sick and frail appearance as he sings, makes Reznor’s original pale in comparison, something Reznor himself admitted; after watching the video of Cash’s version of “Hurt,” he said he felt like “I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore.” Even Rick Rubin, who produced the track, couldn’t bring himself to listen to it or watch the video for months afterward. “Hurt” was the final single Cash released in his lifetime; he died seven months later, less than four months after the death of June Carter Cash, his wife of thirty-five years.
Richard Rosenbaum is Associate Fiction Editor for the Incongruous Quarterly and Broken Pencil Magazine, as well as their recently released anthology “Can’tLit: Fearless Fiction from Broken Pencil Magazine”. He just completed his Master’s Degree in Communication and Culture at Ryerson University.
[What are your favorite covers that re-contextualize and re-shape the meaning of the original? Is the phenomenon limited just to pop music? Sound off in the comments!]