So I’ve been having this stupid fight all week in various places, and facing the same ridiculous accusation at each turn. My objection to Cee-Lo Green’s adaptation of John Lennon’s Imagine is absolutely not me saying that nobody should ever change songs. That’s stupid. Artists are supposed to put their own spin on musical expression – it’s the whole point. There is, however, an ethos among musicians that has a lot to do with artistic integrity. If you are going to use someone else’s artistic creation, you have to either remain faithful to the original in terms of intent, or find a radical new way of presenting the same material.
To wit, Cee-Lo does an absolutely outstanding cover of a tune by Band of Horses:
This is one of my favourite covers of all time, which is saying a lot because I listen to a lot of music. Some say it’s better than the original – I think that’s a tough call to make (unless the original is no good – every cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is better than the original because Cohen, genius that he is, can’t sing for beans). Regardless of which one is better, this cover does not take liberties with lyrics, does not invert the intended expression, doesn’t fuck with the song. Cee-lo fucked with Imagine. In a conversation on Reddit I likened what he did to re-writing Bohemian Rhapsody to give it a happy ending, or adding a verse about how totally acceptable it is to be white to James Brown’s anthemic Say It Loud (I’m Black and Proud). While the intention may be noble, it violates the creator’s expression and is inherently disrespectful, regardless of intent.
Now it is entirely permissible to violate any and all of those things if it is the service of repurposing the work of art to give an entirely new message. One of the most brilliant examples I can think of in recent history is when Alanis Morissette did a cover of My Humps by the Black Eyed Peas:
In this case, the message of the song was taken out of it’s original bubblegum pop cover to expose the deep and ludicrous misogyny that’s at the root of the song (and pop music in general). Even though she didn’t change the lyrics (which would have defeated the purpose), she violated the intent of the artist. But that was the point. What Cee-lo did was essentially exercise a kind of line-item veto to use all the parts that he agreed with, but changed the parts he didn’t. In so doing, he went well beyond the artistic license.
And whenever I make this argument, people get into how ‘subjective’ and ‘arbitrary’ my position is. I would never be so foolish as to claim that there is an objective standard by which artistic license can be judged. That being said, the public outcry shows that people’s gut reaction is that he did something wrong, and this is my attempt to provide that gut reaction with some clarifying language. Yes, artists change things all the time, but not like this.
To demonstrate how not anti-cover or anti-interpretation I am, here is a video of CROWN doing what is another of my all-time favourite covers (yes, I am that self-congratulatory):
We are, incidentally, back to work next weekend. If you’re in the Vancouver area and you want to see us play live, hit up the website for details.
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