April 1, 2010

A brainwave, sort of.

Like most normal people, I sometimes think about, and agonizingly critique, 3-minute semi-enjoyable live performances that I've seen by random college vocal showcase artists.  For weeks after I've viewed said vocal showcase. 

Sometimes things just stick in your head and you feel the need, the compulsion to ask yourself certain important questions about the universe.  You're helpless against the universe.  

So, since these things happen often I'll give you a "for instance".  A month ago (two?) I went to see a vocal showcase, with my friend Sarah, that Casey was performing in.  After the show I could not get the performance of this one singer out of my head (I can't really remember her name... Renn?  Ren?  Rhenn?  Rhen?).  It was stuck like a broken record.

What started out as me judging her for singing a song that is pretty much un-coverable (in my mind, "why even try?") eventually turned into a mental dissertation of music in its entirety.  I'm not sure I can really type up all of my thoughts right now, they're still sort of jumbling around in my head, but a few major things have stuck out, mostly questions (rhetorical and non).  It's kind of all over the place, but try to stick with me because I think I have a point.  Maybe.

Okay, so, I've had the feeling for years that everyone is driven by compulsions of some sort or the other (not unlike the compulsions I feel from the universe to think about these things), and that possibly artists feel those compulsions more than the rest of the world.

Why do singers want to perform?  Is it because they just need to?  They have to, they couldn't stop even if they tried??  OR is that just what makes a singer great?  Having that itch that they have to scratch.  They don't even have to have a great voice, as long as they have the compulsion.  

Because I can sing (shower, car), but I don't think I'm really that great.  I don't have that itch.  I don't need to perform in front of people.  

Is it possible that (alternatively) a singer can have a beautiful voice and still sound as though they're missing something?  It's pretty, but they just can't keep your attention?

What is the compulsion about anyways?  

"I need you to hear my voice because it's incredible!!"  

I don't think so, or at least I'd like to think it's something more than that.  It's about emotions, right?  Expressing yourself, maybe finding a connection with someone else out there in the world who can say, "oh my god, I know exactly what you mean!!" when they hear you.  

"That feeling that I had that I couldn't put words to, you just expressed it."  

I think that about sums it up, right?  Opera, pop, jazz, folk, rock, metal. It applies to them all.

So, if it's about emotions, sharing the way that you feel with an audience, then what the heck is the point of singing a cover?  "And now Brittany will sing an oldie, but a goodie -"  Like anyone would want to hear my Dusty Springfield renditions.  Is it just like karaoke for the world? 

"Please listen to me sing a Whitney Houston cover, because I can do it just like her, only better."

I don't think so.  I really don't.  And I think that's where a lot of people don't get it.  It's not like the national anthem, where everyone who sings it tries to one-up each other.  You shouldn't do a cover because you think you can do it better.  Which is why when you do a cover you should not try to sound exactly like the original singer.  It's like trying to fail, especially if it's a song that people know, especially if the original singer is amazing.  The purpose of a cover is to try and discern a different meaning from the song, a different emotion, you're putting a different tone to the same lyrics.  Or at least that's the ultimate purpose of a cover.  At the very least, sound different, have a cool arrangement, something!

So back to Ren.  It turns out that there are some good covers of her chosen song, one of them by a jazz singer that I love, Dianne Reeves.  Notice the difference between the original and the cover?  Notice how Dianne Reeves is not trying to be Nina Simone incarnate?  

A little sampling, in case you still don't believe me.  I'll try to put them in chronological order so you can hear the progression:

Jo Stafford was one of Billie Holliday's favorite singers.  I can see why.

The Four Seasons.

Etta, of course.  She wasn't the original singer, but she's probably got the most famous cover.  

Before you laugh, and besides the creepy movie-within-a-movie thing, just hear me out.  It's Reba all the way, right?  It conjures up different images than the other covers, it sounds different, it has a different feeling, she's going for something else.

A cover by Beth Rowley, who I think did a good job of changing the song to meet her vocal restrictions, namely that she is not Etta James.  And it sounds like she's okay with that.

And just for fun, here are some famous (or little known) originals and their famous (or little known) counterparts:  

Dolly.  Gorgeous song, so sad and genuine.

Whitney.  Completely different, right?  

Dusty.  We had one of her albums when I was a kid and Danielle and my god Danielle and I loved listening to that thing.  I still can't explain it, except to say that it's great.

The White Stripes.

Ah, the sweet sounds of the Bee Gees.

The Bird & the Bee.  I actually heard the cover before the original, and I like that it's more intimate, but the original is good, too.  And I'm pretty sure that Sia is singing backup, just listen carefully at 1:50 and 2:50.

Ella.  I can imagine being at some fancy outdoor party, dancing and listening to a live big band.

Norah Jones.  Unlike Ella, this conjures up a completely different image.

The Beatles.  Teenagers, fun, going to sock hops, drinking soda pop.  Yeah.

As Roger Ebert put it, "When Prudence sings "I Want to Hold Your Hand," for example, I realized how wrong I was to ever think that was a happy song. It's not happy if it's a hand you are never, never, never going to hold. The love that dare not express its name turns in sadness to song."

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