I’ve been thinking about covers recently, and not as in bedsheets. The cover is ubiquitous in our culture (form karaoke bars to American Idol in all its kitschy glory), but what makes a good cover? What, if anything, happens to the meaning of a song when it is covered by someone else?
Last night I went to a Cat Power concert at the Wiltern theater in Los Angeles. It was a very, very interesting show. Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) is a strange person and a very odd performer. In years past she was known to have emotional breakdowns during shows and frequently walked off the stage, unable to finish a song or set. Last night she was gleefully happy (a little too happy if you ask me—prancing around on stage like a bunny doing the moonwalk), and she plowed through an 80-some minute set of entirely cover songs, including 5 or 6 covers of some of her own older songs.
But how, you might be wondering, does an artist cover themselves? Isn’t that just called a performance? Not if you heard Chan Marshall last night. She played a medley of songs from her 2006 album The Greatest, but they were rather unrecognizable and completely reinterpreted from their original form. At best it was intriguing, at worst terribly frustrating; but this is Cat Power. She’s all about the covers… and she’s probably the best at it. That is: the art of the cover.
Most people who cover songs take the “imitation is the best form of flattery” approach—mimicking the original song in melody, phrasing, tone, and mood. Cat Power can do this too (just listen to her spot-on rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again”), but her preferred method of covering songs is to reconstruct them from scratch and sculpt them in her musical image. Take her cover of the Stones’ “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”—there is little of the original left in her morose, acoustic version, save some remote, flickering (yet very much alive) musical idea. But songs are mysterious creatures, and to each listener they are completely different things. The meaning of a song is fluid, multifarious, easily changed and infinitely pliable. Every time a song is sung or performed (whether in the shower or on stage) it means something different, so it makes sense to say that the performer and audience have just as much or more to do with the “reality” of a song as the notes, chords, and instruments. And this is what Cat Power recognizes; this is why her covers are so utterly brilliant.
Chan Marshall has now made two albums of cover songs—2000’s The Covers Record (in which she covered Neil Young, Nina Simone, The Velvet Underground, among others) and this year’s Jukebox (a two disc album which covers Hank Williams, Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday, among others). These albums don’t feel like covers records, however. They feel totally original, personal, and uniquely Cat Power. For Marshall, singing other people’s songs is not just an act of mimesis or karaoke. It’s an act of reinterpretation—and that, in a way, is what all art is.
Indeed, I might argue that the art of covering is, in fact, the art of art. After all, very little art is completely original. Whether you are making a film (in which you copy the styles, conventions and motifs of other films), writing a book (abiding by centuries of literary rules) or creating music (perhaps the most derivative of all art forms), repurposing the past is just part of the game. Shakespeare was the worst offender (none of his stories are original to him), but that doesn’t diminish him as an artist. On the contrary, it’s a rare skill to be able to take other stories and inspirations and histories (as Shakespeare did) and make them something altogether better and greater in a recombinant form.
Cat Power is one artist who gets it. Her view of “the song” is an interesting one—she seems to conceive of a song as a living, free-market organism that is more about collective intelligence and cultural ownership than singular expression or solitary authorship. Indeed, it is interesting that so many of the songs she covers could be considered “folk art” tunes of the sort that define a culture/region/era rather than a particular artist. These are artifacts of people, not one person. Cat Power is just one modern girl who connects to the songs she hears and sings them in her own voice and way—embedding a song’s meaning with her own meaning (which is the only way anything ever means anything).
At a time when the remixed/repurposed/recombined seems to be the only means of creativity in our increasingly exhausted artistic climate, Cat Power is a shining, thoroughly postmodern exemplar. As classic songs are systematically stripped of meaning by the vacuous performances on American Idol two nights a week, other artists—like Cat Power—are envisioning new ways of breathing life into long-lost art and ephemeral culture.