Monday, January 31, 2011

Originality Can Be Like Cover Songs

Alex Cavanaugh's Music Blogfest last week got me thinking about music... and particularly about cover songs. It was interesting looking at people's lists, and interesting, sometimes, to see that people liked different versions of the same song. Yet, really, they're the same song - what's the difference? What separates them?

In the end it can be quite a lot. And it struck me that this is sort of the same for writing, for stories and narrative ideas. It is possible to write something totally original, but it's challenging. But it's also possible to take something familiar and do that, but it only works if you can transform it, if you can add something unique and wholly yourself to bring new originality to old familiarity.

Video illustrations! Check the original, and then check the cover song...





Same song. Same notes and melody. But it's utterly transformed by the voice and vision of the artist. And this is so much like writing. There's something unique in each voice, and as writers we have to find and use this. What do we bring to make something new? Pace?

Check the original, and then check the cover...





Take an already fast pace... and then crank it up even further. But it's also about tone and pronunciation and voice. It's about seeing through something to a new world beyond. It's about turning left when everyone has always turned right.





This, I think, is how familiar stories are reconstituted, are made new again. Why are basic formulas so strong in stories, endlessly reused? Why does a love triangle work? It's because such concepts are open, available to be transformed by each and every unique voice.

Yet it's easy to fall into simple imitation, grasping at the familiar, following the well worn path. How do we move beyond that? How do we see something new in the familiar?





What about you? How do you find your way through the rabbit-hole of the familiar?

22 comments:

Damyanti said...

The familiar can be a source of the new...that is what a lot of literary short stories are all about.

For me, I look at the little things, they give me weird first sentences sometimes, and then I just keep worrying it like a cat worries a ball of string, and the story unravels itself.

Marlene Nash-McKay said...

Our community performed a show last year in May and as 'filler' music we used Apocalyptica in a particularly dark scene. It was amazing! It is such a mood dictator although I really enjoy Metallica as well

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Great analogy! I think there's only so many basic ideas, but it's our unique personality and experience that places a fresh spin on them.

aspiring_x said...

wow! so true! never thought about that!

Jayme Stryker said...

I used to do a similar exercise with my students. We listened to two versions of Last Kiss - the one by J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers and the one by Pearl Jam. It always sparked some interesting discussion as well as some strong feelings. The room usually divided into team Cavaliers and team Pearl Jam, and it was enlightening to see how they were all attracted to different elements - some to tone and form, some to the reality of the message. Great thought-provoking post for the day! Thanks!

Steve said...

Originality is a myth; books come from other books. And there is nothing new under the sun.

But some writers cover themselves; Greene's nonfiction THE LAWLESS ROADS later morphed into his novel THE POWER AND THE GLORY.

The best cover record, since you didn't ask, is Bowie's PINUPS, followed by the Dirtbombs' ULTRAGLIDE IN BLACK.

Jessica Bell said...

This is an excellent comparison. I just try to make sure my personality shine through everything. Can't do much more than that. PS: Have you ever heard Ryan Adams' Wonderwall cover? I love it. And I wasn't even that crazy about the original. And that says a lot, hey? HEre's a link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gVxRvNfFLg

Matthew Rush said...

Great analogy. I think you make an excellent point. A bit like archetype versus cliche.

Ted Cross said...

What you say is right on for most work. However there are also works so amazing that one wants more of the same. If someone takes it and does something very different with it, well then they aren't giving us what we actually want. To me it's sort of like U2 getting into electronica when what I loved about them was their rock. Sometimes I don't want something different.

Candyland said...

Ahh love this! Personally, I just BE ME and hope it comes out different. That's really all we can do, I think.

Lydia K said...

I think writing is a lot like this. People say that there are no new stories; yet every writer makes a story unique. I think music is the same way!

jbchicoine said...

I like the analogy. I just think it's a good idea to be open to something new, even if the familiar feels safe and comfortable.

Holly Ruggiero said...

Great point! These are excellent examples of how different the same thing can be.

Paul Joseph said...

I love this post. I've always felt their are only a handful of concepts out there, but it's the person who captures them that brings the originality to the table. We all come from different plaes and that is reflected in any type of art - music, writing, film, etc. And with anything, there will be some who appreciate one version, and those who prefer another.

Marsha Sigman said...

Bryan, I love this post!!!

I know the concepts may be the same but when you truly find your own voice...that is what makes any story (or song) unique.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I second Matt's idea about archetype vs. cliche! Part of knowing that you're not imitating, even when you're running on the same road that many before you have, is by mastering the storytelling art. Then you KNOW you're doing it differently, bringing your own flavor to it.

Great post! :)

Missed Periods said...

That is an excellent comparison. Coincidentalliy, right now, I am watching the new Clash of the Titans, and, unlike the great cover songs you mentioned, this remake does nothing for me.

WritingNut said...

This is such a great analogy! You're right, it's hard to stumble upon that bright, shiny NEW idea.. chances are it's be done a million times over.

But we can bring OURSELVES to it, and add our own little touches :)

Marlene Nash-McKay said...

Thanks for the excellent analogy. In some cases even the originator is inspired to re-work his very own creation. Bob Dylan's Forever Young springs to mind. The song first appeared on his 1974 album Planet Waves - in two different versions.

D.G. Hudson said...

For a great rendition of "Ophelia", check out St. Louis native Jim Byrnes' cover of the song, and compare it to The Band's version, released in the early seventies. JTB's version is more blues grounded.

Generally I'm a purist and don't like cover songs. The unique quality only works once on most songs, by the original artist.

There are exceptions, I agree. BTW - Love the Eurythmics & Annie Lennox. No comparison for me.

Interesting post, INK.

JM Leotti said...

Great post. I've noticed this with TV episodes. Think of any season of your favorite (Bones, Supernatural, Burn Notice, House, maybe not Seinfeld, which is interesting, maybe not Northern Exposure, also interesting--then again maybe it's the same for these as well) and they seem to follow a type of formula. However, each episode is different and exciting (hopefully). The plots follow the formula, (ten minutes before the show ends House gets his "I've got it!" look, and the case is solved) but it's the particulars that make it interesting and intriguing. For me, it comes from the characters. The more particular they are, the more unique the story tends to be, which is why Hamlet might be seen in Luke Skywalker or any number of parentless characters. Thanks again for this!

maine character said...

Cool post. I love it when artists remake a song or story in such a way you love it all over again, like Dar Williams doing "Comfortably Numb."

You can hear that at one of my favorite music blogs, Cover Lay Down. It's written by a teacher in Massachusetts, and he keeps up his archives a good six months, so there's plenty to browse back through.