Monday, February 1, 2010

Messing With the Classics: Musical Edition

Every time someone announces they are "updating" a beloved classic, I tend to cringe. Sometimes these go well, but more often than not you're left with something like "Kill Mo' Mock: Boo Radley in the Hood." (And if you've never read Bloom County, that reference may well be lost on you until the day comes when I shall explain. Which is not today.) This happens most often with film or literature, but the music world is not immune. The results are, sadly, about the same.

In pop music this is known as "the cover," a term which I, being non-musical myself, have often failed to grasp the nuances of. Sometimes it seems as if a cover is simply the same old song being sung by someone new. This can range from bland and uninspired to changing the way you interpret the song, even if the vocals and the music stay the same. In the hands of anyone else, "I've got you under my skin" doesn't have quite the same resonance as when Sammy Davis Jr sings it. In my mind that has to do with things outside of the song which lend themselves to different interpretations.

Sometimes those wander far afield. The stylizations of the national anthem (for which I blame Whitney) are, technically, not covers. I suppose because they aren't made for commercial distributions. I do however feel, each and every time some current pop sensation feels the need to belt and warble their way through the "Star Spangled Banner," that they are most definitely guilty of messing with a classic. And messing it up.

William Shatner singing "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" is in a class all by itself.

On the other hand, unlike in movies and books, in the music world it seems to me that the true classics are often, for the most part, sacrosanct. Sure, a composer might alter an arrangement here or there, or arrange a piece for instruments different than the composer intended, but you don't usually get the kind of "reinventing" that so often afflicts literary and film classics. There just isn't really much you can do to the "1812 Overture." Cannons are cannons, after all. Same with "Ode to Joy." (Having Beaker from the Muppets sing Beethoven does not fall in quite the same category. I doubt that's meant to be taken seriously on a musical level. Nor am I making that up.)

So it was with some trepidation, mixed in part with curiosity, that I listened to an album that put a modern, semi-electronica spin on Beethoven. It was, for the most part, a good listen. I shelved it - metaphorically speaking - in with the rest of my classics and will listen to the album again. It wasn't groundbreaking by any means, but it was respectful of the source and entertaining. The only tarnished spot for me was when the composer took on the 5th.

Now, I shall insert a caveat by saying of all of Beethoven's works, the 5th is the one that least impresses me. In part this is just the musical stylings of it, but it is also due to the fact that, of all of Beethoven's pieces, this is the one that has been most often abused and maligned. It was even once pressed into service for a series of answering machines messages. It is therefore forever associated in my head, not with the original the way it was intended, but all the "reimaginings" or "revisitings" or "updatings" or just plain "it was in the public domain and free so we took it and used it" recordings that have been perpetuated in Beethoven's name.

Which is the risk with doing this to any piece of classic work. Should the newer piece be sufficiently bad enough, no one remembers the power of the original. Instead you get the knockoffs. I think this may explain the treatment of the national anthem by almost every celebrity who has sung it since Whitney. They've forgotten the original, and only remember Whitney. In film I think you can thank Kenneth Branagh for bringing Shakespeare to new audiences, but I for one hold Frankenstein against him. The maligned monster hasn't had a decent big-screen or literary debut since. (More on that some other time.)

Does this mean the classics should never be open to interpretation? Probably not, as then you'd have to include pieces which were re-written for the piano or some other instrument, and some occasional tweaking can keep things fresh. But as for the rest, well....

I say we keep those cannons handy.

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