Wednesday, June 10, 2015

On the Mutability of Music

This is going to take a little effort on your part, but it's so worth it.

There's a rap song called "Trap Queen", by Fetty Wrap, and it's strong. Very strong. Great hooks, excellent flow, and it was a huge hit.

You need to go listen to it now, which you can do here: Trap Queen.

Strong, right?

Now, immediately, go listen to this version: Ed Sheeran: Trap Queen.

Yeah, it's great. Absolutely great. It's a version whose existence you could never even conceive. Until you hear it, that is, and it's stunning.

Hearing these two phenomenal versions of the same song made me think about music and how it's unique compared to literature. A single song can be covered dozens of times by different artists, with varying degrees of success, but at least occasionally the cover is just as good or better than the original.

Writers don't do that. Well, they do occasionally, particularly with Shakespeare ("Much Ado About Nothing" by Joss Whedon was outstanding), so Shakespeare would be the old blues standards that get endless cover versions.

In recent literature, though, it seems very rare, and in any case, reinterpretation is much less important in literature and much less embedded in the culture.

I never thought about it this way, but covering and reinterpreting songs makes music a much more living, breathing thing.

I'm going to go ahead and present the counterargument. If you consider the archetypal plots, most of literature is reinterpreting and expanding on those archetypes. In that sense, literature is very much like music, but to me, an archetypal plot can't be considered equivalent to an individual song.

On stage, this is certainly different.

Plays are certainly more like music in the sense that they get performed and reinterpreted all the time. Not all productions are going to be original--many will be straight vanilla and literal--but there is certainly room for individuality.

Maybe Chris Hornbostel will write a column about his favorite cover versions that exceed the original someday.

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