Remix or Cover?

The Wizard (1989) was made for me. It’s a movie about an emotionally disturbed boy who turns out to be stellar at playing video games. I had just turned 9 when it came out, when my waking moments were mostly soaked with Nintendo games–and luckily for me, the movie was, in the words of its Wikipedia page, “little more than a 90-minute commercial for Nintendo games.” Sweet!

Part of the reason the film still holds up for me (despite a 31% on Rotten Tomatoes) is because of some beautiful, evocative montage scenes of the 3 kids hitchhiking from Utah to California with Real Life’s “Send me an Angel” pounding in the background. (Somehow, this feels similar to the important scene in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure when they accidentally warp to the future, and everything slows down and the audience soaks in the music and the reverence and it’s beautiful. Is that just me?) Here’s the scene from The Wizard:

I was singing along to this song last night in the car, and it made me think about Denison Marrs’ cover. (I can’t find one to stream, but the version on their 7″ far exceeds the deadened recording on their third LP.)

And that made me think about cover songs in general, and the question of what ways remixes and covers are similar and different. I could give technical answers about the differences, but I’m not sure they’re very satisfying: my impression is that cover songs are usually completely rerecorded, with no original sound information used in the new recording (which is why awesome folks at OverClocked ReMix say that the pieces over there are “more re-arrangements than remixes“), while remixes actually take parts of the original recording and mix their sound levels again, often with new musical information added. Rearrange it and record it from scratch: it’s a cover. Add a techno beat: it’s a remix.

But is that too tidy? Both practices involve composing from existing material; both put the remixer/cover-er in a similarly creative spot, imagining how best to adapt existing material for a new artistic or rhetorical purpose. Maybe all we need is the bigger category of “music from existing material.”

That feels dangerous, though; we really like our boundaries. And it implies that the remix is less creative than the so-called “original” works, even if the original piece was just a collection of existing chord progressions, drum beats, melodies, etc. If we start broadening categories, everything starts to sound like a remix. . . .

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