Changing the Words, Changing the Context

JSmith Photo, "Jetpack On! CD Release Show 7"

Not my friend's band. JSmith Photo, "Jetpack On! CD Release Show 7," CC-BY-ND licensed, via

A brief thought that I’ve spent a number of showers thinking about lately:

A friend of mine occasionally plays cover music in a band. (They’re good.) We talked once about adjusting the lyrics of a song that you didn’t write. He was firmly against this.

(Side note: has my dissertating led me to write all these short sentences? Can a person balance the rhythm of his writing so that his long-form, multi-claused sentences are all written in one context, like the drive where you like to listen to 9-minute songs, and then his short-form, staccato, rhythmically powerful sentences are all written in another context, like the drives where you listen to a 2-minute punk song?)

(If that last sentence is any kind of proof, apparently not. Moving on.)

When I went to hear the friend play music in a bar, the show was fantastic. He also didn’t change any of the words (as far as I noticed). But what keeps gnawing at my mind is the number of things that he did change, the things that are fundamentally changed any time a cover song is played. These include:

  • Instrumentation: When you’re performing with acoustic guitar, keyboard, bass, and drums, you’re fundamentally changing the effect of a song that wasn’t originally recorded with those instruments. (That is, originally distributed in recordings with other instruments; we have no idea how the songwriter originally wrote the piece–in front of a piano, or with an accordion, squatting in front of a cheap built-in laptop mic for the first demo recording.)
  • Vocal Inflection: A cover band can’t exactly replicate the ups and downs or the timbre of the voice they’re covering–and I’d say that they generally shouldn’t try to.
  • Musical Context: The songs surrounding any song affect how we hear it, right? This hearkens back to all the conversations I’ve been hearing about mixtapes (as assignments, as metaphors) at CCCC and C&W lately. In their simplest sense, the mixtape says, “This rearrangement of songs from their published order reflects a creative control that I’m exerting.” That is, if I put the tones of Björk’s “Frosti” just before the similarly sounding tones of Sufjan Stevens’ “Did I Make You Cry on Christmas? (Well, You Deserved It),” I want you to hear both the sonic similarity and contemplate what it means for those song’s meanings to be butted up next to each other. In a live band context, the cover song is surrounded (almost always) with new songs, giving it new contexts and new meanings.
  • Performance Context: Doesn’t a song mean something different when we hear it pumped through bar speakers, surrounded by bar people, as opposed to hearing it come up in Winamp at my computer, or in my car, or in headphones while weeding the garden?

Change the lyrics? Why not? It’s not like anything else in the original is being delivered in the same way.

I tried to scare up a quote about music and lyrics from David Burrows’ beautifully excellent little book, Sound, Speech, and Music, but apparently I didn’t copy the quote into my Evernotes, and Google Books isn’t helping. If I remember right (and I very well might not be), he has a sentence about lyrics being fundamentally secondary to music in the ears of listeners–something that I tried to tell my parents all through middle school, but they didn’t seem to buy it.


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