The source of music's emotional power
Music – especially popular music – is essentially a cathartic experience. Either on the part of the listener, the writer, the performer, or sometimes all three – something is resonating.
The purging taking place is emotional.
If you listen to Can’t Help Falling In Love, the first line is a great example of this emotional freedom and expression: “Wise men say, ‘Only fools rush in,’ but I can’t help falling in love with you.”
When you’re a teenager washing the dishes (I spent a lot of time, probably more time than warranted, dragging out cleaning by listening to music), this line sounds wonderful and romantic – and in fact, it really is. But it’s also terrifying if you’ve ever been in that situation. On the other hand, if you have been in love (or even just had a crush on somebody), perhaps you’ve noticed how pop songs – even bad ones – suddenly become strangely moving and take on new depths.
Among the many arguments you have as a kid when you’re deciding taste and opinions, the most memorable ones are about your taste in music. I once got into an argument about who was the superior artist: Frank Sinatra or U2? This argument would have been long forgotten except that my school friend argued that Frank Sinatra couldn’t possibly have been the superior musician because he didn’t even write his own songs, while U2 did.
I was dumbfounded. This was the first time I was exposed to the almighty “authenticity argument.” The U2-is-better-than-Frank position is that to be truly authentic, you have to have first-hand experience and have everything be original.
But this is not how creativity works. We had to have Beethoven – and everything after – before we got to the Rolling Stones. Music, like the arts in general, builds upon itself from one era to the next. It either takes elements from the past and repurposes them, or it creates a stark break with past conventions, but even then, it necessarily requires the past as a reference point. (In Beethoven’s case, both were true during different episodes of his life. And by the way, Billy Joel samples right out of the second movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique for his 1984 song, This Night.) You can’t hear Beethoven in the Stones, but there’s no way in the 19th century that the Stones’ music could have been written; the creative idea behind the music had simply not been arrived at yet. (Same goes for Beethoven’s music in the 12th century, of course.) Just as the Wurlitzer machine – an automatic music player – long prefigured the iPod, the same goes for the music coming out of both.
However, when you look for authenticity in interpretation – understanding that you need not have experienced the exact same scenario as the writer or original artists, but that you do need to, say, have loved or fallen in love to sing a song – then you can authentically perform the song. This is what makes the difference between a technically accurate but insipid, deadpan rendition of a work, and another rendition of the same rich with soulful emotion, in which the artist’s very being – indeed, his humanness – becomes intimately engaged with the music he is performing. In so doing, he brings something new to this performance. It becomes his performance.
Emotion is infectious. (Think Johnny Cash’s Hurt and Nine inch Nails’ original. The same song, but with very different interpretations.) The catharsis experienced here is communal, which is at the heart of popular music. The song moves from one person’s experience to, depending on its success, millions of peoples’ experience; the performer’s emotion connects with your own. This is what makes popular music.
The following nine songs are all covers. Some are great, some not. Take a listen.
Johnny Cash covering U2’s One:
Josh Ritter covering Henry Mancini’s Moon River:
Camera Obscura covering Abba’s Super Trouper:
Rilo Kiley covering The Velvet Underground’s After Hours:
David Bowie covering the Beach Boys’ God Only Knows:
God Only Knows
Claudine Longet covering John Lennon/the Beatles’ Jealous Guy/Don’t Let Me Down:
Jealous Guy/Don’t Let Me Down
Yael Naim covering Britney Spears’ Toxic:
Amy Winehouse covering Antonio Carlos Jobim’s The Girl from Ipanema:
The Girl from Ipanema
And Lauryn Hill covering Frankie Valli and the 4 Seasons’ Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You:
Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You