Year after year new artists emerge, new songs are created and new stars are born. Or at least that’s how it should be. Lately it seems as though current artists are benefiting from older music – taking an original and making their own version. They always say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but that’s not always true – sometimes it’s just downright insulting. Here’s an in depth look at the wonderful world of recycled music, for better or for worse.                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Let’s take a look at covers/remakes: when an artist takes an old song, keeps the lyrics the same, but puts their own spin on it without straying too much from the original. It’s common for bands to do this as their own personal tribute to a monumental tune. Like Hendrix, U2 and Dave Matthews Band did for Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”, or one of my personal favourites (along with Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”), Chris Cornell’s cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”. They’re not trying to recreate the original song because they know nothing will ever compare; but as fans of the song, they want to be able to play it, to perform it as they heard it.

But it seems now as though some bands cover old songs just to get their name on the map: even if music fans have never heard of them, they will at least recognize the song they’re covering and have an instant familiarity or connection with the band. Case in point. Does anyone remember Alien Ant Farm? Didn’t think so. They covered Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal”.  Michael Jackson is a music genre in himself, so covering one of his tracks is very risky and Alien Ant Farm failed. Miserably. It’s almost like a teenage-angry-band version of the song. It’s whiny, irritating and they even tried to re-enact the video by having portions of the sidewalk light up as they walked on it. They tried to get by just riding the coattails of someone else’s creativity. Shame on them.

Remixing involves taking the audio elements in a track (pitch, tempo, etc) and altering them. I don’t particularly understand the need for an artist to do multiple versions of the same song. Or more confusing are artists like J. Lo who put out an album (J. Lo) followed by a remix album (J to tha L-O!: Remixes) – so basically the same songs, just slightly different. Other than the obvious making more money aspect of it, what’s the point? What does infuriate me is the notion that just because a song can be remixed, that it should be. I know that DJs and producers like to be creative and forward thinkers and remix songs that no one ever would have thought of remixing. But just because you do something no one’s ever done, doesn’t make it right. For example, we all know and love Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. It’s a classic 90’s tune that defined the grunge movement, even moreso significant because of the untimely death of lead singer Kurt Cobain when the band was at peak of their career. Grunge music is about angst, indifference and not caring about appearances. It’s rock, it’s punk, it’s heavy metal and it makes teenagers jump around and get angry. Now who in their right mind thought it would be a genius idea to techno remix it? It’s an insult to the band and borderline blasphemy. A word to the wise, not every song needs a remix: certain tunes just need to be left alone.

Now on to my least favourite form of flattery something I like to call a rip off. It’s a combination of a cover and a remix, completely different from the original but still has enough of its elements subtly placed so it’s still familiar. To those who want to be politically correct, it’s also referred to as sampling. It seems to be an incredibly popular method of ‘creating’ music these days and this I can’t seem to wrap my head around. P. Diddy is the king of rip offs. “I’ll be Missing You” was ripped from The Police’s “Every Breath You Take”; “Can’t Nobody Hold me Down” was ripped from “Break my Stride” by Matthew Wilder. Some lyrics are different, there’s more of a hip-hop vibe but there are just enough underlying features of the song that we think of the original song.
More recently, Karl Wolf and Kardinal Offishal’s “Ghetto Love,” rips 80’s band Chicago’s “Glory of Love” and it irritates me so much because it’s almost like these artists think they’re being clever and getting away with more or less copying someone else’s song but presenting it like its their own – unlike covers, where it’s clear they are just paying homage to a great song.                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Pop star Alyssa Reid ripped 80’s band Heart’s “Alone” with her track “Alone Again”; the lyrics in the chorus are unchanged, but the verses are different and the sound is more updated. Wow, how talented of her. Lastly, Lupe Fiasco. Here’s a rapper I actually thought was cool. Until his current track “The Show Goes On” which was completely ripped from Modest Mouse’s “Float On”. Don’t get me wrong, some rip offs can work: Jay-Z’s “Young Forever” which samples 80’s band Alphaville’s “Forever Young” retains the chorus as it was in the original version; almost like Jay-Z is respecting that part of the song by leaving it alone and not trying to take all the credit for track. Whatever the case may be, emerging artists, for the love of real music, try and create your own.
Music from the past heavily influences music in the present. Musicians get inspired from what they grow up listening to, from what they hear around them, what their family and friends introduce them to, so it’s inevitable then that traces of older music appear in newer music. Musicians should stick to what they know and who they are; they should be real and authentic. The minute they start taking short cuts, borrowing sounds from one source, cutting/pasting from another, and slacking on creativity, everything gets mixed up. Leaving us fans wondering who they’re going to imitate next.
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