It happens when I least suspect it: innocently driving down the freeway, in the midst of cooking dinner, or otherwise absorbed in some mundane task. A song comes on the radio (well, Spotify, but I’m old enough to think of any background music originating from anything other than a single album as “on the radio”). It sounds familiar, but not quite right. “Ugh, another cover!” I say to myself. (I don’t know why, exactly, but I have an irrational disdain for the concept of covers in general. Like the cover-er thinks they could possibly top the cover-ee. Which I realize they aren’t actually trying to do, so much as pay tribute to the original, but hey, I warned you it was irrational.)
But this is where it gets even more ridiculous: inevitably, half the time, I come to realize that the “cover” I’m only now hearing for the first time actually pre-dates the “original” as I’ve come to know it. I guess it’s just human nature: the first version you hear of a song becomes the archetype in your brain, and hearing another (actual original) version shakes that up.
Most recently, this happened to me on my way to the grocery a week or so ago. (These being the Days of COVID-19, this was a rare outing — indeed, the last time I’ve driven anywhere.) And as I mentally optimized my shopping strategy (no dilly dallying! no veering from The List!), a familiar loop began playing, albeit much more slowly than usual. In this case, it was a sample, not a full-fledged cover, but same phenomenon. It was the distinctive riff from Basement Jaxx’ “Where’s Your Head At,” but as if played through molasses. And then the vocals started, which also sounded familiar, but this time the bell was ringing over in the nearby New Wave neighborhood of my brain. Gary Numan! So, well, that’s how I learned that 1) the guy behind one of my all-time favorite ’80s songs, “Cars,” had a cool little number called “M.E.” back in 1979, and 2) “Where’s Your Head At” samples heavily from it.
I have a long history of running into this musical cognitive dissonance. I actually can remember the very first time it struck me. I was in middle school, in the car (this time as a passenger), and my favorite song of the moment came on the radio (the actual radio, KATD in Los Gatos, if I recall correctly). And, much to my pre-teen disgust, my grandmother started to sing along with it. “Golly jeepers, where’d you get those peepers?” How dare she?! This was my music! Not old-people music! My mind was blown. All because Siouxsie and the Banshees borrowed lyrics from an old standard.
And then again, in high school, when I discovered the Red Hot Chili Peppers, thanks to a good friend’s big brother who had way cooler taste in music than we did. I listened to Mother’s Milk and Freaky Styley until my poor little cassettes wore out. But it would be years before I came to terms with the fact that several of my favorite songs of theirs (notably “Higher Ground” and “If You Want Me To Stay”) were covers. And covers of much more significant artists, at that. (Sorry, Anthony.)
But I think the one that messed with me the most was when a friend shared this YouTube video with me comparing various Daft Punk tracks with the original samples. I guess in my mind, prior to watching that video, samples were a minor element in the newly produced song, layered together with other elements to compose something wholly new. But over the course of that one-minute video, I realized that wasn’t necessarily the case. The entire feeling of some of those tracks were lifted wholesale from a previous work that wasn’t nearly as well know. Weren’t us music snobs supposed to hate Vanilla Ice back in the day for stealing from our heroes, David Bowie and Queen? How, then, do Daft Punk get elevated to that same hero status? And why does this all bother me so much?
Maybe it’s just a matter of giving credit where credit is due. With covers, at least, you typically see a nod to the original writers in the liner notes (or whatever meta album stuff is called now), but the sources of samples are often treated as a heavily guarded secret, KFC-recipe-style. Rationally, I recognize that all art — whether visual, music, performance, whatever — is about combining old things in new ways. Hell, I actively participate in that borrowing and repurposing culture. And as an avid fan of electronica for going on 30 years, most of my favorite music over the years has featured samples of one variety or another — some recognizeable, but many not. But it does just stick with me, I guess, that we don’t expect any transparency from mega-star producers.