Thursday, May 5, 2011

Your Own Road

This has been making the rounds. The YouTube comments alone tell the story - people really hate this 'tribute' by Miley Cyrus.

I remember the first time I heard Nirvana and "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Summer, 1991. A high-school friend had come home from his freshman year at WSU, and he'd brought a cassette - some compilation he'd made up north. We played it in my car on the way to his house one afternoon. I couldn't stand it. I preferred the 'cleaner' aesthetic of producers like David Foster and Walter Afanasieff - the cerebral instead of the bloody.

It wasn't until about 1994 - right about the time I started interning in recording studios, and coincidentally recording a lot of Nirvana-esque bands - that I began to change my relationship with that "Seattle Sound."

But none of that is of particular relevance - only that I remember the first time I heard Nirvana, and it made an lifelong impression on me. I can very much understand what it is to have an historic attachment to certain songs/artists. I can also understand why people feel offended, or violated, or simply outraged when someone else plays the song that maybe doesn't have the same relationship with it.

I feel the haters on this one.

But then I read a great comment on MeFi:
Here's the thing, though: she really thinks she's owning it. Look at her: totally confident that she is doing it justice, delivering a balls-out blistering slab of rock n' roll to her tweentastic fans. She believes.

That’s' what freaks me out. About her. About Nickelback, or Train, or I dunno, Michael Bolton. They honestly think they're up there kicking ass and taking names, just rocking out as only they can.
Here's the conundrum for artists: conviction is what makes you real, but if you've got it at the wrong time, you only look more foolish. It's a helluva balancing act.
Sometimes I think I write pretty good stuff. But then things like Miley Cyrus performing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" pop up in the back of my brain, a niggling nasty little worm of a thought that burrows down right in there.

And that thought says "hey, remember how Miley Cyrus just massacred that great song; turned an anthem of rebellion and undirected anger into simpering kidpop, and still thought she was delivering straight-to-the-vein hardcore awesomeness? Remember that?"

"Listen, champ: what if you're doing that right now?"

And then whatever I'm working on turns to shit right in front of me.
These words...they are SO true. That worm - burrowing in the rich loam of self-doubt, and incredibly necessary for true introspection and humility. Yet Miley.. does she have that yet? Does she have demons to wrestle with? This is a young woman born into a gilded life who has co-opted not just a song, but an anthem, and by performing it, perhaps made it cheaper.

But how do we know we're not doing the same thing? Our fans tell us.
So for me to keep working, and stay sane, sometimes I have to tell myself that these delusions are actually okay. If I believe in it, and I think it's good work, that has to on some level be good enough to keep me hammering away.

And if I'm allowed my delusion, how can I begrudge Miley hers?

So I'm left not knowing if I should be upset by this sort of thing -- the wanton violation of what was a great song -- or just let her rock out in her own way, hoping that people will be just as kind when I choose to rock out in mine.
The only people who's opinions Miley should care about are her fans, especially the ones that come to her shows and appearances. If her fans love her, then what does she care? Any artist that builds any following will attract haters - it's almost one of the most dependable signs you're doing something worthwhile, but a real artist won't care. Real fans will still come out.

You really can build your own road these days. If you love a song - if it makes you feel good to sing it, then DO THAT SONG. Don't worry about people like me who heard it when it first came out and think we get to 'own' it culturally. Sing it with all the delusional conviction you need to bridge the canyon between the real and ethereal, and not collapse into a quivering pile of terror and self-doubt.

"Here we are now, entertain us!"


Nathan said...

A situation like this really boils down to aesthetic tastes as covers are very dangerous things to play with. You can either hit the nail right on the head and possibly do something even better then the original artist, (ex: Splintered Throne doing a cover of Air of the Night by Phil Collins... YouTube it if you like,) or you can fall flat on your face and be marked with the label that is worse to many artists then being labeled 'mediocre' and that is 'hack.'

I think it is a good thing for artists of any kind to keep that poisonous little thought in the back of their head regarding whether they are ripping off someone else's work in order to compose their own. It makes us examine the work in a closer perspective so we can really identify the line between taking an idea and going a lot further with it, or just plagiarizing the material because we are stuck and can't think of something unique.

I know that I do the latter for some of my own writing and fully acknowledge inspiration coming from both Neverwhere and The Gunslinger. And that poisonous little idea has definitely kept me in check and, I think, made some of my work better because it forced to say 'nope, this is shit and been done before (delete six pages)' and then rework the material.