Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Smells like pretentious twattery

Before we go any further with this blog post, have a watch of this. It's kiddie-friendly warbling waif Miley Cyrus singing Nirvana's 'Smells like teen spirit' live. Go on. Click on the triangle.

Now tell me ... how was it for you?

Some of you, I know, will be tearing your hair out in anguish and horror. You'll be screaming words like 'Sacrilege!' and 'Disgrace!' and 'Kurt will be spinning in his grave!' You won't be alone. When it became public knowledge that she'd 'dared' do a Nirvana track - let alone that Nirvana track - there was internet uproar. I've surfed through a number of websites that carried the story and the comments added by readers include these: 'Oh please, kill it! Kill it with fire!''We need to kill her and her music.' 'Oh the humanity. Stick to your bubble gum sound. Your no where (sic) near ready to take on Nirvana.' 'Cobain is trying to kill himself a second time after listening to that.' Of the several hundred comments I read, at least 50% were calling for the death of a pretty 18 year old girl because she dared to sing a song that both she and her detractors both like.

Well, you can issue a fatwa on me too if you like because I thought it was okay. I thought she made a good go of it. Considering that she wasn't even born when Nevermind came out (and nor were most of her audience), she acknowledges to the crowd that Nirvana inspired her and she may just have introduced their music to thousands of new followers. That's a good thing isn't it? Or have we all become so precious and up our own arses that NO ONE can ever be so damned heretical as to perform the song other than the late Mr Cobain?

A few years ago, lovable beardy octogenarian Rolf Harris got death threats - yes, death threats - for recording a version of 'Stairway to Heaven'. What the feck? Some people have seriously lost all sense of proportion. It's just a bloody song, that's all. Yes, it and 'Teen spirit' may have spoken to you in your adolescence and, yes, they may have helped you through a tough period in your life. And it's also true that the songs grew out of the times in which they were written. But that doesn't preclude them from being recorded by others. No one owns the monopoly on what a song means. Like poetry and art, music's power lies in how it is perceived by the person experiencing it. No matter what the intention of the artist may have been, I very probably see a painting by Mondrian or Gaugin or Ofili differently to the way you see it. In the same way, I may prefer a cover version of a song to the original (I much prefer Steve Harley's version of 'Here comes the sun' for example). Taste is a hugely personal thing and, because it's completely unique, no one's taste is more valid than anyone else's.

A couple of Christmases ago, Alexandra Burke's version of 'Hallelujah' was slated by Jeff Buckley fans who growled and grizzled and even started a campaign to get his version to the Number One spot ahead of hers. But Buckley's version was a cover of a Leonard Cohen song, so the Cohen fans then berated the Buckley fans and tried to get their version to the top spot too. In the end, Burke won. And why? Because more people bought her version than the others. Presumably, that means that a lot of people liked it. What right has anyone to tell them that they are wrong and must like the Cohen or Buckley versions? Or, worse still, to want them dead for choosing the 'wrong' version? Grow up you sad little people. No one version is better than any other. All you can say is which one you prefer. My favourite happens to be the Buckley version but I pretty much like all of them. I particularly love K D Lang's version (thanks to regular visitor Persephone for bringing this clip to my attention). Watch it to the end. Leonard Cohen loved it too, and I'm more inclined to pay attention to his view than to any number of rabid purists:

My parents hated the music I listened to as a teenager and, despite promising myself that I wouldn't become them, I really don't like a lot of the stuff that's in the Top 40. It doesn't do anything for me. But then, it isn't written for me or anyone else as old as me (but I'm not so self-important that I feel the need to issue death threats). It therefore follows that Miley Cyrus's fans probably won't find any resonance in a scruffy 'old guy' like Kurt Cobain who died before they were born. But, by liking Miley's version of the song and her love of the song, 'Teen Spirit' will be passed on to a new generation. And if they love the song too, they may just read a little about Nirvana and come to understand the song a little more. That's how I learned about The Beatles, through cover versions by people like Steve Harley, Earth Wind and Fire (Got to get you into my life) and Cilla Black (Step inside love).

The point I'm making is that everything changes and quite rightly so. The English language is constantly warping and evolving and is all the richer for it. Preserving things unchanged leaves them dead and impotent. British fairy stories were preserved and, as the result, our kids no longer know any of them. Meanwhile, stories from overseas like Little Red Riding Hood etc. are still commonly told because they have altered and mutated to keep pace with the sensibilities of the audience (I blogged on this very subject here). A lot of folk music is seen as rather quaint and old-fashioned by the masses because it's stagnant and seems to be the preserve (that word again) of men in Arran sweaters with nasal congestion. And yet, every folk song is a cover version. In recent years, the new wave of young British folkies like Jim Moray, Bellowhead, Karine Polwart, Eliza Carthy, Seth Lakeman, Mumford and Sons et al have shown that folk music can be dynamic and exciting if you let it change and especially if you give it a modern 'feel'. Here's Jim Moray's extraordinary version of the classic 'Lucy Wan' (featuring Bristol-based rapper Bubz). It's an amazingly brave and vibrant version of an otherwise pretty depressing song. And yet Moray got no end of abuse and scorn from more traditional stuck-in-the-mud folkies:

It's your right to like whatever you choose to like. But please don't become one of those awful pretentious killjoys who go about the place decrying anything that deviates from their vision of what is 'right'. There are hints of fascism in holding those kinds of extreme views. Some even wish death upon people just for singing a song in a way they don't like. Is it me or does that suggest some deep psychological illness? It also says 'bully' to me, especially when their hateful vitriol is left anonymously as a comment on a website. Hiding behind an avatar name or pseudonym while spitting your venom is just cowardly and pathetic. But hey, you've made your point. You've threatened a teenage girl. Wow. You brave hero. The death penalty for singing a song? Grow up you sad sad person.

How dare anyone issue death threats to people whose tatses don't match their own. Whatever your views on Miley Cyrus or songs like Rebecca Black's 'Friday', keep a sense of proportion. They're just kids having fun. If you don't like what they do then stop listening to it, for feck's sake. STOP. LISTENING. It's so fecking simple. If you love Nirvana's seminal version of 'Teen Spirit' then pop in your earbuds or crank up the volume and enjoy it. Enjoy the music you love because it's your right to do so. But that works both ways so stop whingeing and spitting bile at anyone who likes a different version. It's not your song. You don't own it. It belongs to the world. We all have as much right to it as you do.

Now where's that Alvin and the Chipmunks version of 'Hallelujah' ...


Persephone said...

Me, I like Weird Al's version. Doesn't everybody?

I was ambushed by kd Lang's very quiet and personal version sung to Leonard Cohen himself (without the screaming fans). She barely opened her mouth and all that sound came out. I thought I'd been blasted through my bedroom wall. Hang on for the end, where she goes to greet Cohen in the audience.

Stevyn Colgan said...


Wow. Anyone who doesn't blub watching that has a heart of stone.

Thank you


Sandy Calico said...

Wow, Persephone, thank you for that link.

Thought-provoking post, Mr C. The voice of reason in a world full of people who take themselves far too seriously. Musical taste is subjective, after all.

You've given me food for thought on the evolution of language too. I have been a stickler for grammar, but maybe I need to relax a little. Please don't tell me about any grammatical errors in this comment. I'm tired!


Stevyn Colgan said...

Hi Sandy - long time no speak!

I'm with you on the language front. I was taught correct grammar at school and I won spelling competitions. But half of the rules of English I was taught have turned out to be arrant nonsense and, to be honest, as long as there's clarity, I don't fuss about things as much as I used to. Okay, so the signs in Tesco say 'Five items or less' when they should say 'fewer' because they relate to countable objects ... but is the message they convey clear? Of course it is. These days people say 'can' when they should say 'may' and confuse 'disinterested' for 'uninterested', but it doesn't bring the language crashing down around our ears. And the sooner certain taboo words become mainstream, the sooner they can no longer be used to cause harm and abuse. Language is plastic and quite rightly so. If the word fascists had their way they'd have edited out every new word that Shakespeare popularised in his plays and sonets. And there were a lot of those.

I still can't quite forgive 'could of' though.



Andrew Rilstone said...

Did the folkies really abuse Jim Moray? Just interested; you'd have expected them to, but I thought he was actually pretty highly regarded, not least because he obviously understood The Tradition which he was subverting.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Andrew -

Apparently, yes.I've spoken to Jim a couple of times and he was given a rough ride at the start. He's now part of the mainstream and a bit of a star so those days have probably gone. He also said the same in a documentary on BBC4 that I saw. Nice chap. I love what he does.