ad astra per alia porci

covers, originals, nostalgia, quirks
June 12, 2007, 2:54 am
Filed under: diary, the arts


I just finished listening to Jamie Cullum’s cover of Radiohead’s High and Dry; I must say that the original is better than Cullum’s version by many miles, with the rawness of emotions and earnest simplicity of arrangement of the original appealing more to me than the jazzed up, smoothed out, overly-ornamented cover. Somehow something was missing from the cover that was the essence of the original.

I wonder if I have a tendency to prefer originals to covers. Then I thought of the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s live cover of Looking Glass’s Brandy, which I feel is much better than the original, and Feist’s dancy, jazzy, spartan interpretation of the Bee Gee’s Love You Inside and Out. Clearly it’s hard to say that I have a clear preference for originals.

Then it occured to me that I tend to prefer the songs that I listen to first. It was only after I have listened to Feist’s Inside and Out that I bothered to dig out my old Bee Gees cd to listen to the original version, which was not as tastefully done as the cover. Van Halen’s You Really Got Me sounded too polished and crassly glam after I have listened (and watched) the Kinks perform their classic You Really Got Me on YouTube. I just can’t think of an incident in which I have prefered the second song after I have listened to the first interpretation.

Perhaps this has something to do with human (or to be more specific, my) psychology. Behavourial economists talk about the anchoring tendency of humans. We tend to “anchor” our future opinions on disjointed past experiences. For example, in an experiment conducted by researchers, participants are flashed random numbers and asked to guess the answers to trivia like the percentage of nations in the United Nations coming from Africa. The participants tend to guess a number close to the random number before, even though it is absolutely illogical to do so.

Maybe I might have been evaluating a song by erroneously and consciously comparing it to the previous version I have heard, even though I should have judged it purely on it’s own merits. But then again, I am of the opinion that everything goes with regards to the arts. Unlike mathematics, in which there are strict and absolute viewpoints and truisms, artistic criticism is about personal response and opinions. I do not believe in an absolute, objective way to judge and ascertain the quality and merit of any work of art; I believe that all responses to the arts are achieved on a personal basis and hence any attempt of legislating an objective standard of responding to the artisitic is impossibly naive and quixotic. I always compare between different versions of the same song; so long as I feel it’s ok to do so, it doesn’t really matter what others think.

That said, I think nostalgia and a fondness for the old and trusted play a part also in my tendency to prefer “first” songs. To me, old Vespas always look better than new Vespas, a old coffeeshop in Chinatown will always feel better than an upmarket bistro and old literature will always triumph over new Booker Prize winners. Somehow the idea of the new and fresh doesn’t appeal too much to me (unless when it comes to new editions of books with fancy covers; I am an absolute sucker for nice covers).

Hence it’s probably a combination of nostalgia and a tendency to anchor that explains my song preferences with regards to covers and original. I think I will search for the original of Yo La Tengo’s You Can Have It All now; the song is on a perpetual replay loop in the iPod of my mind.


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