The Piano Man Music

The growing craze for covers

Tom Petty   | Photo Credit: JEFF HAYNES

These are disturbing times. The Las Vegas, Spain and the Elphinstone tragedies have dominated the news. In the middle of all this, the world lost an original romantic and innovator in the form of Tom Petty.

The 66-year-old musician was a thinker and a poet, combining a down-to-earth appeal with an eclectic rock-and-country style. He gave us ‘Free Fallin,’ that incredible love ballad that has since been reprised by so many contemporary musicians. With his band the Heartbreakers, Petty went on to underscore defiance with style for over four decades.

In their 1976 debut album, Petty and the Heartbreakers sing ‘She Couldn’t Help Thinking/ That there was a little more to life somewhere else.’ Indeed. He would write lyrics over the years that constantly sought this ‘somewhere else,’ and would turn defiance into graspable lyrics that we all learned to love. Like Dylan, his mentor and friend, Petty sought to define an original sound for himself, endearing himself to millions in the process. He will be sorely missed.

Thinking about the notion of originality also leads me to ponder on the “little more to life”. The Internet now sees a surfeit of ‘cover’ versions. ‘Covers’ are replications of published songs, with the ‘cover’ artiste or band often doing their own interpretation of an original song. Some of these ‘covers’ are tastefully executed, and often lend fresh life to a much-loved song. Unfortunately, in millions of cases, they end up becoming unintended parodies. To think of the considerable amounts of talent and resources being invested into producing these cover videos, I cannot but help think if they would have been wiser investing in creating original craft.

Friends of mine, belonging to the younger generation, often advise me to do ‘covers’ of hit songs as it garners more views and traction online. This turns out to be true. The average ‘cover’ video certainly gets three or four times the number of views than the original rendition of an independent artiste does. There are of course, brilliant cover groups and artistes such as “The Piano Guys” (pianist Jon Schmidt, cellist Steven Nelson, videographer Paul Anderson and producer Al van der Beek), who since 2010 have gathered more than 5 million viewers to their YouTube channel through highly innovative takes on popular music. Closer home, I have been quite entranced by the music videos that Mahesh Raghvan (musician, techie, iPad innovator) envisions, including his take on Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape of You’ and the Mohanakalyani tillana of Lalgudi Jayaraman (featuring violinist Shravan Shridhar). In both these examples, the cover videos offer the listener an entirely new sound, a fresh perspective on the original and some ideas in musical arrangement that make us think in new directions.

The multitude on the Internet, though, is the average ‘cover’ version — fancy videography and costumes unable to disguise an entirely unoriginal attempt to reproduce a beautiful melody. It falls short of every expectation other than to garner views on the Internet. Critics of this line of enquiry have often attacked me on the Internet. They have claimed that Carnatic and Hindustani renditions are also ‘covers’, as the original was composed hundreds of years ago. This is true of Western classical music also.

Focus on music

To me, this reflects a rather superficial understanding of why classical music is performed in the first place. Across the world, classical music renditions emphasise on the music itself, its rendition, interpretation and discovery and its development. Of course, strong personalities have emerged in these traditions but the focus still remains on the music itself. Hence the point of Lang Lang performing Mozart’s Concerto No. 23 in A is the concerto, not Lang Lang. The point of Shubha Mudgal performing a thumri is the latter.

The sociological implication of this, of course, is the transition of objectives in music making. From being an expression of creative energy or the fulfilment of creative potential, we are now moving firmly into an era where it has become about quantifiable external validation. “View counts”, “Analytics”, “traction” and “likes” have become objectives in themselves, and a lot of original craft is suffering in the process. I am alarmed to see the number of established classical musicians also resorting to ‘cover’ videos of popular music to “keep relevant” (as one of them told me). We are in real danger of losing independent thinkers — the Dylans and the Pettys.

I see brilliant young singer-songwriters like Aditi Dot (from Mumbai) and Mahesh Raghunandan (from Bengaluru) and it almost feels criminal that such original talent has to compete with the scores of their generation’s obsession with popular music cover videos. Aditi is our Joan Baez, Mahesh our Dylan.

Could we not start a music lover’s movement of keeping the original alive? Or at least start the thought process towards this?

To quote Petty

“This might sound strange/This might sound dumb –

Depends on the side that you take it in from –”

The author is a well-known pianist and music educator based in Chennai

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Printable version | Jun 24, 2021 7:38:56 PM |

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