I was at the Hilton Waikoloa’s pool in Hawaii hanging out, enjoying a fourteen dollar gas station sandwich and listening to a local musician perform covers of American pop music with a distinctive island twist, meaning tunes by Slipknot and Ariana Grande come out sounding exactly the same. Having visited Hawaii many times I’m quite sure the guy tells chicks at parties that he wrote Hotel California and even Who am I (What’s My Name) by Snoop Dogg because the locals are often insulated to the outside world of music. It’s a unique form.
The guy had set up his beat box and guitar over by some chairs in the corner, removed visibly from most of the people in the pool, and his volume was set meticulously to the decibel where it was well audible yet easy to zone out and not notice for about fifteen hours.
I find it impossible to ignore words when they’re being spoken or sung which is why I can’t read when the TV is on and know everyone’s weird pillow talk when I’m a houseguest. It’s a curse I wouldn’t wish on anybody. Get it checked out.
For that reason, as the guy was performing (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay by Otis Redding, I noticed he changed the lyrics from “I have nothing to live for, feel like nothing’s gonna come my way” to “I have a lot to live for, and I know it’s gonna come my way”, clearly altering the song to reflect a more positive perspective.
I assumed that the Hilton gave him instructions to refrain from including songs with objectionable lyrics, with the theme of clinical depression apparently being deemed too close for comfort and I debated going over to ask him on his break before I had four beers and realized I didn’t care.
Yet I continued to wonder, is it artistically appropriate to cover a song and change the lyrics around to the point that the entire meaning of the song has been flipped on its head? Would you change Let It Be to Don’t Let It Be?
I tried to imagine what Otis Redding would have thought if he were there. If he were alive he’d be 75 years old, drinking a Hennessey neat with a Philippina hooker by his side and wouldn’t give a good goddamn. He’d probably be intrigued that some 20 year old kid in a Hawaiian resort full of white people covered in SPF would be butchering a song we wrote fifty years ago while high, thirty feet away from some captive dolphins. He’d definitely be much more entranced by the dolphins.
But that’s just my assumption. Once I heard Jack Johnson do a cover of Sublime’s Garden Grove. The original lyrics to that song go “I’ve got my microwave, got the VCR, I got the deuce deuce in the trunk of my car.” Deuce Deuce means .22, a caliber of gun, obviously. Johnson, when performing the song, obnoxiously changed this to “fruit juice”, thoroughly bastardizing it, especially because keeping fruit juice in the trunk of your car doesn’t make any sense.
I’m reasonably sure Brad Nowell, the lead singer of Sublime who wrote those lyrics, would have found that really annoying and possibly tried to fight Johnson with brass knuckles. Maybe that’s why people often cover dead people’s songs so they can’t complain about it.
Most musicians are pretentious and self involved and purport to stand for some arcane set of principles which they can never define yet tempt hacky writers to bestow on them. Of course Kurt Cobain would be horrified to hear Smells Like Teen Spirit being blasted at Saddle Ranch on Super Bowl Sunday. But once you contribute a song to the cultural lexicon you’ve resigned to have it misconstrued and misapproriated. The odds someone you hate is going to listen to it are one hundred percent. That’s why Cobain killed himself.
Isn’t there some set of unwritten rules on the part of the person doing the cover or working the PA system to not subvert the original context of the song? Is it their responsibility to let the music stand on its own? For example, would it be kind of a dick move to play Kokomo at an ice carving contest? Taken the other way, literal correlation could be uncouth. You wouldn’t want to play Bone Thugs N Harmony’s Mo Murder at your buddy’s funeral. Especially if he was murdered. In other words, if you’re playing a song and you aren’t the artist, aren’t you supposed to entirely remove yourself from it beyond the implementation of pressing a button or strumming and singing?
You always see these nationalistic patriots singing along to Born in the USA, not knowing it’s a critique of the Vietnam War and America’s foreign policy. Aren’t you obligated to understand the meaning of a song if you’re using it to make a statement or run the risk of being appropriately labeled a dumbass?
As I was thinking about this, the guy at the pool launched into Bob Marley’s I Shot the Sheriff. Its about a guy who shoots a sheriff, so in other words murder. On this song he didn’t change the lyrics, so I started wondering why a depressed guy sitting on the dock of a bay was deemed too explicit yet a song about a guy shooting a law enforcement officer was apparently appropriate. Pointless censorship combined with the glorification of violence taking place in a pool full of oblivious drunk people on Jesus’ birthday. It was one of the most American things I’d ever witnessed!
The PTA crowd has been known to flip out about movies with a flash of a nipple or a guy rolling a joint but just keep shoving chalupas into their face as their twelve year old takes in a solid prison rape scene on CSI Toledo, and this guy’s set seemed to epitomize our sense of cultural norms in a nutshell.
There are a few rules to analyzing song lyrics. Firstly, avoid it because nobody cares. But if you do, you have to factor in any possible irony or juxtaposition present, even though nobody else is. In this case however, there isn’t any. As Bob Marley stated “I wanted to say ‘I shot the police’ but the government would have made a fuss so I said ‘I shot the sheriff’ instead.”
Right on. To be fair, the catchy part of that song are the lyrics “I shot the sheriff, but I did not shoot the deputy”, so it would be harder to change the lyrics around to fit Disney channel standards than it was on Dock of the Bay, where the altered lyrics weren’t the main refrain of the song. Try and pull off “I tipped the waitress” and people are going to one by one stop ignoring you and then start intentionally splashing you with piss water.
I don’t think violent movies or video games are the root cause of violence in America. But I do think some especially vulnerable or stupid people are prone to their influence. If Michael Jackson could convince dudes in the eighties to wear one glove, Fifty Cent can convince some smelly suburban kid that guns are cool.
It doesn’t matter because it’s totally worth it for a good movie and free speech should be free, but we should make an effort to understand the level of desensitization to violence in our society. Ironically, the Hilton, or the musician, appears to believe that the issue of mental health is taboo yet the issue of gun violence isn’t even necessary to pause at.
That’s a perfect reflection of our society. Maybe it should be the other way around. Your kids still aren’t going to think fruit juice is cool though. And just out of courtesy, sing your song lyrics correctly and realize DJing is not a skill and nobody notices what you’re doing unless you’re really terrible at it. In other words, it’s not about you.
I found mushrooms in your backpack, that’s it, no ammo for a week.
Play Born in the USA! It’s a tribute to Chris Kyle.