The Song Remains the Same (again)

Yes, I realize I’m repeating a song-title-as-blog-post-title, but the alternative coming to mind was “I Write the Songs,” and after last time’s fiasco with a Spice Girls song, I couldn’t incur a second strike with Barry Manilow….

I saw a musical performance tonight that involved a kids’ chorus singing an-all vocal arrangement. Because I’m a huge philanthropy nerd, it got me thinking about the nature of replication.

I’ve been learning to play “Let’s Get Lost” by Chet Baker a few different ways: on guitar; then on ukulele; then the past couple of weeks while on the road without either of those two instruments, slowly and laboriously on a piano app on my iPad. I don’t play a lot of jazz, so the chord changes are tricky for me, but I enjoy the intellectual and musical process of figuring out how to make the chord voicings work on different instruments.

A voicing is which specific combination of notes you play to form a chord. A Cmaj7 chord, which starts off “Let’s Get Lost,” is C-E-G-B. But depending where on the guitar neck you play it, the voicing can be C-E-G-B-E (the most common) or C-G-B-E-G on the third fret (probably the next most common). They’re both Cmaj7, but they sound very different. The first voicing has three open strings, so it’s very chimey and ringing. The second voicing has no open strings, so it sounds tighter and more muted – jazzier, in a way. It also has a higher highest note, so it’s genuinely different sounding – the G is emphasized at a one-octave interval, whereas the E is emphasized more in the first version.

I don’t have the vaguest understanding of how this all works when you’re doing vocal arrangements, as the musical group I saw tonight did. There, you’re interpreting a song by emphasizing certain elements over others, building the harmonies in certain ways that may be similar or different from the “original” version.

Which is where replication comes in. When you hear a cover version of a familiar song, it can be disconcerting. Sometimes it’s even an improvement. But often it just seems strange and unfamiliar. The same lyrics, the same melody, the same chord progressions, can be interpreted in so many different ways, based on the artist’s, band’s, or producer’s predilections and tastes. Often covers deconstruct an elaborately produced original, like on those old “MTV Unplugged” shows. Sometimes they do the opposite, gussying up something that was originally very simple, like (shudder) 3-Tenors versions of popular songs.

Which gets me thinking about the uses of replication. In music, it’s often not intended to get the same result as the original: Nirvana singing “The Man Who Sold the World” wanted a different reaction than David Bowie singing his original. The Nirvana version made interesting use of the limitations of the “MTV Unplugged” format, using a cello instead of a sustained electric guitar tone in a way that was quite lovely.

So when we look at the replication of social programs, and what it means to achieve scale, I think about musicians and cover versions. What is this replication, this cover version, trying to accomplish? Will a new arrangement get a new audience, like when Glee brings a Journey song to the top of the iTunes charts? Replication has to be relevant or it won’t work, and relevance is so dependent on context and non-rational cues (back to the Imp of the Perverse).

Whether it’s the idea of “stickiness” or how certain videos go viral, social programs have a lot to learn from how popular culture handles replication.

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