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Music Matters: Persona and Performance

After writing about Robyn's multiple versions of the same song the other day, I realized that there was another direction I could've gone with that post that I didn't, really.

Because I'm not a musician, I'm a writer, I tend to like and analyze and pick at the lyrics of songs. But at the same time, to be any sort of a pop music critic I have to look at the whole package, not just the lyrics. Each part of a pop song is a deliberate choice, and sometimes those choices deliberately contradict one another, undercut one meaning and substitute another, add layer upon layer and give you things to think about with each listen.

So "Indestructible" reads entirely differently with a dance beat behind it than it does with swelling strings. And the new version sounds more like Robyn covering herself than simply adding a beat to the background.

I like to argue that artists should never cover songs until they've established themselves in their own right. Making it big with a cover version essentially guarantees you one-hit-wonder status, while an artist with a persona that they've perfected over years can do a version of a song and make it their own.

Tori Amos's version of Eminem's "97 Bonnie and Clyde" on her album Strange Little Girls is probably the best example of this, taking famously hateful, violent lyrics and turning the song into a lament for the lost woman, for the side of the story we didn't get to hear. Because we know Tori Amos is a survivor of rape and violence, we hear that in Tori's version of this song.

And speaking of Eminem, it's fitting that this discussion came out of a conversation about Rihanna and Eminem's song "Love The Way You Lie," which now apparently is to have a sequel.

Isabel wrote:

love the way you lie is a performance, a story. a story most of us listening to it know has a lot of resonance in the real lives of the performers - but on its own, a story. back when i used to act i heard a lot of people saying, you can't judge your character. you can be playing the worst most abusive hateful person in the world but if that's what you're actively thinking when you're playing them, you're gonna turn in a lousy performance, because no one thinks of themselves that way.

I agree, and I also think you can't ignore the very real facts of the artists making the song. We react a certain way to "Love The Way You Lie" because we know about Rihanna's very public experience of abuse, and Eminem's very public history as an abuser. We react to the violence in the video as well.

But for me the most compelling part of the whole thing was the closeup on Rihanna as she looked into the camera, the little curl in her lip, the look in her eyes. With the vocals, it seemed to give all the nuance that was left out of the lyrics. A good pop song can do that.

In the age of music video, there are so many layers to the performance—as I noted with the Beyoncé post, dance is often as powerful a part of the performance as the song itself, and there are plenty of instances where just the tone of a singer's voice, high or low, can change a word from loving to menacing.

Lately I've been obsessed with the version of "Five Years" from David Bowie's "Reality Tour." The song is off the Ziggy Stardust record, and back then it was a sci-fi tune about the world ending that led into an album about the death and resurrection of a pop star and the world along with him.

Broken out on its own, though, stripped of the Ziggy context and performed on stage nearly 30 years later, it's a song of a man coming to terms with his mortality, staring into the closeup camera, his voice fuller, deeper, rougher, mature. And about the love that still sustains him. It was beautiful before, but it's infinitely richer now.

All without changing a lyric.

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"I like to argue that artists

"I like to argue that artists should never cover songs until they've established themselves in their own right. Making it big with a cover version essentially guarantees you one-hit-wonder status, while an artist with a persona that they've perfected over years can do a version of a song and make it their own."

Just to touch on this for a minute: I've heard a few young, not yet established singer-songwriters who happen to be excellent interpreters of other people's songs. I think this is a pretty rare quality to have, though. One of my biggest complaints about shows like American Idol is that a lot of times when their contestants -- fabulous singers though they might be -- cover iconic songs, there's no nuance. It's like, quite literally, they don't know what they're singing. However, I think an established performer with a big persona can fail at covers, too, when there's too much them and not enough song.