My wife and I used to joke about making a mixtape of nothing but versions of “All Along the Watchtower,” with the Michael Hedges version, the Hendrix version, the Indigo Girls version, the Richie Havens version… (I know, I know, the very notion of a “mixtape” dates us… sorry!)
It’s hard to come up with many covers of Michael Jackson songs. It’s something that has been on my mind since he died; after all, there’s all these encomiums calling him the most significant musical artist of the last 40 years. And yet when you think back on it, it’s a very different sort of significance from someone like Bob Dylan, whose songs have taken on a life of their own well beyond the performances of the original artist.
Oh, there’s the few “Billie Jean” versions, of course, and a few others scattered here and there. But by and large, there’s a paucity of great Michael Jackson covers. Maybe it’s attributable to nobody being able to do it better than he did, but I suspect that’s not the reason. To me suggests that there’s a paucity of great Michael Jackson songs. And yet, the original music is still incredibly compelling.
The right production on a s0ng can make a tremendous difference, and changing the tone of the bass guitar could make the difference between an enduring hit record and one that fades away. Several times on this blog, I have mentioned the song analysis stuff done by both for-profit companies and audio engineers as they look for the sonic characteristics of hits. All of this leads towards optimizing music recording towards a particular goal.
A recording is of course the capturing of a specific performance, and with the rise of the recording industry we got the notion of “studio bands,” musical performers whose goal it was to create a specific performance in the studio, rather than a piece of music to be reinterpreted. When we look back at the work of Michael Jackson, the comments that come up are always about what an amazing performer he was, about the collaboration with Quincy Jones, about the Eddie Van Halen guitar solo in “Beat It,” about the videos. It was about the shaping of the music, not the music itself.
This makes me think that most of the game industry is about music production, not about songwriting.
I usually use the analogy of the salad and the dressing, and say that the game design is the salad: the interplay of mechanics and rules, the mathematical structure that makes a game a game, and not an interactive story or a movie. There are relatively few games on the market, if we ignore the dressing. We could regard Far Cry 2 and Half-Life 2 as being different performances of the narrative first-person shooter, for example, ones stamped with the particular performance qualities brought to them by their bands, er, teams.
This isn’t a bad thing. I’ve always advocated for more attention given to the “songwriting,” because, well, it’d be nice to hear some new music from time to time. But the art of a great cover, a great performance, is an art nonetheless. And we can spot a “karaoke” version a mile away, can’t we?