I know, I know. Iowa caucuses. New Hampshire primaries. Gotta write something about the current GOP horserace. Actually, I don’t. I might later, but not now. Today’s topic: songs. Specifically, what can and cannot legitimately (i.e., ethically, as opposed to legally) be done to them? Stated otherwise: what is “artistic license”?
Two recent cases raise this topic. The first one to come to my attention, although not the first in terms of when it actually happened, was Cee Lo Green’s rendition of John Lennon’s signature song, “Imagine,” in the waning minutes of 2011. Green, completely unknown to most of the country and known to most of the rest for a single song in which he oh-so-cleverly utters the phrase “Fuck you” a couple dozen times (to be fair, the tune is actually OK), decided he’d improve on what Rolling Stone declared the #3 greatest song of all time, behind only “Satisfaction” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” Yeah, that’s smart.
OK. There are two things awful about this version. One of these things, the fact that it’s crooned with all the integrity and honest emotion generated by the lounge singer at the DewDrop Inn, falls under the heading of “artistic license.” I literally left the room, it was so bad. But the fact that I didn’t like it (i.e., it wasn’t to my taste) doesn’t make it censurable: it means only that I’m less likely to buy any of the man’s recordings in the future. (But how likely was that, anyway?) My departure, however, meant that I therefore missed (live) the far more serious transgression: changing the lyrics, then tweeting a half-hearted pseudo-apology (very well disguised as defensive self-justification), then cravenly taking the thread down.
Lennon’s song, which he himself described as a sort of “Communist Manifesto” posits religion as one of the central causes of the world’s problems. His utopia, then, is one in which there is “nothing to kill or die for, and no religion, too.” Green changes that idea to its polar opposite: “… and all religion is true.” Seriously, is it possible to get any further away from Lennon’s intent?
Put it another way. What if an atheist decided to change the words to a well-known Christmas carol? “This, this is Christ the guy, whom shepherds guard while eagles fly.” Catchy, huh? Can you imagine the uproar?
Green, whether aware of having just made a colossal fool of himself in front of a bigger audience than he’ll ever see again without buying a ticket or perhaps, as the Huffington Post suggests, “to preempt criticism,” proceeded to tweet, “Yo I meant no disrespect by changing the lyric guys! I was trying to say a world were u could believe what u wanted that's all.”
This would make you about the stupidest person on the planet, then, wouldn’t it, Cee Lo? You’re in New York, you freaking moron. Anything bad happen in New York in the name of religion about a decade or so ago? Anyone?
The fact that Green is quite possibly too stupid to understand that his form of fuzzy-headed and ontologically impossible inclusiveness runs contrary to the original intent does not excuse his actions. Why? Because surely even third-rate crooners can understand that one of two things must be true if you change the lyrics to a song: either you change its meaning, or you needn’t have bothered.
Green took a lot of heat from both atheists and Lennon fans for his transgressions. Here’s @maleficat: “fuck you, @CeeLoGreen. sing it right or don’t sing it at all.” Others—a lot of others, apparently—articulated similar sentiments. The other tack was to point out that wearing a full-length fur coat and a cornucopia of bling might not exactly comport with the song’s wistful longing for a world with “no possessions.”
Needless to say, Green was being (rightly) pilloried. The best any of his defenders could muster was that a). it’s artistic license [Bullshit.] and b). the response considerably outweighed the offense [Quite possibly true.]. So he did what any pusillanimous flavor-of-the-month pseudo-celebrity would do: he pulled his Twitter thread and sulked.
Tempest in a teapot? Maybe. It was just one line (“no hell below us; above us, only sky” remained untouched), and perhaps his (initial) motives if not his actions were good. But there’s something paradigmatic at work here. In a week in which an Eric Cantor minion can interrupt an interview to make the preposterous claim that Ronald Reagan never raised taxes, we are drawing ever nearer to a “We have always been at war with Eastasia” moment. Anything we can do to pull back from that precipice is a good thing. And we must recognize that what Green did, whether we like his sentiments better than Lennon’s or not, was to radically and completely volitionally change the intent of a piece of literature that happens to be in the form of a song lyric and present it as if it were the original. Parody? Fine. But this falls more into the realm of the counterfeit than the satiric.
That someone other than a politician could be that stupid and/or arrogant is troubling. But then, Green really is dumber than the proverbial sack of hammers. How do we know? He messed with John. And not with some B-side, either: with the song Rolling Stone describes as “an enduring hymn of solace and promise that has carried us through extreme grief, from the shock of Lennon's own death in 1980 to the unspeakable horror of September 11th.” You don’t do that. It’s like criticizing Reagan at a Republican debate. The political reality is that Green might have gotten away with blithely screwing around with the lyrics of an old Guess Who song or something by Genesis or somebody. But you do not mess with John. You. Just. Don’t.
Far easier to parse, except for the troubling spectre of trying to wrap one’s head around what goes on in some people’s minds, is the news from Indiana that an idiot state legislator (there I go with the redundancies again, sorry) has decided that the state has so few problems, especially as relate to education, that the highest priority she can imagine is to force public schools and state universities, plus any private school receiving any state or local scholarship funds (including vouchers) to enforce standards for singing the national anthem at public events.
One Vaneta Becker, a Republican (but you knew that), heard last spring from a constituent who was “upset about a school program in which the words of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ were substituted or parodied in a way the caller found disrespectful. The senator said she herself had heard parody versions of the national anthem on television programs.” (N.B., the latter wouldn’t, of course, be covered by Becker’s bill.)
The bill would force schools and musicians to sign a contract to meet “appropriate standards,” whatever the hell that means. Musicians—amateur or professional—could be fined $25 (a huge hardship for the likes of Roseanne Barr, Jimi Hendrix, or Marvin Gaye) for violating those standards, which would be enforced by a panel of judges including a has-been pop star and a bitchy guy with a foreign accent. OK, I made that last part up. It would be “the State Department of Education, with input from the Commission for Higher Education” who would be Lord High Executioners for such matters.
This bill is, of course, transcendently stupid in just about every way imaginable: apart from probably being unconstitutional, it is unenforceable; it is silly; it requires judgment calls by people utterly unqualified to make them; it steers us all just a little closer to creeping Big Brotherism. Jack Marshall makes these points in a little more depth in an excellent piece on Ethics Alarms; I needn’t repeat them.
But let me talk about two things he doesn’t. First, the real progenitor of this bill may not have been that phone call from a constituent at all. Not when there’s this story from January of last year. Sixteen-year-old Shai Warfield-Cross was told by her school that she needed to perform the anthem “in a traditional way” after someone associated with another school altogether complained that—get this—her performance before a basketball game rendered the tune unrecognizable (it wasn’t) and it was “disrespectful to current and former members of the military” (WTF???).
Principal Jeff Henderson, who’d have been a contender for last year’s Curmie if I’d seen this story earlier, promptly capitulated. Whether the racial overtones read into the situation by Warfield-Cross’s family are legitimate, I can’t say: racism isn’t the only form of stupid. But, completely apart from the inanity of deciding that there’s a “traditional” way to perform the tune of an old drinking song, the suggestion that Warfield-Cross’s performance is anything but mainstream and respectful is itself ludicrous. (For what it’s worth, after the administration’s craven and silly decision went viral, they did apologize: better late than never.)
Secondly, this legislation is proposed by a Republican. This makes sense in terms of the hollow pseudo-patriotism. But this proposal runs directly counter to the presumed ideological center of GOP: small government. Not only does it provide one more way in which the government interferes in the lives of private citizens, it also creates yet another layer of bureaucracy: schools are required to tape every performance and keep the evidence for two years!
Becker sniffed that “I don't think it would be very difficult for schools. You could record it on a lot of cellphones or like a small recording device (or) a CD.” Well, yeah, in terms of technology. But somebody has got to record it and store it, somebody has got to figure out written standards… the list goes on. More to the point, it’s just another stupid, useless requirement that distracts from the real work of educators.
And if you think that filling out silly forms and reports doesn’t ultimately add up to a mountain of triviata, let me introduce you to my wife, the community college financial aid director. (Be it noted, a fair amount of the time-wasting paperwork she’s got to do is the result of silliness by Democrats.)
The more perspicacious readers will notice that I’m allowing more leeway in music than in lyrics. Maybe that’s because I’m a whole lot better writer than a singer (this is where, Gentle Reader, you snort that if this is the way I write, you really don’t want to hear me sing). It has a little more to do with the nature of the two arts: music is written to be performed: that is, it is, by definition, mediated between writer and audience. Literature doesn’t work that way. Yes, song lyrics are intended to be performed, too, but I think they’re in a different category.
Even more importantly, there’s no such thing as the polar opposite of a musical arrangement. There is of an idea expressed verbally. Or at least that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.