Imitation Of Life

“You want the greatest thing
The greatest thing since bread came sliced.
You’ve got it all, you’ve got it sized.
Like a Friday fashion show teenager
Freezing in the corner
Trying to look like you don’t try”

From “Imitation Of Life” by R.E.M.

So I found myself sat staring into thin air in one of those great British institutions, the roadside service station, a few weeks back after a coffee that can at best be described as mediocre and way too large.  You know the sort, it burns your taste buds at first slurp and is lukewarm by the time you get halfway down its supersized cup.  It was accompanied by a sandwich I didn’t even like the look of.  I had that fuggy headed sensation caused from driving for several hours combined with my retinas adjusting to the artificial lighting in the sticky food court. 

As I waited for my wife and daughter to return from the toilets I found myself playing drums on my knees in time with “Sweet Child O’ Mine” as it came over the tannoy system.  I was on auto-pilot and knew exactly how the cymbals sound in time with the bass guitar notes after Slash’s guitar intro. 

I got to thinking, how many millions of people must have learned to play this song over the past 22 years?  Hundreds of thousands of teenagers learning guitar in their bedrooms, jamming with friends or forming their first bands – tens of thousands of folks mimicking the guitar riff on “Guitar Hero” on their games consoles – thousands of kids trying out guitars they will never be able to afford in music shops the world over…

Yet, once upon a time, someone came up with the notes for that famous guitar intro.  Some friends busked along in a rehearsal space that gave birth to a classic rock song that largely catapulted Guns ‘n’ Roses into international stardom.  Even folks who don’t like metal or rock music probably recognise the song.

Why do so many people play cover versions of other people’s music?  Re-interpreting songs is one thing, but playing straight cover versions or murdering the original versions is something quite different.  

It doesn’t really hold true for other art forms, does it?  How often do film directors re-make someone else’s work story board by story board?  How often does a novelist try to commit their own favourite work to memory and then re-write it verbatim?  How often does an artist try to recreate every brushstroke and tonal variation of a classic piece on their own piece of canvas?

How do we engage with culture?  Do we shun it?  Do we embrace it?  Do we mimic it?  Do we try to influence it or create it?

Several folks from the small group who regularly meet in our house have attended something called the Q Conference in America over the past few years.  They have come back energised and stimulated by ideas.  That, in and of itself, has been fairly contagious.  The simple notion of people seeing how to use their skill base in the places they find themselves in order to change things –  whether as entrepreneurs, influencers, artists, musicians, thinkers, writers, bloggers, ordinary radicals or whatever…

One of the things I got linked to through that was the Fermi Project.  Their Society Room DVDs and the Fermi Shorts series of essays are thoroughly stimulating.  I came across a brilliantly engaging essay they produced about all these idioms of culture and our response to it which you can find out more about here.


3 Responses to “Imitation Of Life”

  1. 1 exactscience October 23, 2008 at 12:04 am

    I once, six years ago, spent a week learning to play Karma Police. I could at the end of it play it note perfect. A far more interest exercise was learning note perfect Local Boy in the Photograph but having never heard it playing it as a broken lament and Billy Davey’s Daughter as a punchy riff driven pop song. I digress. I think the reason for learning songs is because playing the guitar and telling someone you play is normally met with well what can you play? I don’t know why we do this but its always been that way for me. If you write or paint people want to see what you’ve created.
    But other tests exist I suppose. Like people memorising Hamlet’s monologues or Yates’s poem. I think initially we learn expression through imitation and creativity is emulating from multiple sources all at once. Films, for instance, are populated with nods and winks to other films.
    You write such thought provoking posts.

  2. 2 thestatethatiamin October 23, 2008 at 5:07 am

    I think you are spot on. If you play guitar, people want to hear something they recognise – almost as a benchmark. I guess sometimes we find release in playing the songs that really mean a lot to us or where the chords strike some sort of emotion.

  3. 3 exactscience October 23, 2008 at 7:45 pm

    I think that because songs are more involved you tend to be choosier with the ones that you learn to play. Go into McCormack’s in Glasgow and you will hear either Under the Bridge or Sweet Child o’ Mine but aside from those two which are really just “hey look at me I can play guitar well” songs you only learn the ones that matter to you.

    The same is true of poetry and prose to a degree. In that it is kinda showy to be able to rattle off Hamlet’s To Be or Not To Be soliloquy (personally I think his lines to R&G about “I have of late–but
    wherefore I know not–lost all my mirth” are far more powerful” when you pick something more meaningful to you like say My Heart Leaps Up by Wordsworth

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"The priest in the booth had a photographic memory for all he had heard. He took all of my sins and he wrote a pocket novel called "The State That I'm In"". From "The State I Am In" by Belle and Sebastian
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