On the Shoulders of Giants
By Seth Mecurywynn and Jack Freddkinson
Last night I was watching the television. To be fair, I did feel like I had a few too many functional brain-cells, and they were sending me conflicting messages about peace for all humanity, and also how people who unironically like marzipan deserve to die an unnecessarily horrific death at the hands of an edible monkey that’s all the wrong colour and smells of almond. Not wanting to have to deal with the concept of peace for all mankind, I decided to poke a metaphorical cotton-bud too far into my ear-canal and give my brain a much deserved prodding by turning on a musical show.
A succession of semi-amateur human failures were brought up to a camera, grinning inanely before bringing shame to their ancestors by performing musical numbers with the grace of an elephant in high-heeled shoes.
The first one up did a cover of an old 80s pop ballad, and the evil side of my personality, which comprises approximately 85% by Thursday, thought about how everyone involved probably deserved this.
Next up was another inevitable starry-eyed simpleton who’s life’s ambition was to perform on stage, fuelled by a remarkable family tragedy that had inspired her in some unfathomable way. I had had just enough alcohol to continue watching in order to satiate my morbid curiosity.
She began wailing like Maria Carey walking barefoot across a pile of loose Legos. Somewhere in the cacophony of shrill, screeching, anguished cries was a song I recognised. I could clearly make out the grinding noise of Freddie Mercury turning over in his grave as this woman dressed in something fashioned from a pair of curtains violated his memory in the most appalling of ways.
My mawkish interest floundered more than her ability to hold a note. Here was this 15 year old singer, belting out the lyrics of the second episode of Bohemian Rhapsody—the ballad portion over an arpeggiated piano—with the added benefit of a pulsating scream that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Middle-Eastern slaughter-house. I was offended to my core and could only assume that this woman not only enjoyed marzipan, but consumed it voluntarily at times other than Christmas.
Several beers later, this got me thinking. What was wrong with people like this? Why do small people insist on standing on the shoulders of giants?
She performed a single section of what is arguably Queen’s most famous and recognisable song—and indeed, the song that single-handedly redefined rock’n’roll for a generation—but brought nothing of any value to it. Her version didn’t change it in a new and satisfying way, she didn’t challenge any limitations, or do anything that encouraged a meaningful surge of creativity. All she did was to, quite literally, cover it in a different style. The version she created wasn’t any better, nor even close to equal to what had gone before. She added less than nothing, as her rendition only served to tarnish the great work she set out to emulate.
The lyrics of the song had a certain power to them, a pain and desperation that Mercury’s vocal rendition perfectly encapsulated. It was a story told to music, a journey into the darkness of human regret. You could clearly hear the anguish in his voice as he held notes longer than was musically necessary, only for them to crumble under the strain upon his psyche. The song had depth, and to perform those lyrics was to temporarily take on the persona of the character portrayed, with all the warts and closeted skeletons that it involved.
Her version—which would have been fine had she chosen an uninspired meandering fluff piece by Beyonce or her ilk—had stripped all of that away in favour of just shoehorning in a musical styling that failed to show any real understanding of the material.
Had she really believed that she had the raw talent to bring something new and exciting to this classic song? More likely, she had hoped that the light of it would cast off a little of her personal 15 year old shadows.
It irritated me greatly and I thought of other, further examples where I’d seen this nonsense before. “This Woman’s Work” by Kate Bush came to mind, a song so emotionally raw that it reduces stoic men of all ages to tears, regularly. This was later covered by American “male” singer Maxwell, in a version that added nothing and failed to capture any of the magic that made the song work. It sounded like Mariah Carey, if her right ‘singing’ arm was suddenly pre-occupied by fighting off an attack of angry imaginary bees. Then there was “Somebody Like You” by Adele, an emotionally raw tale of pain and grudging acceptance of somebody else’s happiness at the expense of one’s own. This was immediately butchered by American “male” singer, Maxwell, in a version that made the song instantly as forgettable as it was irritating. It was like what Mariah Carey would probably sound like if you covered her in honey, unleashed an army of hornets armed with assorted lego pieces, and told her to run! Let’s be fair—we have all secretly wondered what that would sound like.
The most obvious that came to mind, though, was Ghostbusters 2016. The original film was seen as a comedy classic, and with good reason. It was a coming together of talents that mingled to create something new and exciting, something that caught the imagination of the audiences with its emotional core and its outright originality.
In 2016, a hack director who had achieved nothing worthy of note tried to make a cynical, uninspired remake, arrogantly believing he could emulate the success of the original. It crashed and burned so spectacularly that it is still held up as one of the turning points from which people stopped looking forward to sequels, reboots and remakes, and instead viewed them with suspicion, or preferred for them to never happen at all.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Batman, for example, has been rebooted multiple times in recent years and the audiences for the most part have accepted it. The Tim Burton era began with an interesting, dark and comical take on the character, taking the campy 1960s iteration and painting a Gothic veil over it. It declined in quality through every movie until the franchise took some time out to sit in the corner and think about what it had done. It was re-invigorated by Christopher Nolan’s take, a more grounded version with less flamboyant style and more focus on the backstory. This once again declined and ground to a shuddering halt. It rose again with Ben Affleck donning the cape. His version was older and more world-weary, as beaten down as the equipment he used, and with a style more reminiscent of the comics.
Each subsequent version took what had been before and built on it, adding a twist that explored the material in a different way. None of them were cinematic classics—though the Nolan fans would happily lynch you for saying so—and so no real damage was done. The concepts were essentially sound and so the movies failed or succeeded on their own merits.
But nobody learned from the lessons we see all around us.
Star Wars and Star Trek were destroyed, taken from once beloved classic franchises and degraded into limping shadows of their former selves. Doctor Who followed, along with a host of other properties, all dragged kicking and screaming into the darkness of obscurity by lacklustre reboots that were done without the style, creativity and originality of what they were seeking to emulate.
What mentality leads to this kind of thing? Is it the narcissism of the artist who thinks that they are the equal of great creators, that drives them to not just copy, but try to capture the brilliance of the people they admire? Is it arrogance on a grand scale that lies behind the fact that the movie industry is bereft of new ideas and is churning out nothing but crass, unoriginal, second-rate copies of better works?
Have we lost the concept of art entirely, with music, movies and writing becoming nothing more than products to attract sales or to drive a very shaky political premise? When I look around the Western world now, I see a world in decline, I see very little hope, I see no classic songs that will be remembered in decades to come, no movies to reboot in the future and no books that will inspire others to become writers in their stead.
I see weak, small people whose only chance to stand tall is to tear down the work of bigger creators and then climb up on the wreckage. And this never works, because we’re giving these pathetic people a voice, instead of encouraging the best artists to find a way to express themselves.
There is no future in ravaging the past, since art is meant to inspire us and all it now does is make us roll our eyes in contempt.
Of course, it’s up to us really, I thought as I watched the woman urinating on the grave of Freddie Mercury. I would have turned it off, but next up was a man whose family was burned to death in a freak accident in an ice-cream factory, and he was promising to yodel “Life on Mars” by David Bowie in Yiddish to the sound of a tuba.
I will need another beer or two for this.
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