Sound + Vision: Young Fathers Got a Brand New Bag
Remember in Phoenix when Ray Liotta goes on that hilarious jag about the size of the doors in the wall around Skull Island? Of course you don’t; it wasn’t hilarious, and that movie was an especially forgettable entry in the sad subgenre of Reservoir Dogs rip offs. On paper, it should have been successful–it’s got 4 cool tough guys wearing rumpled suit jackets, casual barbarity, convertibles, and the kind of irreverent, tossed-off pop culture banter that lets you know the screenwriter, like, gets it, man. Of course in execution it comes off as another facile cash grab, woefully unremarkable and devoid of anima.
But why? Why does Phoenix fail so miserably? Yes, Jeremy Piven, exactly. Yet the pop culture landscape is littered with the sun-bleached remains of other pretenders (and pretend Pretenders) that just didn’t stack up to the originals. Maybe there’s some ineffable divine spark in the winners that’s absent in the losers.
I don’t think it even necessarily has to do with being the original; there are plenty of instances where the first pass isn’t as good as a later version. Did you ever see the SyFy Channel’s version of Battlestar Galactica? It was by most accounts better than the original–somewhere in the reconstruction the creators managed to inject a measure of gravitas. Except, of course, for that embarrassing montage over “All Along the Watchtower”. That song, however, is a prime example of the cover eclipsing the original. I mean, not the terrible version from the show, obviously.
Direct covers, though, are in some ways less interesting than work that attempts to ape the vibe of an original, to cash in on an established brand, or to ride a wave. These interlopers are nakedly using a technique often seen in the animal kingdom called “swagger jacking”. It’s not a new take on an old song, just some stylistic carpetbagger who swans in looking to improve their property value by moving next to a mansion. This is fairly insidious if strategically understandable, but parsing artist motivation gets a little murkier when you start to consider that sometimes crass commercialism may be less to blame than garden-variety infatuation. And in fact, it may be uncharitable to call someone out for biting when in reality they’re just part of a moment, influenced by the zeitgeist. Similarity, after all, is the language of genre, and it’s easier to take at face value that artists just sound like what they sound like.
This is what I’ve been thinking about this week while listening to Young Fathers, a Scottish trio often lumped into “hip hop” but probably more accurately “college rock”. They have a searching, urgent sound, and I’ve been really enjoying the great collection of beat-driven songs on their latest album, “White Men Are Black Men Too”. And yet I have the insistent sensation that I’ve heard this before.
Is that fair? Probably not; Young Fathers can be musical descendants of TV On The Radio without being a cheap knockoff. But why do they get a pass and poor Jet gets lambasted as plagiarists? It’s that old divine spark again, I think. Or, more realistically, it’s all subjective and capricious. You like what you like, you forgive what you want. Your taste makes you the fickle sultan of your own realm. And besides, ultimately, everything is a ripoff.