Back in the fall, I started writing about a radio station called 96X. This was the local rock station where/when I grew up (Memphis, the 90's), and was as responsible for my musical education as anything else.
We used to make "96X Mixes," compilations of our favorite obscure indie-rock semi-hits from the mid-90's. We joked about making the complete 96X Anthology, with every song in chronological order from 96X's decade-long playlist. And then I made that Anthology, and wrote about it, Volume by Volume (the Original was 13 Volumes long, but the New Edition is 15 Volumes long).
96X - The Introduction
Volume 1 - Under the Bridge with the RHCP
Volume 2 - If the Byrds Wrote Songs
Volume 3 - The Candlebox Model
Volume 4 - Must Be Tired of Something
Volume 5 - Green Day, Now Feeling Like My Home
Volume 6 - Behind the Boathouse with the Toadies
And now...Volume 7: They'll Never Throw It Back To Oasis
When "Wonderwall" broke in America (fall of 1995), I was a seventh grader with grunge-heavy tendencies. I loved Nirvana, I loved Stone Temple Pilots, I loved Soundgarden. Because I didn't really make (or care to make) these distinctions yet, I loved Green Day, and (alright, fine) The Offspring. I was twelve, and I wanted to rock.
But 96X had turned a corner. It was a "modern rock" station that wasn't just about rock. By 1995, 96X's only format was 1) new and 2) good. They had no problem following Tool with the Gin Blossoms, NIN's "Closer" with the Goo's "Name." So when I rocked to the newly-released three-chord wonder of Everclear's "Santa Monica" one night, en route to soccer practice, I didn't expect to hear "Wonderwall," but I wasn't surprised by it, either. In fact, I loved it.
In the mid 90's, the formula for pop-rock songwriting was:
Four chords + Vague Interpersonal Lyrics + Heavy Guitars = Success
With "Wonderwall," Noel Gallagher took the best of that formula to new territory, combining the simple four-chord verse with more developed song-structure, replacing grungy guitars with an arrangement that would make George Martin proud, and by crafting a gorgeous, dynamic, and memorable melody. Through sharp songwriting, the song is at once hopeful and angry, redemptive and sad, occasionally remorseful, never sentimental, always beautiful. It does a lot in very little space, and the vehicle for its popularity is the power and dynamism of its melody.
In the late 2000's, the formula for pop-rock songwriting is:
So when Ryan Adams covers "Wonderwall" on 2004's Love Is Hell (self-described as "suicide music"), strips it down, sulks it up, and gains placement on cool TV shows and movies, you will hear in hipster bars and sorority houses across America the sentence slurred, "Omigod, this version is so much better than the original!"
To be fair, Adams' cover is sung well and, um, the singing sounds pretty, too. The treatment of the song is characterized as "sad." As a listen it is palpably sad. Success! Also, you might like the sound of his voice (cool, I do too). You might like the intimacy of the recording. You might even be in the mood for "suicide music." You might like just listening to this cover. On dull and bleak and colorless winter days, I do too.
But the things that made "Wonderwall" a great song are absent from Adams' version (save the crucial piano melody near the end). The slow-marching, determined backbeat is gone. The haunting, wistful string arrangement is gone. The defiance and regret of the pre-chorus is gone, as is the rhythmic, almost angry force of "like to say to you." The hope (likely doomed) of the chorus is gone. The original beautiful, dynamic melody is now nearly monotone and certainly monochrome. Only mood remains.
I know what you're thinking: "Of course the cover is different than the original. What's the point of doing something the same way? Why shouldn't an artist give it his own interpretation?" The difference is what the interpretation is. Hendrix's reinvention of "All Along the Watchtower" gave the song new dimensions; it expanded the song's meaning. Ryan Adams' cover of "Wonderwall" gave the song fewer dimensions; it diminished the song's meaning.
So what gives? Why do we hear people say that this cover is better than the original? Because they're not talking about music; they're talking about themselves. Nineties, meet Lifestyle Music.
Because of the fragmentation of pop culture, people now experience music as an extension to and reflection of their own lifestyle. Their opinions then develop based off self-definition. For example, if "deep" kids like Bright Eyes, and I self-identify as deep, then I like Bright Eyes. If it is the opinion of East Nashville hipsters that the cover of "Wonderwall" is better than the original (and I'm an East Nashville hipster), then "Omigod, this version is so much better than the original!"
This is lifestyle music, and it's about you. It's about how you want to come across in a conversation, or a group you consider yourself a part of, or the type of recommendations that ITunes will now give you...it's about practically anything but the song itself. There is an entire group of people--good, nice people I'm sure--who experience music this way. They like a song because of what liking that song says about them. They like a band because of what group of people also like that band.
The original "Wonderwall" was a great multi-dimensional piece of art that appealed to so many people because of its multi-dimensionality. The cover of "Wonderwall" is a one-dimensional piece of art that appeals to some people because of what that one-dimension says about them. Now, more than ever (and certainly more than the mid-90's), people want to experience something that makes them feel unique.
If you liked the original "Wonderwall," you (intentionally or not) liked it for reasons connected to its own musicality: the universal appeal of its melody, it's deliberate ambivalence, the execution of that ambivalence. And while you may continue to enjoy it for nostalgic or sentimental reasons, its accomplishments as a piece of music initially made you a fan.
If you like the "Wonderwall" cover better than the "Wonderwall" original, congratulations, you self-identify as vaguely alternative, and moody, and have something that you relate to.
You just might not actually like music.