There’s one sure-fire way to lose interest in your favourite recordings, and I do it on a daily basis. I can’t stop obsessively listening to the same tracks over and over again. My Spotify runs on a rotation of the same two or three albums for about a week, and then a new two or three albums take their places. I couldn’t possibly take my headphones out around the house for fear the incessant repetitiveness would drive my housemates to kick me out. In fact sometimes the aural equivalent of groundhog day actually starts to drive me to distraction. Someone please send help.
Oddly enough, this causes me fewer problems in the classical sphere than it does with other genres. I simply cannot face the live gigs of my favourite artists, because the variations of a live performance jar so painfully against the recorded track branded into my internal ear. I’m used to hearing the same piano trio or symphony in many different forms and interpretations but hearing Florence sing ‘Shake it out’ with any deviation from the studio version that pounds through radios, shop speakers and club nights just feels wrong. Such musical rigidity seems a shame, that songs are so ingrained in my mind as one version that I can no longer appreciate variations or live versions. I wish remixes, live gigs and even covers didn’t irritate me, but they often do. Whether or not I can listen to them purely depends on whether I know the original too well.
The rise of the singer-songwriter has, I think, created a much more symbiotic relationship between recording and song. A singer writes, performs and records a piece exactly how they wish, and that is the definitive version that everyone knows. even artists’ covers of older songs have a tendency to subsume the original, such as Adele singing Dylan’s ‘Make you feel my love’ or Jeff Buckley’s version of Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’. How many people have heard ‘Valerie’ in any other version than Amy Winehouse’s? We want to associate songs with one particular person (or band), to define them by one sound. This trend in popular musical is so different to the approach taken by jazz or classical musicians, where ownership is more fluid. The old-fashioned jazz standards of the (?)1940s-(?)1960s for example were passed around from artist to artist, performed and recorded in completely different ways and styles each time. I have no intractable sense of what the version of ‘Summertime’, ‘Stormy weather’ or ‘I’ve got you under my skin’ is because they exist in so many covers, re-imaginings and re-fashionings. But I think slowly this sense of collective musical ownership is being lost. Artists seem determined at the moment to stamp their songs with as much of themselves as possible (take Ariana Grande or Beyoncé’s last releases), to demonstrate that a song is theirs perhaps in defiance of the fact that their recordings will be played in shops and restaurants as background music as well as on the radio, in clubs and headphones. I clearly don’t help myself. I should perhaps listen to shuffle, or the radio, but it’s not half as satisfying. The albums I listen to I know absolutely back to front, from the basslines upwards. It’s only through listening to ‘Hey Jude’ 20 times that you discover that John Lennon, faintly, shouts out ‘oh fucking hell!’ five minutes in. But I think my disturbing inability to appreciate alternative performances of a song is possibly symptomiatic of a music industry slowly becoming too rigidly artist-focused, perhaps at the expense of live performances.