Unflattering Imitation

I participated in a fundraiser for my special education job the other night. It was a talent competition called “[Education District] Idol”, and consisted of volunteers singing popular songs with a live band or karaoke track, and attendees buying votes to raise money for our programs. I sang “In the Ghetto” and had a good time.

There was something odd that kept coming up, though. First, at rehearsal, the organizers (and fellow performers) who were listening asked me if I was going to “dress up as Elvis.” They suggested that I go to a thriftstore for a “costume” or maybe “slick my hair back.” Then after I sang on performance night, one of the judges declared, “folks, Elvis is alive and well!” Later that evening the district superintendent complemented me and told me I was “channeling the spirit of Elvis.”

These comments were sweet and well-intentioned, and they weren’t the only compliments I heard. But I felt such an aversion to that trend that my skin crawled! They were so incredibly counter to what I was trying to do. I chose a song that resonates with me musically and lyrically, and focused all my energy on expressing it with art and oomph. Yes, I was singing a song made famous by Elvis, and I was inspired artistically by his rendition. But I wasn’t trying to channel him, imitate him, or BE him. I was trying to be me, singing a song with authenticity.

This is something I can’t help but notice about our whole culture—our creativity is incredibly imitative. Not just in the sense of respecting and drawing from a rich body of tradition, but rather a slavish aping of existing art. Even the most creativity- and originality-obsessed of us tend to describe a work by what other works it is like. It’s, y’know, easier that way. The famous “elevator pitch” is the language our culture uses to process creativity. The producers of mass entertainment are even afraid to take a risk on a “property” that isn’t readily similar to something they already know and understand. In the “Idol” competition, one judge, upon hearing a father/daughter act with gorgeous vocals, exclaimed, “I feel like we’ve witnessed the birth of the next Judds!” We’re obsessed with finding the “next ____” rather than meeting a thing on its own terms.

One egregious example I recall from my days of consuming junk TV: in a family sitcom, when a child character gets on a “kick” of some kind as that episode’s comedic device, the only language the show has for conveying it is the scrupulous copying of a real-world example. A kid won’t just get on a “detective kick”; she’ll start wearing a Holmesian deerstalker cap and smoking a bubble pipe. A boy won’t just go through a stand-up comedy phase, he’ll start copying the dress and mannerisms of W.C. Fields or Groucho Marx. In one wretched show I remember, the teenage son and his buddy started a cable access show, and proceeded to meticulously mimic the style and content of “Wayne’s World” to the letter.

In such a cultural mode, of COURSE the only way someone can sing an Elvis song is to become an Elvis Impersonator.

I played into this, of course, by singing a song by the most famous singer in the 20th Century and using a canned accompaniment track. That’s not where my heart lies, for creative expression. Story by the Throat! exists because I want to empower myself and others to reclaim art, expression, and even tradition as a living, breathing source of spirit and imagination for everyone. I want us to make our own music, to tell our own stories, to build (or rebuild) our own culture, to break free of the Man not just in our economic and political circumstances, but in our creativity and spirituality, too.

Still, though, I approached the competition with the purpose of being real with the song and my own musicianship. Don’t get me wrong, I had fun, the district raised money for special needs kids, and I got to enjoy a few phenomenal musicians. And I feel I succeeded in being real, but I still saw my expression processed through this imitative filter, and it left a bad taste. Maybe it’s a cultural context that just can’t be redeemed, and I’ll have to look elsewhere for the vitality I crave.

Which I already do. So there’s that. I know what my soul craves, and can mostly see how to get there. I just wish I could show the rest of the world how to get it too.



9 Responses to “Unflattering Imitation”

  1. May 3, 2010 at 10:14 am

    Same seven notes and some slag poet’s quotes
    Stick them together with glue
    You can mix a fine cocktail from memories
    And pretend what you’re drinking is new

    But there’s nothing that’s new under heaven
    There’s nothing that hasn’t been done
    Pour me another double cliche
    You can’t write a song that’s never been sung

    Everyone’s stealing from someone
    Burglars get burgled as well
    There’s nothing that’s new under heaven
    There’s nothing unique over hell

    There’s nothing that’s new under heaven
    There’s nothing that hasn’t been done
    Pour me another double cliche
    You can’t write a song that’s never been sung
    You can’t write a song that’s never been sung

  2. 2 Joel
    May 3, 2010 at 8:27 pm


    I think my issue is not that there is nothing new under the sun–I’m totally cool with that–but with making an authentic artistic statement that has integrity to who I am, even if it’s “been done before.” And with having it received as such, appreciatively, by my audience or peers.

    And yeah, I’m thinking karaoke in front of strangers is really not the ideal setting for that. :)

    I recall when I was singing in college choir, one of my instructors did a great choral arrangement of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” We had a gutsy soprano on the solo, but one performance she couldn’t make it, so I volunteered and sang it in my gutsy baritone. I had a ton of fun with it, and I think we each owned our authentic expression of an old, well-worn song–the same, but different.

  3. May 3, 2010 at 10:49 pm

    I don’t mean to diminish the pain of being misinterpreted or simply not seen. It never helps to be reminded how much of our lives we spend in contexts that reward such blindness.

    I’m just telling some other story, maybe. Or wishing for Chumbawamba karaoke.

  4. 4 Joel
    May 4, 2010 at 3:24 pm

    No, don’t worry about it. I found your sharing complimentary and thought-spurring.

    And it wasn’t pain exactly, just an irritant. More a rash than a wound. :)

  5. 5 Joel
    May 6, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    I received some interesting comments on Facebook that I thought I’d share here, with my responses:

    Jim: “I was initially disappointed to see that would participate in such a morally and aesthetically indefensible activity as karaoke (even if it was for a fundraiser), but your thoughtful observations make up for it.

    On a tangential note, have you ever seen a Belgian movie called ‘Everybody’s Famous’. The two main characters are a father and a daughter– and the daughter is trying to become famous by participating in contests that involve basically ‘imitating’ other performers songs/looks/personas as much as possible. Or at least that’s how it starts.

    Given your observations, you might find it interesting. Plus it’s in Flemish.”

    Thanks for the movie tip!

    Also, I have to confess I’ve always been attracted to karaoke. When I hear a song I like, I want to sing it myself; just the way I am. And not being an instrumentalist limits my options.Karaoke’s not ideal, but sometimes it’s the only vehicle I’ve got.

    Actually, I would have totally done something with the live band if I’d known the caliber of musicians available.

  6. 6 Joel
    May 6, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    David: “Where once there were drinking songs, now only karaoke.
    The culture of passive adulation for musical celebrity is made to disenfranchise people from their own creativity. To long songs (and artists) have been the property of Record Labels, they needed each song to be an ad for the brand that the artist represents. Recording and editing software has never been cheaper or easier to use then it is now, you tube lets a catchy idea go viral. Sadly each viral video spawns a thousand karaoke rip off responses, yet I am hopeful that the decline of the label may lead to a new focus on live performance.”

    Me too, man, me too. I’ve tried a couple of times to start a drinking song revival, but never gained critical mass. There are special venues like the SCA where music is much more participatory, but I’d love to see that spirit spread to more everyday life instead of relegated to a select group of people out in the woods.

  7. 7 Joel
    May 6, 2010 at 12:21 pm

    Erik: “I disagree that karaoke necessarily encourages non-creativity. Even in the age of drinking songs at the local public house it was the many singing a song that was familiar. Only the few actually created the songs.

    I feel that karaoke actually gives people who either don’t feel like they can perform, or would be too afraid normally, a (albeit usually alcohol-induced) venue to be able to express themselves in a musical(ish) manner… which is the whole point anyway, is it not?

    That said I would much prefer a bar-full of drunk folks all busting out in a good ol tune.

    As far as the record labels go… agreed 100% Sadly, there aren’t many other practical ways to reach your art out to the rest of the world unless you have a huge wad of cash.”

    Erik, I got nothing against familiar songs. As you say, the thing that makes pub singing so cool is that it’s a COMMUNAL endeavor.

    I’m also not making any blanket statements about karaoke. My experience was my experience, is all.

  8. 9 Zac in VA
    May 23, 2010 at 8:58 am

    I went to Ice Station Nerdly yesterday, and after a rousing game of Jungle Adventure, four of us went to play Beatles Rock Band.
    With three vocalists, a drummer, a bassist and a guitarist, we did a few tunes, but it was when we switched to Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds that we realized we had quite an audience – the Dresden Files game downstairs had let out, and now there were four people watching and singing along.
    It was quite the communal experience – singing this tune we all knew so well, hearing each other’s voices (about eight of us) mix with Lennon’s… it was kind of moving, actually. I felt like a part of something bigger, and of course the physical experience of playing the Rock Band drums made me want to learn more, someday, about playing real drums and being in a real band. Or at least to play more Rock Band drums.
    I actually switched out of RPGs for a while, a few years ago, to start writing my ideas down in fantasy novels – I wanted something tangible to be left behind by my creative process, and I wanted an audience beyond the immediate participants in the creative act.
    I came back to RPGs pretty quickly, but I definitely made a distinction between writing as work and RPGs as hobby/play activity from then on.

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