The penultimate episode of The Voice this season reminded me of a phenomenon in music, one that I am trying to apply to fiction but struggling to analogize. Anyway, it’s the sort of meta-musical knowledge of who is singing a song and how that affects what you hear.
Danielle Bradbery was my favorite singer in terms of her tone and range and the ecstatic joy with which she sings. I enjoyed her cover of “Please Remember Me,” but it lacked emotional punch. That song is one of my all-time favorite country songs, written by one of my favorite country songwriters and made famous by Tim McGraw. The perspective that he brings to that song as an adult is so much richer than what she could bring as a 16-year-old girl.
See, that song is about having hurt someone you love (even if the hurting was mutual when you realized it wasn’t working), wanting them to move on and be happy, and yet selfishly asking them to hold just a little piece of you in their heart forever because you’re going to hold them there even as you move on. By the time you’re mid- to late twenties, you’ve probably had that experience, or come close enough to breaking up, even if you pulled back from the brink, to have imagined what it would feel like to have to move on. That experience matters. There is a rawness to the way McGraw sings the song, an awareness of living the moment the song is about, that Danielle’s version lacks. The lyrics are a little ridiculous when sung by a girl of that age – how has she had time to hurt anyone that deeply, or have the life perspective to really picture anyone she was involved with into the future? She is singing words, maybe even words that she thinks she understands (I thought I did at 16, when the song was originally popular), but it lacks a resonance. It’s her singing someone else’s song, not her singing a song she has lived.
Another song with the same phenomenon is “Hurt” originally by Nine Inch Nails and covered by Johnny Cash on his last album, after his wife died. The Trent Reznor version was great until I heard the Johnny Cash cover. Dark, gothy, despairing. So full of 90s angst and isolation and apathy. Side by side with Cash, though, Reznor sounds like an emo kid whining about his emotional pain from being rejected by a girl or his parents’ divorce – he’s calling his life an empire of dirt with the dramatic exaggeration of the young.
When Johnny Cash sings that song as an old man who has achieved everything he wanted and then lost the love of his life, it resonates in a wholly different way, on a deeper and more profound level. Cash’s cover gives me chills just to think about; Reznor’s might make me feel a little existential despair, but it doesn’t make me want to cry.
So how does this relate to writing? I don’t know. Maybe it only relates to which characters tell certain kinds of stories. Maybe it’s out of an author’s control, and they must leave it to their audience to determine if they have lived with pain and loss and intensity or merely had the superficial disappointments of a safe and stable life.
*Ugh. WordPress isn’t letting me add videos right now so you will just have to follow the links. Sorry. 😦