Doing Right

It occurs to me that I’ve been remiss lately. I’ve been complaining about those who do life wrong–anti-vaxxers and anti-abortionists, Republicans, and software designers, for example–but I haven’t given any guidance for how to do life right.

I mean, I’d have thought it would be obvious, but the news continues to prove that it’s anything but.

So, with that–and my desire to make this blog a somewhat cheerier place–allow me to present a short playlist of songs that set a proper example.

Actually, it’s a very short playlist, so before I go there, I’m going to highlight a couple of songs that didn’t make the list.

“Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag”

Damn near everybody has done this one–this version is Bob Crosby and Martha Tilton–buy why? Ignore your problems and they’ll go away is lousy advice in any situation. Maybe it’s useful as a short-term strategy in a high-stress situation, but I’m even dubious about that. Anyone else think this was an early precursor to a certain track from Bobby McFerrin?

“On the Sunny Side of the Street”

Another dubious recommendation that everyone takes a swing at. No digs at Benny Goodman and Peggy Lee: it’s a great song. But really, “deny your problems exist and let someone else deal with them” isn’t helpful either personally or socially. As we’ve seen with the Republican attitude toward climate change.

“Swinging on a Star”

Bing Crosby, of course. The song is so loaded with negative stereotypes, I just can’t bring myself to recommend it as a guide to life: mules are stubborn and stupid, pigs are rude and dirty, and fish are sneaky scammers, or so Der Bingle tells us. So, even though the advice is good–stay in school, or, more generally, learn something–is an excellent first step towards living right, I just can’t bring myself to put it on the playlist.

Let’s move on to the songs that did make the cut.

“Pennies from Heaven”

Bing Crosby again, this time in a number that does meet my standards. His introduction seems like it would be a better fit for “The Best Things in Life Are Free”, and some of the advice is a bit dubious. Taken literally, carrying your umbrella upside down is not only counterproductive from a liquid standpoint, but any cash falling into it is likely to bounce right out. Figuratively, though, it’s on the money (sorry): smiling even when you don’t feel it can make you feel better. And who can argue with any song that reminds you that standing under a tree during a lightning storm is a bad idea?

“Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive”

Johnny Mercer nails this one, musically-speaking*. The lyrics are a bit more Judeo-Christian than I’d really like–Noah and Jonah feature prominently–but the message works. Focus on the good things. Acknowledge the bad, sure, but don’t let them control you. And, while the words do stress having faith, it’s not specifically faith in God. As far as I’m concerned, faith in yourself works just as well.

* And I do love the intro. “The topic will be Sin / And that’s what I’m ag’in’.”

“Straighten Up and Fly Right”

Nat King Cole, of course. And the advice is as timeless as the performance. Listen to that little cricket in the top hat. Nobody has to tell you when–or how–you’re going wrong; you know it already. Don’t call that voice a conscience if it makes you uncomfortable to think you have one, but listen up. And fly right, brother.

“Let It Alone”

The Dixie Hummingbirds’ biggest fame came as a result of backing up Paul Simon, but they’ve been around for nearly a century. This track* often gets lost among their gospel numbers with more conventional lyrics and themes. But the message here is worth remembering: not only can you not fix everyone’s problems, but you shouldn’t even try. It’s not “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”. Even the sinless have better things to do than to go nosing into other people’s business.

* Historical diversion: Kids, ask your grandparents about early methods of recording video. In particular, ask them about the SLP mode on VHS recorders. (Hint: it slowed the tape speed to one-third the normal rate, allowing six hours of recording on a single tape, at the cost of a significant degradation in video and audio quality.) Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find a better recording of this song online.

“Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”

Monty Python, closing out our playlist. Be optimistic, pessimism will get you nowhere. I think it’s the best advice you’ll find in a song, even though as a pessimist by nature, I struggle to apply it myself. But when I fail, I do a bit of whistling, and I’m ready to try again.


Stuff accumulates. It’s a law of nature.

You may not agree. Maybe you can pack all of your possessions in a single suitcase. You might even be smug about it.

Just wait. Someday–probably fairly soon–somebody’s going to give you a new suitcase. Maybe it’ll be larger, or sturdier, or in just the right shade of purple (with neon green polka dots) to express your personality. And you’ll move all of your possessions into the new suitcase.

But what happens to the old suitcase? You toss it in the closet because it’s crunch time at work and you can’t run it over to the donation center. Two years later, that closet is full of suitcases. Because suitcases are unisexual organisms that breed when left alone in a dark place.

Not that I’m gloating. It’s just that stuff accumulates.

I’ve got boxes of accumulated stuff in the garage. Some of them have been through four moves. Some of them I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before. Seriously–I’d remember having bought that shirt, right? I found a computer I could have sworn I had sold a decade ago. I certainly didn’t put it in that box. But there it was.

And that’s the problem with accumulation. No index. How could there be with stuff multiplying behind your back?

I can’t find my favorite jacket.

Mind you, it wasn’t my favorite jacket the last time I wore it, or even the last time I saw it. It’s my favorite jacket because I don’t know where it is. When it turns up, I’ll wear it–assuming it’s not too warm out–and then put it somewhere. If I put it someplace where I’ll see it regularly, it won’t be my favorite jacket anymore.

Emotion is like that sometimes.


I got started on this train of thought because the homeowners’ association won’t let me put two stories of storage on top of the garage. Since I need some garage space (only partly for a pending accumulation), the only choice is a grand de-cluttering project.

I’ve thrown away a lot of stuff. Donated a bunch. Repacked, merging multiple boxes together.

I swear there’s more stuff out in the garage than before I started. There’s not–there can’t be. But it sure feels that way.

Emotion is like that sometimes, too.


Need a box, four feet on a side, filled with USB cables? Original USB, not this new-fangled USB 2 stuff, much less the even newer-fangleder USB 3. I could swear the box was a two-foot cube when we moved into this house.


Under Cover, Part 2

Ready for that path to riches I promised? There’s something else we need to discuss before we get there, another factor besides familiarity that plays into a cover song’s popularity: the degree to which the cover differs from the original.

I often hear covers that are so similar to the original that I’m hard-pressed to tell them apart. I’m not going to embarrass anyone by naming names here–I’m sure you can think of your own examples–because the only explanation I can think of for recording a note-for-note cover is sheer greed: crank something out quickly and hope that the sheer familiarity of it encourages people to buy it. (Note that I’m talking specifically about covers on recordings and to a somewhat lesser extent, live performances. Doing this kind of literal cover is an excellent way to learn a piece or get familiar with a style, but one doesn’t normally sell rough drafts or setting-up exercises.)

At the opposite end of the spectrum from literal covers are ones so different they almost become new songs. The quick route to this category is by doing your cover in a very different musical style. Consider, for example, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme’s lounge interpretation of Soundgarden’s grunge icon “Black Hole Sun”.



The video of the lounge version is a fan-production, not an official release; the juxtaposition of the already-disturbing visuals with the hyper-relaxed lounge sound escalates the combined work to levels of brain melting previously only attained by the combination of Frank Zappa and massive doses of acid.

Another example, not so extreme, is the Austin Lounge Lizards’ bluegrass cover of Pink Floyd’s classic “Brain Damage”.



(My apologies for the useless video. I can’t find a live performance.)

(If you really want to mix and match, the Austin Lounge Lizards’ take on grunge can be found here. Yeah, OK, I’m getting a bit off-topic. How about a couple of covers of The Grunge Song to be vaguely relevant? I found a straight-up grunge version and ukulele solo version.)

I’d argue that most wildly deviant covers start out in late night/early morning drug and/or alcohol-infused jam sessions. Most of them are quickly buried when sunlight and sobriety strike; only a few pass the “why the hell not release this?” test a few days, weeks, or months later. As such, they’re something of an artistic quantum element, not truly susceptible to critical decomposition.

There is, by the way, a sub-genre of wildly variant covers that can probably be best characterized as “strictly commercial”. A prime example here would be the notorious “Pickin’ On” series, which renders a variety of popular artists’ music in bluegrass style, with results ranging from “predictable” to “incoherent”–or perhaps “incomprehensible”.

Whether you’re measuring deviation from the original or popularity, covers seem to fall into the familiar bell-shaped curve. There aren’t a lot of examples at either extreme; most of the action is in the middle. As we discussed earlier, popular covers draw on familiarity. They add something new and distinctive to attract attention but don’t go to the extreme of metaphorically slamming the listener in the head with a 2×4.

I have to speak anecdotally here, as there are far too many cover versions in the world for a strict statistical analysis. But it seems only logical that a cover’s best chance of eclipsing the original in the ears–and wallets–of the public is to shoot for the middle of the bell curve.

So there’s the path to fame and fortune I promised you. Find a popular piece and do your own cover. Make sure it’s clearly different, but not radically so. For example, change the mood, alter the instrumentation, or do a gender-swap on the performer and lyrics. Don’t go berserk, though. Stay in the same musical style, don’t change the song from a major key to a minor or vice versa, and definitely don’t change the chorus’ lyrics.

Release it when the original isn’t dominating the airwaves. Again, I’m working without a rigorous analysis, but I’d suggest you time your launch for four to six months after the person who originated the song dies. That way the radio tributes to the first performer will have given the original performance a familiarity bump, but they’ll have tailed off enough that your version will stand out.

Time it right, and presto! You’ll be forever identified with the song. At least until six months after you die, when someone covers your version.

One final note: None of the above absolves you from producing a good cover. Don’t rush it. In particular, and especially if you’re new to the cover game, don’t even try to cover The Thrill Has Gone. There’s going to be far too much competition to cover B.B. King, anyway.

Work on a few projects, build a portfolio, and have patience. Remember: Mick Jagger, Madonna, and–if you’re really patient–Marcus Mumford can’t last forever.

Under Cover, Part 1

The other day I was thinking about song covers*. More specifically, I was pondering what defines the “definitive” version of a song.

* For those unfamiliar with the term, covering a song has nothing to do with the CD case or LP sleeve–or adding a cover tag to an MP3. It’s the act of performing (live or in recording) a new version of a previously-released song. As usual, The Font of All Human Knowledge has more details.

This all started when the radio station I was listening to played four different versions of All Along the Watchtower: Bob Dylan’s original version, Jimi Hendrix’ cover, and two other covers, both by people I had never heard of, and who made such a minimal impression on me that I can’t recall their names. Yeah, I should have written them down, but I was driving at the time, so I’m claiming extenuating circumstances. Hendrix’ cover is widely considered definitive, to the point that many people think he wrote it.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve never much cared for All Along the Watchtower. To me the vocals feel perfunctory, and the instrumental breaks are the whole point. It would probably work better for me as an instrumental/jam piece (and in fact, I dislike the Grateful Dead’s take on the piece less than any other cover I’ve heard-–and I listened to quite a few in writing this post).

So what makes Hendrix’ take definitive? Well, Dylan himself has been quoted as saying “It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.” Doesn’t clarify much, does it?

My own opinion is that Hendrix released his version quickly (less than a year after Dylan’s initial release) and before Dylan’s version was released as a single. With Hendrix at the height of his popularity, and Dylan on a downswing, that meant many people heard Hendrix’ version first and most often. A study by North and Hargreaves shows a positive relationship between familiarity and liking–in other words, the more you see or hear something, the more you like it*. That suggests the status of “definitive version” has a certain amount of self-reinforcement: once it becomes popular, it’ll get more airplay, more people will hear it repeatedly, and it’ll become still more popular. In this case, Hendrix gets an extra boost. Since Dylan began patterning his performances of his own song after Hendrix’s version, that adds additional repetitions for listeners, and thus even more reinforcement to Hendrix’s recording as “definitive”.

* A fact that Top 40 radio stations have been using to record label’s benefit for decades.

One additional point: In most of the cases where a cover takes over from the original, the cover is in a significantly different style than the original, and attracts a different, and potentially larger audience. A few semi-random examples:

  • “The Man Who Sold the World” – originally by David Bowie, covered by Nirvana
  • “Hurt” – originally by Nine Inch Nails, covered by Johnny Cash
  • “Turn! Turn! Turn!” – originally by Pete Seeger, covered by The Byrds
  • “Proud Mary” – originally by Creedence Clearwater Revival, covered by Ike and Tina Turner

Disagreement? I’d be particularly interested in counter-examples, where the cover wasn’t initially popular, but grew in popularity over time.

I had an ulterior motive for bringing up cover songs–a sure road to fame and fortune. Check back Thursday, and I’ll reveal all.


We’re back to Google’s hot searches today. I know we just hit it last week, but something popped up that struck me as interesting. (There’s probably a blog post in why peeking at someone else’s searches is so fascinating. This isn’t that post.)

As we’ve discussed in the past, top searches tend to fall into a few recurring categories. Chief among these are sports and partially-dressed women. Monday’s top searches are such a classic example that I had to share it with you. Here’s the top five:

  1. Raiders (for those of you who don’t follow sports, that’s the Oakland Raiders American football team)
  2. Scarlett Johansson (let’s just note that Google’s thumbnail image for this search shows her in a skin-toned tank top and move on)
  3. Atlanta Falcons (another American football team)
  4. Red Sox (over to baseball)
  5. Presidents Cup Streaker (yes, a nearly nude woman ran onto the course at a golf match)

So in the top five results, we have four sporting events and two partially-clad women. So why did I find this interesting? Well, mostly because the streaker only made it to Number Five. Why didn’t an event that combined sports and bare bodies rank higher in the American psyche?

I don’t have any definitive answers for the question, but I do have some ideas.

  • People are bored with streakers – It’s possible. Certainly the pictures of the event seem to include a number of bored-looking spectators. There may be a certain amount of editorial bias in the selection of still photos, though: the videos show more interested-looking onlookers. More generally, Google’s historic results show a definite downward trend in searches for streakers over the past decade.
  • Maybe it’s just Americans losing interest – Google’s trend data points out that the most searches for streakers come from New Zealand, Australia, and the UK. Maybe it’s only Americans who are bored with streakers. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald traces streaking back to London in 1799. It’s only reasonable that members of the late, great British Empire would take a proprietary interest in keeping the tradition alive. On the other hand, Canada and India show even less interest than the U.S.
  • It’s golf – I had to suggest it, since golf is far from the most popular spectator sport. But the fact that the Presidents Cup made the top searches list last week without a streaker’s involvement implies that someone (actually, quite a few someones) is paying attention to golf.
  • She wasn’t nude – Frankly, this is the most convincing theory to me. Once people heard that she was wearing a thong and (as one news report put it) “strategically placed red, white and blue stickers”, they lost interest.

Obviously, more data is necessary. We need to do some controlled experiments. By varying the types of events streaked at and the amount of clothing that the streakers wear, we can begin eliminating some of the possibilities above. We do need to control the other variables, though. Age and sex of the streaker seem likely to skew the response (though that might be the subject of another set of experiments). Since it seems unlikely that Ms Webster, the Presidents Cup streaker, will be available for the complete run of experiments, we’re going to need some volunteers. Women in their early 20s who are willing to bare some-or-all in the name of SCIENCE! are invited to drop a line to their local university. Psychology PhD candidates are standing by.