Letter to the Letterwriter

I’ve long thought that people who write letters to the editor aren’t held accountable for much of what they write. This is an attempt to change that.

Dear John James,

Your letter to Esquire, which received its own byline online, starts off so promisingly. You come off immediately as more than the standard reader, as one who thinks deeply about music, about art, about music as art. Your case for the cover song is a good one, and one I appreciate and endorse.

However, John James, like Brett Favre, you lose credibility the more you continue. First, you are unable to resist the human urge to write at length about your own experience. You can argue that I care about why you love cover songs: The whole “art as a crossroads of the predictable and unexpected” is a theory that transcends personal tastes. You cannot argue, though, that I care about how you came to love cover songs. The intimate details of your adolescence, your strong sense of personal nostalgia for a bygone era of music, and the editorialization that almost inherently accompanies them are of no interest to me.

Your musing on music and its connection to those who listen to it strikes me as false. I do not, within two or three questions, ask acquaintances what kind of music they like or what bands they are into. Acquaintances do not ask me those questions. More problematically, your idea that you can glean so much about a person based on a cursory glance of their record collection somewhat undermines your prior thoughts about the cover song—viz. “Is it the singer or the song?” You seem to suggest in your letter that cover songs have, in a large way, defined your musical tastes. And yet, “cover” is not a kind of music; it is not a genre, but rather an approach. Cover songs are more about artistic interpretation than musical genre, and thus I would say that I could glean very little about you from your long and diverse list of cover songs aside from “John James really likes cover songs.”

And therein lies the biggest issue here: Your preference for cover songs crosses the line between passion and zealotry. One-thousand eight-hundred and ninety-two cover songs is too big a list. It is way too big a list. It is at least one-thousand, three-hundred and ninety-two songs too long. By making your list of suggested cover songs this outrageously long, you lose most of your critical credibility. Listening to and approving this many cover songs implies a sense of obsession, a sense that you, John James, are incapable of acknowledging a cover song that, for whatever reason, just doesn’t work. It does not matter that, in your letter, you point out that the list represents maybe one in 10 cover songs you’ve encountered; 1,892 speaks for itself. (And at the same time, if someone asked me for a list of suggested listening or reading, I like to think that I’d pass along less than 10% of what I’ve ever encountered in that area. Perhaps I am not as readily satisfied with art as you evidently are.)

When the list bloats to this long, the obligation of parsing it down passes from the purported expert (John James) to the admitted neophyte (me). Instead of someone who has listened to all of these songs and who has proclaimed a deeper understanding of the art of the cover song telling me what I should listen to, I, who have not listened to 1% of these songs and who has never proclaimed more than a passing interest in the occasional cover song, have to do it myself. I have to decide which cover of “Hey Ya” is most worth it (Booker T’s, no doubt) and which Beatles song I most want to hear a cover version of (“Eleanor Rigby,” but it’s close), and even which cover of “Wonderwall” by Cat Power I’d prefer to hear (neither).*

*Your credibility with me takes a bigger hit when you include a cover song performed by “Sad Kermit.” And of a song of which Johnny Cash did a much better cover. And no Sinead O’Connor on “Nothing Compares 2 U”? Really? There are 1,892 BETTER cover songs than one of the top songs of the ‘90s? And this coming from a guy who loves Pope John Paul II.

In closing, John James, your list of 10 favorites is too short (and, it seems, somewhat editorially contrived); your list of 1,892 in all is much too long. Take a lesson from Henry Clay, and compromise. We’ll both be better for it.

Your Friend,

Tim

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