Good Copy

Magazines – Aretha Franklin – Selena – Tributes

When it comes to magazines, my friend Resa has me covered. 

Each time we meet to walk in the park, she hands me a stack of magazines she has already read.  

Resa puts tabs on articles she knows I’ll like.  She underlines quotes and makes notes in the margins when something catches her interest. My reading is made richer by her reading.

This last batch of hand-me-downs included two excellent artist stories: “The Genius of Aretha,” in the April issue of National Geographic; and “Selena at 50” in the April issue of Texas Monthly. (See references and links below.)

Both of these articles were long, captivating reads with compelling photos and references that seduced me into hours-long rabbit trails of playlists, documentaries, Wikipedia articles, and YouTube videos.

One of the things that caught my attention was how musicians can find their own voice by covering someone else’s work. 

Take Aretha for instance.  Some of her biggest hits were covers of other people’s hits.

Dionne Warwick’s “Say A Little Prayer” was already a hit when Franklin covered it in 1968. The songwriters, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, later conceded that Franklin’s version was better (reference, Vox.)

Even Franklin’s signature song, “Respect” was a cover of a song by Ottis Redding. Redding had to admit that Franklin had taken his song and made it irretrievably hers (reference Inside Hook).

Daneen L. Brown is the author of the National Geographic article about Franklin. Citing a conversation with Franklin’s biographer, Brown explains Franklin’s ability to create something completely original from another’s work:

“…Part of Franklin’s genius lay in how she deconstructed other’s songs she had decided to cover: In the studio she’d take a song apart, infuse it with soul, then add her original groove.  When she put the song back together again, she mastered it….Her intelligence was manifest in the intensity of her emotional expression.  It was born of her personal pain, depression, and desire never to talk about her story or what hurt her.” 

One might argue that as the Queen of Soul, Franklin had the genius, authority, and audacity to make something original from another’s work. 

But Austin Kleon, an artist who writes about the creative process, argues that the muses respond to anyone who invests in the practice of copying. 

“Nobody is born with a style or a voice,” Kleon writes in Steal Like an Artist. “We don’t come out of the womb knowing who we are. In the beginning, we learn by pretending to be our heroes.  We learn by copying.” 

He goes on to describe how something original emerges from the act of copying:

“A wonderful flaw about human beings is that we’re incapable of making perfect copies.  Our failure to copy our heroes is where we discover where our own thing lives. Copy your heroes.  Examine where you fall short.  What’s in there that makes you different?  That’s what you should amplify and transform into your own work.

Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist
Selena Mural, East Downtown, Houston

The article about Selena had a perfect example of this. Author Paula Mejia interviewed several musicians who have followed in Selena’s footsteps, covering her songs or creating tribute bands. Stephanie Bergara is with Bidi Bidi Banda, a Selena tribute band in Austin. Here’s what Bergara says about how Selena influenced her trajectory as an artist:

“Selena inspired me to make my own way.  A year into doing Bidi Bidi Banda–this is pre-baby, smaller, cuter, younger me–I was hand-sewing rhinestones onto these costumes, making exact replicas of Selena costumes.  And it was killing me.  I dreaded doing it.  And a year into it I was like, ‘I hope that if Selena were still around, she would want me to make my own way.’

“So one afternoon we were playing a show in August in Texas.  It was 113 degrees outside, and I was like, ‘I’m not gonna do it.’ My hair was bleached blond; I would put it up in a bun and hair-spray it black so I would look as much like her as I possibly could.  That day I decided not to, and it really changed the dynamic of our band and what we do.  It changed our branding; it changed the way people saw us and wanted to consume the music. And the music, not our imitation of Selena and her band, ended up becoming the primary function of what we do.”

I love this approach to creative work. Cover whatever inspires and interests you. Practice creating by copying. Eventually, you’ll have made your own thing.


“The Genius of Aretha,” by Daneen L. Brown is only available to paying subscribers of National Geographic Magazine. Check it out at your library. You can also catch Nat Geo’s eight-part scripted series about Aretha, “Genius: Aretha,” available on NGTV and Hulu. 

The full interview on Selena’s influence on Tejano music can be read here. It’s part of a special collection published by Texas Monthly celebrating Selena. Definitely check it out.

If you like this post, don’t miss my upcoming newsletter that will explore more musical covers. Subscribe here

2 comments

  1. So much fun. Thank you for going down these rabbit holes. Fascinating to hear the difference between the originals and Aretha’s versions. She was amazing.

    Like

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