Covered: “Africa”

Covered is a feature where we examine the merits of various cover songs, debating whether or not they capture the spirit and intent of the original, if the cover adds anything new, and whether or not it perhaps surpasses the original. If we fail on those counts, at the very least we may expose you to different versions of great songs you hadn’t heard before.

No one should have to listen to Toto’s “Africa” for any reason whatsoever in the year of 2015, so I apologize for the embedded video above.  It is a song that exists purely as a punchline, whether it be from digs by amateurs like you or in the hands of professionals like Patton Oswalt.  The only reason why anyone from my generation would have anything besides ill will for the song is due to a misplaced sense of nostalgia, from the time when you would catch a snippet of the chorus for one of those 80’s compilation discs on those commercials they would run on a daily basis.  Which makes sense, because if you cut the song down to about three seconds, it is tolerable.

I would not bring the song up if it were not for the release of Low’s brilliant new album Ones and Sixes last week (of which you should expect a review in the near future).  However, this provides the opportunity to bring up the time that Low covered “Africa” for the AV Club’s Undercover series.  As mentioned in the video, the song was not really the band’s choice, but that did not stop them from doing an admirable job in creating a memorable cover.  True to their style, the band does an elegant, mournful take on the original, giving the song far more weight than otherwise necessary; were it not for the recognizable chorus or the unusual organ tone in the keyboard, it would seem to be a natural fit in the band’s traditional setlist.  Their spare version provides a nice contrast with the bombast of the original, while also emphasizing the strength of the melody.

I also learned that there are a lot of people out on the internet that take Toto VERY SERIOUSLY, as evidenced by many of the exasperated YouTube comments.  I suggest that instead of getting worked up in a rage because someone did not apparently muster enough respect that the great musicians of Toto apparently deserve, that they sit back and relax by listening to one of Low’s slowcore masterpieces, like Things We Lost In The Fire.  Maybe then they could understand the full range of what “musicianship” entails.

I Cannot Believe I Have To Defend Taylor Swift

Most of the time, I find it rather easy to avoid any and all news related to Taylor Swift.  It is not a problem at all to simply skip over any headlines related to Ms. Swift whenever they pop up in my various social media feeds, and in my limited excursions into the outside world there is little risk of being bombarded with her music.  Most importantly, since the only music videos anyone watches these days are the ones that they select for themselves via YouTube, it would only be my own damn fault if I ever watched the latest video from T-Swizzle.  At least, I thought that was the case.

A couple of days ago, a friend shared a story from NPR entitled “Taylor Swift Is Dreaming Of A Very White Africa”, and that headline was apparently enough for me to end my loose embargo against clicking Swift-related links–all it takes is to accuse the world’s current reigning pop star of being racist, or at the very least ignorant.  As I read the article, it became apparent that the piece was an incoherent mess, and that thoughtful analysis was merely a secondary concern–it is not a good sign to see someone cite Lawrence of Arabia as an example of romanticizing colonialism, since that seems to indicate the only contact one has with the film is seeing its poster.  I had to see for myself how Taylor Swift managed to do such a poor job of portraying Africa.

[ponders whether the authors of the article even have the capability of sight]

It is clear that the two authors were so quick to grab their Jump To Conclusions Mat that they neglected to realize that the video is not even close to depicting a couple in colonial Africa, but is instead depicting a romance between actors on a film set during Hollywood’s Golden Age.  There is not even the beginning of an attempt to depict life in Africa, which is the primary concern of the authors; instead, it is the twice-removed setting of the typical Swift-ian failed romance.  I guess if we got rid of the limited context of the story in the four-minute video and ignore the entire easy-to-follow narrative, one could say it is a depiction of colonial Africa, but this seems like a lot of effort to expend only so one could get outraged.  The question then is why do so at all; life is too short for that nonsense.

As someone with a closer connection to colonialism than most*, I am usually willing to join the bandwagon on bashing any such depictions.  However, it is pointless to pick such battles when there is no reason to engage in one, as is the case here.  There may be a valid case in arguing that maybe Swift should try to expand beyond the typical jilted-lover storyline, or perhaps pursue a feminist-based critique and maybe ask her the question of why her “wildest dreams” involve only the hoariest of romantic cliches.  These problems are much more related to what is actually contained in the video.  If anything, the most controversial bit of misrepresentation in the entire video may be using the marquee of the Schnitz in Portland to stand in for Hollywood.

The authors do have a legitimate concern with the way that African life has been depicted in Western culture, but a silly video with only a minimal tangential connection to the continent is hardly the most appropriate target of their ire.  This kind of manufactured controversy should not have to rise to the level of a formal response from the director to explain the basic storyline of the video.  It may get people’s attention, but there is danger that when readers go through and assess the critique that they will be turned off by the message if it is done in such a slipshod manner.

If you don’t believe me, look no further than the fact that this terrible argument prompted me to write a defense of an artist for whom I could not care less.

*My father was born in a British colony, and the political struggles that came about as a result were a significant part of his youth and shape his homeland’s politics to this day.