Notes on the Viability of Imitation

Nobody knows...I once attended a corporation-sponsored reception in Hollywood. As “entertainment” there were people who make their living—or at least part of it—through a physical- and costume-based resemblance to dead people. In this case, Marilyn Monroe, Lucille Ball, and Humphrey Bogart. The breathiness of Monroe, the zaniness of Lucy, and the ill-fitting-dentures-curtness of Bogey are all clues that we identify vis-à-vis the individuals’ personae. (I wonder what someone not familiar with Ball or Bogart would make of these versions; Marilyn is simply a universal: even if who she “is” isn’t recognized, what she is is evident.) During their “act” at the reception, they were not performing specific roles or scenes that are associated with the people whom they were imitating, nor were they even playing scripted roles. Instead, they borrowed distinctive cues that served as the basis of their imitations.

Although many people routinely accept without much thought the “tribute” performances that are organized either on stage or on disc for musicians, this is actually a subgenre of performance that is essentially specific to music. That is, it is inconceivable (or illegal, depending on the lengths this is taken) for one writer to pay a tribute to another writer by using a writer’s work in public. Painters might be inspired by other painters, but would be unlikely to produce work that is based on borrowing major elements from a painting of another (or slavishly imitating it, such that the word “forger” comes to mind). And while the aforementioned actor and actresses might not be main stage, even those trodding the boards, while repeating, say, the words of a playwright without variance, don’t ape the styles of others who are known for the roles.

But the tribute concert or disc is acceptable. Why? And why is it that those whose form of musical tribute is essential imitation are somehow dismissed while those who do a tribute are even lauded for their work?


Yeats’s notion about separating the dancer from the dance—which he claimed can’t be done, which evidently means that William Butler never went to a strip club—is germane to the tribute performance. Here there are two parts, as well: the singer and the song.

To simplify, let’s assume that there is a singer who has written the song. That singer is the one for whom there is the tribute. In this situation, there is “ownership” of the song in a direct way. Otherwise, if the singer hadn’t written the song, but simply either (1) performed it before anyone else or (2) performed it in such a way that it becomes identified with that particular singer, the “ownership”—which can be considered to be an identification of singer/song as a unit in the listeners’s minds—is tenuous.

Consider: If the singer didn’t write the song, then unless the tribute performer does a note-by-note clone job, it is conceivable that the tribute performer’s performance could actually trump that of the object of the tribute and so the tribute performer could come to “own” the song. That version of the song, the tribute version, would consequently become the version upon which future tributes would be based. Unlikely, perhaps, but conceivable. The singer can be separated from the song.

Arguably, though, this could happen even to a song that the object of the tribute “owns.” Think only of all of the blues singers who are buried in potter’s fields whose music was appropriated by those who are venerated in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.


What it is that makes someone a good tribute performer? Presumably, the tribute performer should put a distinctive spin on the original’s work. But there must be limits to this; otherwise the tribute performer’s performance becomes something other than a tribute: perhaps a mockery. For example, while it might be amusing to include a polka band in the lineup for a tribute of damn near anyone (who doesn’t work in that genre), would that band’s performance be a “tribute” or a “novelty”?


Assume there is a tribute band dedicated to an original group. Further assume that the members of the tribute band are superlative mimics. These individuals have slavishly copied the work of the original performers. Their familiarity is such that they are even able to replicate nuances not normally perceived by casual listeners.

If you had two recordings, one of the original group and one of the tribute band, it would be virtually impossible to tell one from the other. Why would the original be considered to be better if the concern is with listening to the music, not with the individuals who originally did the music? Would seeing the tribute band (with “seeing,” of course, signifying “seeing performing,” but a term that pretty much indicates just how oriented our parlance points to the importance of being in the presence of the authentic) be as good as seeing the original band (remember: It’s about the sounds, right?)? What if one of the key members of the original band is dead (Morrison, say), and the tribute musician is dead-on, even though that musician is a 64-year-old Asian woman with an eating disorder: Would that be better than the alternative, which is nothing?

Read Kristy Eldredge’s piece on the recent Neil Young tribute concert in Brooklyn. And check out the surprisingly diverse Yahoo directory of tribute bands and impersonators.

6 thoughts on “Notes on the Viability of Imitation”

  1. Hmm, incisive piece… In my estimation, the fine line between tribute/mockery/ripoff comes down to motivation, compensation, and context. If author X releases a work entitle Finnegan’s Funeral, and writes in a similarly contorted Joycean prose, it could be argued that the author is paying tribute. If a band essentially re-records OK Computer and tries to pass it off as their own without even a passing nod to R-head, that would be ripoff. And if a bunch of bands got together to pay tribute to Elvis Costello in Grant Park in a one-off concert, it’s safe to say they’re not getting rich off the deal; they’re motivations can probably for the most part be considered pure. For a band who makes its living being a tribute band, they can either be taken at face value, and enjoyed as imitators, or be seen as hacks (depending on one’s opinion of the cover band scene).

    Celeb impersonators are usually far enough off the mark of the person they’re impersonating that it’s all acceptable, if at times tacky.

  2. I think there a distinction to be made between covering a song, as sort of a one off, and someone whose reason for existing is to play someone else’s music. Aretha Franklin will always be identified with the song “RESPECT” even though Otis Redding wrote it and performed it more than capably. But Aretha didn’t make a career out of sing Otis songs. She’s an interpreter. Many if not most of the songs she does were written and often performed by someone else, right? But I don’t think there’s anythink tacky about Aretha, and I wouldn’t consider her a thief. You can’t even compare that to a Doors tribute band, right? They are fundamentally different things.

  3. Jaime: The Otis/’retha situation is a perfect example of the “ownership” of a song going from one person to another. “Respect” is now her song.

    DJ: Good catch on the “motivation, compensation, context.” But a question is: How do we, as listeners, know those things about performers, know whether they are sincere or mercenary?

  4. [url=]Check this out[/url]. Former Stone Roses singer Ian Brown recently played a show of all old Stone Roses songs: “NME.COM can reveal that for the show the Stone Roses star hired members of a tribute band called ‘Fools Gold’, and played an hour of classics, including ‘I Wanna Be Adored’, ‘Fools Gold’ and ‘Waterfall’.”

  5. In a recent Austin Chronicle it mentions that the 13th floor elevators drummer sometimes sits in with a 13th floor tribute band.

    on another note I was recently wondering why theres a shitload of elvis impersonators but nothing for johnny cash… cash started in the same era, was more versatile and had a wider inspiration IMHO and well JOHNNY WROTE HIS OWN MATERIAL.

    speaking of JRC check out

  6. In a recent Austin Chronicle it mentions that the 13th floor elevators drummer sometimes sits in with a 13th floor tribute band.

    on another note I was recently wondering why theres a shitload of elvis impersonators but nothing for johnny cash… cash started in the same era, was more versatile and had a wider inspiration IMHO and well JOHNNY WROTE HIS OWN MATERIAL.

    speaking of JRC check out

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