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?