Note to Readers: Since my last post was about the responses to this article I wrote (back on July 9th), I figured I might as well re-post the article itself. (After all, I don't know when Courant.com will take it down.) In this version, I restored some of the lines the editor originally cut for space reasons.
"Old and Busted, All Summer Long"
Hartford Courant, July 9, 2008
You may be wondering why you’ve been hearing classic rock staples like Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” on your favorite Top 40 radio station this summer. In fact, you’ve been hearing neither. And both. And at the same time.
You’ve actually been hearing Kid Rock’s latest single, “All Summer Long,” from his platinum album Rock N Roll Jesus. Technically known as a “mash-up,” this song mixes together familiar Zevon and Skynyrd bits into a concoction that has proven quite potent. “All Summer Long” has scaled to the top of VH1’s Top 20 Video Countdown and recently entered Casey Kasem’s America’s Top 20. And apparently, according to kidrock.com, the single is Number One in Germany.
The song, in other words, has its fans all over. I don’t count myself among them. In truth, the song offends me.
Now, one could make the case that the song was not written for a man in his late 30s like myself—except the lyrics suggest otherwise. In the song, the 37-year-old Kid Rock reminisces about the glory days of his misspent youth, when he’d take his girlfriend out to the lake to smoke and drink and…well, you know. The first line of the song even provides a year: 1989. So, actually, I fit the song’s target audience quite nicely, thank you very much. And yet, the song offends me.
Mind you, the concept of sampling—of borrowing sounds or melodies from other songs—doesn’t particularly rankle me. Hey, back in the summer of 1990, I liked M.C. Hammer’s “Super Freak”-fueled “U Can’t Touch This” as much as the next guy—and possibly more than the next guy (though it pains me to say it now). When done effectively, sampling can fire some healthy nostalgia: when you hear echoes of Supertramp’s “Breakfast in America’ in Gym Class Heroes’ “Cupid’s Chokehold,” or the distinctive hook of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” in Rihanna’s “S.O.S.,” you remembered why you liked the original songs in the first place.
Moreover, some artists breathe new life into old songs by putting them in unusual contexts. Bruce Hornsby and Michael McDonald may not have a ton of street cred, but they both got hip-hop makeovers courtesy of Tupac (in “Changes”) and Warren G (in “Regulate”), respectively. Heck, Jay Z even made the musical Annie seem cool in his song “Hard Knock Life.”
So, no, Kid Rock’s sampling of classic rock staples in “All Summer Long” doesn’t bother me—at least, not in theory. Nor am I particularly offended by the fact that the song is soulless, commercialized, corporate pap—even though it most assuredly is. The song has the word “summer” in the title, and—wouldn’t you know? – was released just in time for summer. Back in April, Kid Rock even allowed the song to be used as a theme for a World Wrestling Entertainment pay-per-view. Then again, a lot of songs on the radio are soulless, commercialized, corporate pap, so why should this one bother me so much?
Ultimately, Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long” offends me as a high school English teacher. Not because I consider it plagiarism; technically, it isn’t. Remember, a plagiarist tries to claim, explicitly or implicitly, that borrowed material is his or her own, and Kid Rock does nothing of the sort here; he credits the original performers in the album’s liner notes, and he even refers to “Sweet Home Alabama” in the chorus (lest we think he’s unaware he’s ripping off other, infinitely superior songs).
Kid Rock is even going on tour with Lynyrd Skynyrd the summer (you can catch them in Hartford on August 31st), which leads one to believe Kid’s cool with the Skynyrd camp.
However, though he may not have plagiarized, Kid Rock is definitely guilty of something else, maybe something even worse for an artist: laziness. Basing your whole song on borrowed licks from not one but two well-known tunes is bad enough, but the underlying theme of the “All Summer Long”—that whole “music inspires reminiscing about lost youth” thing—is so late-70’s Bob Seger. Basically, I defy anyone to find one original note or notion in Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long.”
Here’s where it gets personal: As someone who reads hundreds of student essays each year, I am constantly battling against clichés—not only trite phrases but, worse, hackneyed ideas. Of course, the students don’t set out to write clichés; they think they’re generating good, original stuff. And, to be fair, “good, original stuff” is hard to come by in the derivative culture of 2008. (Just look at the term “derivative culture.” I didn’t come up with it, but I saw people using it all over the Internet. So even the vocabulary we use to lament the culture of imitation is inherently imitative.)
Is it possible to come up with a truly original idea? Maybe not. But the great writers can take the old ideas and reinvent them, look at them from different angles, take them apart and put them back together in funky, un-obvious ways. That’s very possible… but it takes work.
Unfortunately, I don’t see evidence of too much “work” in “All Summer Long.” Instead, Kid Rock lazily rolls out, quite literally, the same old song and dance… and ends up with, arguably, the biggest hit of his career. And that success more than offends me; it infuriates me. How can I teach my teenage students to work hard, to value their ideas, when Kid Rock can make millions off insipid, derivative dribble like “All Summer Long”?
In the original “Sweet Home Alabama,” the singer admits, “Watergate doesn’t bother me,” before famously asking the audience, “Does your conscience bother you?” I might ask Kid Rock the same question.