There are some things I just don’t get when it comes to music. The ongoing popularity of The Doors, for example. How bands such as Train can combine good music with God-awful lyrics. Or why on earth Judas Priest recorded Joan Baez’s classic, autobiographical “Diamonds and Rust.”
But one of the biggest musical mysteries to me has always been impersonators and tribute bands. I just don’t understand why someone would want to perform in the persona of another artist — and why on earth people pay to see (and hear) them do it.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m not talking about COVER bands — a band that performs other people’s songs, but doesn’t try to look and sound exactly like the original artists. A good cover band can be a lot of fun, and a great one can really rock. But TRIBUTE bands that want me to suspend disbelief and think I’m seeing the original artist(s), not so much.
Take Elvis impersonators — please. Elvis Presley was a revolutionary. His arrival was a slap to the face of the stagnant, boring musical establishment of the 1950s. Elvis was cool, sexy, and most of all to the established order, dangerous (Not as dangerous, perhaps, as the African-American artists whose style he emulated, but that’s another story). Elvis was nothing if not original.
I’ve seen Elvis impersonators, good and bad. I’ve seen imitation Elvii ranging in age from about 8 to roughly 60. And the one thing they have in common, both good and bad, is that they’re safe. They’re wholesome. They’re not dangerous. And that makes them emphatically NOT Elvis.
Same thing with Beatles tribute bands. I’ve seen a few, and while they’re very good at imitating the vocals, gestures and stage presence of the Liverpool legends, all the Faux Fours lack a certain something.– depth, say, or sincerity. Instead of John’s biting wit, Paul’s likable cuteness, Ringo’s goofy sense of fun and George’s spirituality, the tribute bands give us a “performance,” in the acting sense of the word. Once they step off that stage, they could be a completely different person, just waiting for their next acting gig.
I just don’t understand what makes people WANT to take on those personas. Is it insecurity that they’re not original enough to make it on their own? Plenty of folks prove otherwise every day. If you can sing like Elvis, you can sing, period. Why not be an authentic artist in your own right?
As for the audience, I know people want to see their musical heroes. I have a fairly long list of artists I’ll happily pay to see over and over again — think Springsteen, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Elton John — but there are plenty that I never had the chance to see. I was too young to have seen the Beatles in their prime, and I wasn’t born when Elvis was in his. I would love to have seen them then; I don’t want to see an imitation of them, no matter how faithfully reproduced, now. I’d rather make do with their recorded music, and with videos of their original performances.
Like so much in music, and in life, it all comes down to originality and authenticity. Why would you want to be a second-rate member of the Prefab Four or an imitation Elvis when you could be an original, first-rate you?