The rare genius tribute.
You may be too much of a young’un to remember the tribute album craze of the 1990s, which really extended well into the Aughts, but I sure do, and not altogether unfondly! Some great projects came out of that time, and I have been contemplating a kind of 1990s tribute album-themed project to get myself through quarantine while I’m “working” from home, i.e. lurking around my house smoking weed with Slack running in the background in case anybody actually needs me. I have plenty of killer ideas, but I want to set myself apart from the millions of weak YouTube wannabes producing endless variations on “MacArthur Park – Death Metal Version!” or whatever interchangeable concept might get a few novelty likes. What do you think would be the cool way to do a modern tribute project that captures the best aspects of the best records cut during the tribute boom, but which doesn’t devolve into cheesy gimmick? Oh, and can you please anonymize my name so I don’t get in trouble at work for admitting I have been phoning it in super hard? Thanks.
Ah, yes, the tribute album. The omnipresence of these all-too-often-slapdash collaborations in the Nineties and Aughts created a perfect storm of bizarre happenings. Under what normal circumstances would the surviving members of The Doors willingly collaborate with Smash Mouth on a version of “Peace Frog,” replete with scratchy turntables and all the sing-talking you could ever hope for? And has any two-word combo ever gotten more hipster sneers and eye rolls than “Various Artists”? No form of musical compilation receives more universal denigration by hipsters and other musical cognoscenti.
Nevertheless, even the harshest critics of this format acknowledge its occasional brilliance. Sure, maybe the vast majority of so-called tribute albums were little more than blatant attempts to capitalize on the fame of great musicians by having lesser musicians (and, with almost baffling frequency, Nick Cave) torture famous songs as a means of generating royalties for cash-strapped classic rockers — but every now and again you got strokes of genius like Pavement singing about the Boston Tea Party in “School House Rock! Rocks” right before Biz Markie spent three minutes gloriously mumbling about the pressing need for a renewable energy source.
These things can be done right, but only if approached with an obsessively hipster attention to detail, and, perhaps more importantly, an almost devotional affection for the source material that’s somehow tempered with a healthy dose of not-taking-yourself-too-seriously. The most hipster thing you can do is pick some real artist’s artist, beloved by hipsters but not widely acknowledged. Lovingly devote yourself to sharing the value of an unrecognized genius with the world. Find that love, and you can’t go wrong.
This is also one of those things where “wouldn’t it be funny if…” doesn’t quite cut it. You could do an all-accordion Pixies tribute, but you shouldn’t, unless your name is “Al Yankovic,” and that particular name is most emphatically taken. Even so, I think the ultimate hipster fairy tale would be a project that started out as a joke, but along the way became about something bigger. Imagine yourself saying, “I started out thinking it’d be kind of weird to do a one-man recreation of The Modern Lovers as a kind of quarantine gag, but the deeper I got, the more it turned into a serious project, and now I won’t ever be the same.” That’s cool.