One of the harshest — and most common — epithets in fandom is to label a work of media as a rip-off.
“Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is a rip-off of Babylon 5!” “The Hunger Games is a rip-off of Battle Royale!” “Captain Marvel is a rip-off of Superman!” “The Island is a rip-off of Parts: the Clonus Horror!”
(Okay, that last one is definitely true.)
But not all derivative works are intrinsically inferior. Some actually transcend the quality of their media muses as pieces of art that stand the test of time.
So, dear listener, this month, we’re asking you:
“What derivative works of art are superior to the works that inspired them?”
Our hosts had this to say:
When it comes to an inspired work outshining an original one, I’m looking to an unusual place for me. Music.
When one artist covers another’s song, the comparison seems inevitable. Usually, those comparisons aren’t kind to the remake. We know the original song, and when the cover plays, it’s the original playing under it in our heads.
Any change in tempo, tone or rhythm seems jarring, because it’s discordant with the older version in our subconsciousness. Regardless of merits of those changes, the cover song is almost always doomed to failure in most ears.
Which is why I was shocked at how much I loved a cover of “Common People” by Pulp.
I first encountered Pulp when the guys behind the always-brilliant ‘Venture Bros.’ used their song “Like a Friend” over their fourth season finale.
“Common People” is a song about what I’ve heard referred to as “class tourism.” This is where a naïve rich kid decides to “go native” with the lower classes. Sort of like ‘Roman Holiday’, but with sleazy dive bars and shit-hole apartments.
The problem is that the princess slumming with the peasants doesn’t understand how patronizing and insulting the whole exercise is. This way of life isn’t a choice for the rest of us. As the chorus says:
“But still you’ll never get it right
‘cos when you’re laid in bed at night watching roaches climb the wall
If you call your Dad he could stop it all.
You’ll never live like common people
You’ll never do what common people do
You’ll never fail like common people
You’ll never watch your life slide out of view, and dance and drink and screw
Because there’s nothing else to do.”
Pulp’s original has a sly condescension to it. The narrator is talking over the subject’s head. Making fun of her while trying to prod her into getting it. It’s a damned good song.
And that’s why it blows my mind that the cover by William Shatner on his album, “Has Been,” is better on all fronts.
Rather than being a slow Brit pop song that makes fun of its subject, Shatner’s version is a spoken word piece over an angrier, almost punk-ish version of the chorus.
Because this really should be an angry punk song. And even weirder that the then-73 year old Shatner nails that anger with a total lack of his trademark modern irony. He has nothing in common with the song’s imagined 20-something narrator, but he delivers the lyrics with a real derision and rage that is infectious.
Because, seriously, fuck rich assholes who play at being poor because it’s fashionable. Give ’em hell, Bill.
It’s a truism in art that every work is a copy of something that came before. It’s true. No art is truly original… even the oldest cave paintings were imitations of nature. But when a new movie, or song, or TV show comes along and it is just TOO close to something that came before, or is clearly a cheap knock-off, us lovers of pop culture can get hostile. Not just hostile, but pissy, sanctimonious, and perhaps downright vitriolic. Strangely, in the medium of video games, derivative works seem to raise much less ire.
From the endless number of Pong clones, to the dozens of fighting games with characters whose moves are conspicuously similar to those from Street Fighter 2, to nearly every so-called first person shooter looking like Call of Duty, videos games are derivative works by design. And gamers don’t seem to care. They’ll buy the next slightly different Call of Duty game year after year. However, it’s an even rarer to find a game that is clearly derivative, but breaks the mold and succeeds in ways the original never could.
I submit that Rockstar’s ‘Red Dead Redemption’ is the pinnacle of what is known as the “sandbox” genre, from which it inherited from the Grand Theft Auto series. Upon first glance, RDR appears to be essentially Grand Theft Auto on horseback. It shares the same quest-based structure, open world exploration, branching stories from a main narrative, gun fights, factions, and RPG-lite elements (upgrading weapons, vehicle, accessories, etc…). The game also shares the same acerbic humor that GTA made famous. But where it truly diverges is the setting.
While Grand Theft Auto notorious recycled large, recognizable American cities for its fictional settings, they never truly feel as if they’re lived in. As you power your way through a GTA game, you familiarize yourself with the streets and landmarks, but the people and vehicles are but shadow puppets. You often see cars and people appearing out of thin air, or notice when an entire busy freeway is empty of cars in the on-coming lane. Many of these tricks are probably necessary for the game engine to push object in and out of your field of view to keep the memory optimized for rendering such a large world.
Red Dead Redemption is a setting that’s world is empty… by design. Empty, but for the wildlife, the wind and the elements. Empty of cars and skyscrapers and airplanes, but bursting forth with beautiful scenery. Of course, you’ll run into some random encounters with other humans needing rescue or itching for a shootout, but galloping through 20 minutes of terrain in RDR never feels empty or boring. The choice of the wild west as a setting, and placing the narrative in the very beginning of the 20th century, make for an elegant backdrop to tell a story about loneliness, survival and encroaching civilization.
The characters that populate this world are send-offs of western movie tropes (a roughneck rancher, a snake-oil salesman, a Mexican revolutionary), but somehow they feel more in place than the cardboard-cut-out mafioso-movie prototypes that inhabit the GTA series. They’re more than just window dressing on a city full of square boxes, they’re lonely souls inhabiting this by-gone world. They not only help to smooth out the grinding and disspiriting “fetch it” quests that seem to be obligatory in sandbox-style games, but allow for a satisfying reveal of the expansive frontier of “New Austin.”
For brevity’s sake, it will be obligatory to describe Red Dead Redemption to an outsider as “GTA on horses,” but I feel that it achieves so much more. It appropriated a well-established genre, exploded the formula, and stripped it down into an experience from which you come away actually feeling something about the setting. And the evoking of feeling is one of the hallmarks of good art.