The Mutable Meanings Of Music

May 17, 2013
Originally published on May 17, 2013 4:23 pm

At my son's music recital last week, the 4th-graders performed a hand-clapping, footstomping version of Queen's "We will rock you."

It was marvelous, but very odd, to hear these children sing out the words:

Buddy you're a boy make a big noise

Playin' in the street gonna be a big man some day

You got mud on yo' face

You big disgrace

Kickin' your can all over the place

They followed it up with a rendition of Green Day's "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," with its disturbing and emotional lyrics:

I walk this empty street

On the Boulevard of broken dreams

When the city sleeps

And I'm the only one and I walk alone

I walk alone

I walk alone

I walk alone

I thought of this when I watched Chris Hadfield's self-produced cover of David Bowie's 1969 masterpiece "Space Oddity." What made this different from the innumerable vanity projects that find their way onto YouTube is the fact that Chris Hadfield is a Canadian astronaut and he recorded his version from the International Space Station.

Commander Hadfield, who sports a truly impressive Marlboro Man mustache, sings his heart out from an actual tin can floating far above world, which we see behind him out the window. Understandably, he changes the lyrics. Bowie's Major Tom won't make it home; he's lost in space; he loses Ground Control; that's where the song's magic happens. But we feel the original lyrics even as Hadfield sings his happier version.

Commander Hadfield's cover, like the kids' versions of Queen and Green Day, belongs to a recognizable genre of songs that start out as one thing — outsider songs, songs of rebellion and alienation — but end up in a very different cultural location.

Compare Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA," which is an angry song reflecting despair at the economic and social hardships of post-Vietnam America, but that has wound up, in the cultural imagination, as a sort of patriotic rallying-cry.

Readers, what are some other songs that have changed their meaning in this way?

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

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