Outro #4: On Paying Tribute

Persepolis tribute s
What good does it do to pay tribute? What does it accomplish to declare to the world that you see the worth of something, that you thrill to it? The question seems pressing to me after my last post, which offered no idea about rock aesthetics whatever–it merely paid tribute. Why did I post it?

Some considerations:

In a political context, paying tribute confirms someone’s superior power and legitimate privilege. By supporting a regime, you’re setting standards and committing yourself to their enforcement – a zealous, reliable agent – an angel of truth and justice. Great music is the right music. It’s top form, defining the form.[1]

In a friend-making context, paying tribute marks what you and he and she might knowingly enthuse about. It’s all about us, maybe us pitted against the benighted them. It’s a sure bet for charged-up happy talk.

Paying tribute builds up your life-portfolio by articulating a great experience (I, too, have had a great experience!), putting it up on the gallery wall.

I may be inspired to pay tribute as witness to greatness going by – “Did you see that?” It was one of those events that distinguishes existence. No one could have known beforehand how great it really is. I mustn’t be alone in realizing this.

As I write, the air is full of tributes to David Bowie who died on January 10. Bowie’s career was long and winding, but once he’s gone there’s that moment of doing a collective double-take at the whole thing: “Did you see that?” Do you realize how existence was distinguished by him?

When you pay tribute to an artist or a hook, are you actually giving anything up? We could say you’re ceding a portion of your regard to a privileged recipient. But is regard limited in that way, portioned like a pizza? Perhaps not, but the act of praising takes up time. Does praising reduce the time available for self-assertion? But praise is a kind of self-assertion.

As a loyal tribute-payer, are you refusing for a while to consider anyone or anything else, and so incurring an opportunity cost? But paying tribute to music doesn’t take much more time than just listening to music, and listening to anything–paying attention–always means not listening to everything else, for that while.

Payment is owed. Do I pay tribute as a preemptive sign of respect so that collection agents won’t come banging on my door? You see, I fear the possible consequences of not showing regard to someone who rightfully demands it. Yikes, there’s Bob Dylan! I’m intimidated by the Great. But when I pay tribute to the Comparatively Unknown, then I’m a Great-Maker on my own terms. Now (returning to my first idea) I am out in front as the collection agent, the regime enforcer, the angel of truth and justice.

We angels are legion. Why do so many of us take the trouble to write merely that X or Y is great?  A cynic might say that we’re just looking for relatively safe ways to pipe up–it’s about hearing our own voices. More positively, my suggestion is that paying tribute is another way of turning up the amps on the music. In the barbarous rock world we think that’s always worthwhile.


Let me not omit to praise an actual piece of music. What could be called the greatest tribute hook?

Rock is a seething mass of shout-outs everywhere you listen (the unhidden “influences”), often intended as such (Eric Clapton celebrating Albert King in “Strange Brew”), and sometimes made the main theme (the Beatles worship of Utopia’s Deface The Music).[2] The greatest tribute hook would be the most lovable peak moment for its own sake musically as well as for its connection with music that went before.

My chosen song is . . . can I choose one that isn’t rock at all? I want it to be “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” (1970), Paul Simon’s bossa-tribute to his partner Art Garfunkel, in which we enjoy the two of them still performing together on the threshold of their breakup. (There’s even an interesting problem, if you want to get into it, about what was intended and what was understood at the time, tribute-wise, between Simon and Garfunkel.) My chosen moment is the very Art-y high note on “learned” in the double-entendre line, “I barely learned the tune”–either a dig (at Art, who has to sing Paul’s words) or a confession (by Paul about their relationship).

“So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” start

And so–so long!


[1] Simon Frith notes that music critics are often on “a mission to preserve a perceived quality of sound, to save musicians from themselves, to define the ideal musical experience for listeners to measure themselves against.”Performing Rites (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U., 1967), p. 67.

[2] I’m not even talking about sampling. An interesting case for tribute issues is The Grey Album by Danger Mouse (2004).


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Passions & Attitudes, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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