The Scissor Sisters performing in 2011Flickr / The Zender Agenda (

One of the permanent fixtures of the CD player in my mum’s car throughout my childhood was the Scissor Sisters’ self-titled 2004 album. Although my brother and I were too young to understand the sexual overtones of most of the songs (not sure how we missed the real meaning of “Tits on the Radio”), we loved the catchy beats and electric guitar. The third track was “Comfortably Numb”, furnished with echoing falsetto and bouncing synth. On the way to primary school, I imagined it playing at the grown-up parties I would one day attend.

Many years later, I accompanied my brother to a hobby shop to buy a remote-control car. As I browsed the aisles of balsa wood and superglue, I recognised some words over the shop’s speakers. It was “Comfortably Numb”, but not as I knew it. This version was agonisingly slow and, in comparison to the Scissor Sisters’ energetic version, remarkably boring. A quick Google filled me with shock: this was the original version?! But it was so much worse!

“It seems almost disrespectful, then, for the Scissor Sisters to make it a catchy disco track”

Hindsight has revealed that Pink Floyd are not necessarily “worse” than the Scissor Sisters, but my tweenage reaction to my discovery raises questions about value and ownership. The Scissor Sisters’ recording is almost unidentifiable as Pink Floyd’s original: its melody, instrumentation, and tempo are all different. Even some of the words have changed: Pink Floyd’s “a distant ship’s smoke on the horizon” becomes “a distant ship floats on the horizon”. They’re almost different songs entirely. The Scissor Sisters meet the denotative definition of cover – “a new performance or recording by a musician other than the original performer or composer” – but their “Comfortably Numb” feels more like an original track than a performance of Pink Floyd.

Before the mid-20th century, there was really no conception of a “cover version”: music was meant to be experienced live, so it didn’t matter who wrote it, only who performed it. Folk songs were passed down through generations, and when sheet music began being published, as many artists as possible were encouraged to perform the song. More performances meant more music sold. Popular songs were also used to show off artists’ technical expertise and stylistic range, with jazz standards being the standout example. There was little concept of ownership over songs.

“Covers show that art is about giving experience away”

Today, artists have little legal ownership over their tracks. Since 1909, US copyright law has protected artists’ rights to record and release a cover of someone else’s song, even if they don’t have the permission of the original composer. All they need is to pay a standard royalty. If I were a recording musician, I think I’d find this hard to stomach. What if I wrote a really personal song and someone completely butchered it in a cover?

“Comfortably Numb” is part of Pink Floyd’s concept album The Wall, which follows a fictional rock star, but the lyrics come from bassist Roger Waters’ real life. He wrote the track about being injected with a muscle relaxant for stomach cramps before performing in 1977. He called the performance “the longest two hours of [his] life”. The song, then, is directly lifted from his personal experience, an artistic expression of a struggle he faced. It seems almost disrespectful, then, for the Scissor Sisters to make it a catchy disco track. The lyrics “I hear you’re feeling down / Well, I can ease your pain and get you on your feet again” are menacing coming from Pink Floyd’s narrating doctor but energising in the context of the Scissor Sisters’ dance culture. Pink Floyd don’t seem to mind, though: David Gilmour, who wrote the music, has publicly expressed his admiration for the cover along with Waters.


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The example of these covers show that art is about giving experience away. The Scissor Sisters dramatically reinterpret Waters’ words, taking them away from their original context, but so do Pink Floyd’s listeners every time they hear the song. Producing art from personal experience does not and cannot guarantee perpetual ownership. Cover versions are a case study for the music world, but the same applies for literature, visual art, dramatic performance, and other artistic expressions. In her article about Suzan-Lori Parks’ play In the Blood, Rena Fraden says that the play deals with the moment when “the thing you wrote, the child you bore [isn’t] yours anymore”. Art, like children, may come from you, but it is incontrovertibly independent, acting of its own volition in the outside world. With the greatest respect to Pink Floyd, I think my tweenage value judgment is valid. If I like the Scissor Sisters’ catchy dance beats better, then that’s ok, no matter what Waters intended. I will continue to boogie guilt-free.