3 min read

Rihanna & Borges; or, when Rihanna covers "Same Ol' Mistakes,"

she imparts to the text the full weight of her celebrity. The words

Finally taking flight
I know you don’t think it’s right
I know that you think it’s fake
Maybe fake’s what I like

become rich with the overtones of her many personas: badgirlriri, the world’s richest woman musician, the CEO of a huge corporation – a person who has lived half her life under unbearable scrutiny, here, acknowledging the burden of making art that appeals to the median human. When Kevin Parker sings the same words, he speaks to a smaller niche, defending himself against accusations of selling out for achieving a tiny fraction of the fame Rihanna lives with.

That the text bears the author’s intent, but also the state of the speaker – these two versions, these two songs, drive that home particularly well because (as far as I can tell) literally nothing besides the vocals is different between them.

Cf. Borges’s Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote, a story about a man who endeavors to write something

subterranean, interminably heroic, and unequalled and which is also – oh, the possibilities inherent in the man! – inconclusive. This work, possibly the most significant of our time, consists of the ninth and thirty-eighth chapters of Part One of Don Quixote and a fragment of the twenty-second chapter…
He did not want to compose another Don Quixote – which would be easy – but the Don Quixote. It is unnecessary to add that his aim was never to produce a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable ambition was to produce pages which would coincide – word for word and line for line – with those of Miguel de Cervantes.

When I hear Rihanna’s “Same Ol’ Mistakes,” I hear just this: a song that coincides “word for word and line for line” with Tame Impala’s song of the same name, and means something entirely different.

Of particular interest, a passage in Pierre Menard comparing a line from the two Don Quixotes:

The text of Cervantes and that of Menard are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer. (More ambiguous, his detractors will say; but that ambiguity is a richness.) It is a revelation to compare the Don Quixote of Menard with that of Cervantes. The latter, for instance, wrote (Don Quixote, Part One, Chapter Nine):
    […truth, whose mother is history, who is the rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, example and lesson to the present, and warning to the future.]
Written in the seventeenth century, written by the “ingenious layman” Cervantes, this enumeration is a mere rhetorical eulogy of history. Menard, on the other hand, writes:
    […truth, whose mother is history, who is the rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, example and lesson to the present, and warning to the future.]
History, mother of truth; this idea is astounding. Menard, a contemporary of William James, does not define history as an investigation of reality, but as its origin…Equally vivid is the contrast in styles. The archaic style of Menard – in the last analysis, a foreigner – suffers from a certain affectation. Not so that of his precursor, who handles easily the ordinary Spanish of his time.

I wonder what Rihanna would make of this?

For what it’s worth, Borges’s next sentence, I part ways with:

There is no intellectual exercise which is not ultimately useless.

I don’t know, I had fun thinking about this. Is that not a kind of use?