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No dearth of hipness went into the soundtrack of “Song 1,” Doug Aitken‘s sublime, monumental work of video art currently ringing the curved exterior of the Hirshhorn Museum. The looped, 35-minute “Song 1” could be a series of interlinked music videos—-romantic, unquestionably; universal, but not quite comforting, in their lack of specificity; chilling in their anomie, at least once you settle in with them. At the center of “Song 1” isn’t a character or a place but a single composition—-“I Only Have Eyes for You,” a ballad that Harry Warren and Al Dubin wrote for the 1934 musical film Dames. For the piece, Aitken commissioned several dozen recordings of the song from boldfaced art-pop and indie-rock names like Beck, Bjork, James Murphy of LCD Soundsytem, the noise-rock duo No Age, the twee/electronic outfit High Places, and others. Identifying them is something of a task, because their vocals are synced with the mouths of screen actors like Tilda Swinton and the post-punker John Doe. And just about every vocalist seems to be singing in the same haunting, mellifluous range.
I spent a few minutes last Thursday night trying to pick out some of the voices (I found Bjork’s vocals, but not Murphy’s) but it was much easier to lose myself in the work’s fluid changes—-or to just sway along with my date. (There was a lot of this in the crowd.) A song about losing sight of one’s surroundings amid a profound romance, “I Only Have Eyes for You” contains plenty of thematic possibility for an artist like Aitken; it’s also an essentially perfect pop composition, because its melody is so simple it can be memorized after one listen, but is surprising in enough ways to validate that stickiness. And even at 60 beats per minute—-the speed of every version in “Song 1″—-“I Only Have Eyes for You” is elastic enough for every iteration to feel like an original, not a reiteration of a reiteration of an old love song.
Unencumbered by BPMs, more than 100 artists have done even more with “I Only Have Eyes for You” over the past 78 years. Here are 10 worthwhile (well, mostly worthwhile) versions of the song in “Song 1”:
The Flamingos, 1959: The version you should know.
From Dames, 1934: The original, which feels positively overworked once you’ve heard the simpler, lightly reverbed approach so many versions take.
Frank Sinatra, 1962: Doesn’t work at all, does it?
Mercury Rev, 1998: The Buffalo, N.Y., chamber-pop band covered the song for a B-side, nodding subtly to The Flamingo’s doo-wop.
The Swallows, 1952: Like The Flamingos’, a quintet version, but a much more restrained, more delicate one.
Art Garfunkel, 1975: Sexy arrangement, unsexy singer.
Grenadine, 1992: For the D.C. heads. Love the Jenny Toomey vocals.[audio:http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/artsdesk/files/2012/03/09-Zapp-and-Roger-I-Only-Have-Eyes-For-You.mp3|titles=Zapp – I Only Have Eyes For You]
Zapp, 1985: Completely ludicrous space-funk interpretation. Love the talk box.[audio:http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/artsdesk/files/2012/03/05-I-Only-Have-Eyes-For-You.mp3|titles=Mark Eitzel – I Only Have Eyes For You]
Mark Eitzel, 2002: A breathy reconfiguration from the American Music Club frontman.
Chuck Brown, 1998: From Timeless, the Godfather of Go-Go’s collection of breezy blues and jazz covers. Hardly an example of “I Only Have Eyes for You” bustin’ loose.
Bonus! The Fugees, “Zealots,” 1996: Killer sample.
“Song 1” is on view every night at sundown at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to May 13. Image courtesy Doug Aitken Workshop.