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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Why cover songs deserve our respect

Published: January 23, 2009
Section: Arts, Etc.

diverse-city-1-23-09_page_1_image_0004Pulp’s song “Bad Cover Version” dismisses Jarvis Cocker’s ex-girlfriend’s replacement relationship as “a bad cover version of love,” like “the Stones since the 80s” and the “later Tom and Jerry, when the two of them could talk.” Best of all, though, the video is a bad cover of “Bad Cover Version”; celebrity impersonators each perform a line in the appropriate style. It’s hilarious (seriously, YouTube it) but also strikes at the idea that there is nothing worse than a bad cover version. The thing is, I’ve also met plenty of people who think that any cover is a bad cover version.

What is it about cover songs that provokes such distaste in your average discerning music fan? Fundamentally, I think it’s because artistic culture values originality and uniqueness above all else, and there seems to be less effort, less talent, involved in saying the words and mimicking the notes that someone else put down. If the idea of artistic expression includes sharing our emotions, then using someone else’s emotions comes across as cheap, tacky, and a bit maudlin. Listeners don’t want artists to cheat, copying off someone else’s paper.

Does that mean cover songs aren’t art? Hardly. I submit that there are bad cover songs, sure, and in fact, many more bad cover songs than good. But cover songs are a perfectly valid form of artistic expression. Just as some of the greatest songs were written by the people who performed them (let’s take, for example, most Motown hits, including The Temptations and Marvin Gaye), so, too, are there several cover songs of near-indisputable greatness.

Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” is the definitive version, even though Otis Redding sang it first. Changing the line, “when I come home” to “when you come home” resonated with the emerging feminist sentiments of the time, and adding the “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” breakdown made the song iconic, a testament to Aretha’s pure vocal power. Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” is a glorious cover of a long-forgotten Gloria Jones soul single, transforming it to an 80s synthpop classic with an instantly recognizable two-beat opening. There’s also the generally accepted greatest cover song of all time: The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “All Along the Watchtower,” a Bob Dylan cover. That Hendrix guitar solo is legendary, and the sound and fury of the Hendrix version quickly captured the spirit and the tumult of the 60s in a way that Dylan’s folk lyricism failed to do. In fact, Dylan has since performed the Hendrix version live, not his own.

In more modern songs, there’s Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which has been covered by many but most definitively by Jeff Buckley, whose spare, haunting version brings new meaning to the lyrics. Johnny Cash recorded numerous covers in the last few years of his life, but his slow take on Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” and accompanying video proved that Cash’s gravelly voice could more than match Reznor’s screams in pure emotion. Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” is another definitive cover version; Prince’s neo-soul song never had nearly as much dimension as when sung by a bald Irish girl. That lilt in “nothing compares…nothing compares…to you” makes this version the ultimate break up mix tape song for sheer emotional impact.

What all of these covers have in common is that the covering artist brought something new to the track, reinterpreting the song and the arrangement to express something different from the original version. No doubt we all agree that a faithful, note for note recreation of a song is nothing more than a technical exercise in karaoke, far from an interesting cover.

But there’s a caveat to that dictum, which is that an artist going too far or being too liberal with a cover can quickly turn into a trainwreck, or even worse, kitsch. Ben Folds singing an acoustic version of Snoop Dogg’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit” is ridiculous and ultimately disappointing. The series of “Punk Goes…” albums, featuring modern bands covering pop or crunk hits for comedy value, or the band Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, whose entire stock-in-trade is pseudo-punk covers of hits, both fall flat. Adapting a song to a radically different genre for shock value, for irony, or for comedic relief is at best mildly entertaining on first listen, and not music so much as a painfully unfunny joke.

That said, there are radical genre changes that have worked. Gary Jules’s slow ballad take on Tears For Fears’ “Mad World” reinvents the song, creating something new and deeply moving. Prince covering “Creep” live is too awesome for words. Two seminal Clash songs, “Police and Thieves” and “I Fought the Law,” are covers of the highest order, bringing a punk sensibility to reggae and rock.

What it comes down to is that a talented artist is a talented artist, and a talented artist can make something new out of someone else’s material. There’s something new to be mined out of a good song when in the right hands, from “Twist and Shout” to the Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly,” and the best covers prove that something new can be extracted from someone else’s verse and chorus.

Honestly, though, we also have to accept the converse of that; a bad artist can make a disaster out of even the best source material. Did you know that Korn frontman Jonathan Davis (very poorly) covered Lil’ Wayne’s “A Milli”? Or that Hilary Duff’s cover of “My Generation” defanged a once powerful statement of youthful rebellion in the line, “I hope I don’t die before I get old?” Also, don’t forget the sheer ridiculousness of Limp Bizkit’s George Michael cover. Ultimately, we have to remember that for every great cover, there are 1000 terrible versions on YouTube. Maybe that’s why we’re so weary (and wary) of covers.

There are only two ground rules to try for a good cover. Change the song and make it your own. And don’t cover the Beatles.