Cover Songs, Redux

In an earlier post, I wrote about cover songs abstractly, taking the time to discuss only one of my favorite covers in detail. In re-reading and re-thinking that post, I have more to say about one of my favorite topics (big surprise).

First, the cover song plays important but often different roles for artist and audiences. For developing musicians, covering a song is a bit like a painter copying the brush strokes of a master. In performance contexts like the dive bar or a street corner, however, a cover is an important way to grab a distracted (or hostile) audience’s attention either through the fidelity of the imitation or the originality of the interpretation.

Covered by every bar singer in Boston 1999-2001

Indeed, it is in the transition between these two polarities that we often mark the difference between a musician and an artist. When we go to live performances (especially of artists’ we don’t know) we may be impressed by the ability of a performer to imitate David Gray or Dave Matthews (most typical for singer/songwriters in bars) but we remember performers who deliver familiar songs in slightly different or even surprising ways. In fact, less-than-talented musicians can still provide exciting takes on songs.

I was in more than one heated argument in my band days over the issue of fidelity vs. interpretation. (For my part, it was the inability to imitate sufficiently that drove my desire to innovate.) As I argue in the earlier post, the ability of a song to be translated into a different form by a different artist is a testament to the beauty, even transcendence, of that song. Imitating slavishly is good for wedding bands, but not for original artists (as the judges from American Idol should be explaining).

But interpretation can also fall flat—the genre of lounge singing, for example, levels out the edges of music and channels even the most powerful songs into flaccid, saccharine schmaltz.  And, falling in between the two can be disastrous. Back in the day, I attended a Bush concert that ended with a wretched cover of R. E. M.’s “Radio Song”. I didn’t love Bush beforehand; I certainly had no greater respect after that.

In order to think through what happens with cover songs and why they work, I have tried to come up with some categories. Hopefully these will get the Younger J either (1) up in arms or (2) adding/correcting my lists ad infinitum.

1. Imitation

The simplest form of the cover song is imitation. Imitation—the attempt to mimic or reproduce someone else’s performance of a song (and I mean performance as a type of interpretation)—can occur with varying degrees of accuracy and success. A great wedding band is largely faithful to the original. The goal of imitation is to present the audience with the familiar. When we notice the familiar coming from an unexpected source, especially, we often confuse musical talent with inspiration. Imitation is good training; it is good entertainment; but it is not good art.

2. Variation on a Theme


I use this phrase to label one of the most tried types of covers in popular music. (This category will make more sense when you consider the next two.) In this category we find covers that are in the same basic genre as the ‘imitated’ performance but with some relatively minor variation. For instance, U2 on Rattle and Hum cover “All Along the Watchtower” and “Helter Skelter”. Neither of these covers are especially interesting except for the fact that U2’s sound (Bono’s voice, the Edge’s guitar) is so unique.
These covers are still old-fashioned rock songs with the essential variation being the performers themselves.  My most recent favorite variation cover is Rogue Wave’s  “Debaser” (2006; Pixies, 1989). It sounds like the original (just enough) but is sufficiently transformed by the iconoclastic sound of Rogue Wave to be something new entirely.

3. The Paradigm Shift

I put most of my favorite cover songs into this category. The “paradigm shift” cover occurs when an artist radically translates a song from one genre or style to the extent that the song is nearly unrecognizable or so different as to constitute a new song entirely.
A brilliant example of this is Toots and the Maytals’  “Country Roads” (1976; John Denver, 1971) whose minor lyric changes and reggae rhythm thoroughly de-familiarize the audience from the original (proving, I think, my contention that the cover song can illustrate the beauty of the ‘form’ or essence of a song over the exigencies of a singular iteration or performance). Other favorites include: Frente!’s “Bizarre Love Triangle” (1994; New Order, 1986) which turns a New Wave beat into a stripped down coffee shop guitar with female vocal (this one always brings tears to my eyes); and Cake’s “I will Survive”(1996; Gloria Gaynor, 1978).

4. Prejudice Surprise

This category is similar to the Paradigm shift, but I reserve this for special cases where an artist translates a very popular song that I used to ignore or dislike (because of artist or genre associations) and proves (to me at least) the song’s worth and forces me to reconsider the original performer. A good example is Mike Doughty’s “Real Love” (2000; Mary J. Blige, 1992), an acoustic cover of an R&B ballad. Doughty’s balance of vocals and guitar bring out not only the honesty and directness of the lyrics but also the beauty of the melody.

A couple of other examples include The Mountain Goats’ “The Sign” (1995; Ace of Base, 1993) after hearing which I spent the rest of the day singing a song I used to loathe and mock mercilessly. This category can also include gimmicky revisions (such as Alien Ant Farm’s “Smooth Criminal” (2001; Michael Jackson, 1987) which is funny but pales in comparison to the original, or mock-covers that really show that the joke is on the performer and the audience because the song in question turns out to be better than expected in cover form (for example, Ben Gibbard, “Complicated”(Avril Lavigne, 2002)).

There are definitely categories I haven’t thought of and too many songs that can fit into multiple categories (which is ok). (Also left out, perhaps better for another post, are full album covers such as Sun Kil Moon’s “Tiny Cities” or Camper Van Beethoven’s “Tusk”).

So, what do you think, Brother? Let me have it.

16 comments on “Cover Songs, Redux

  1. professormortis says:

    You needed a cover to let you know that “Real Love” is a great song?

  2. […] when I asked my brother about the song (and mangled the band’s name) he said, yeah, I know it: my country band covers it. A country version? Count me […]

  3. […] I have written before about the art of the cover song (and my own theories). So this is not an entry about that. Instead, I am interested in the way that […]

  4. […] have already talked more than most want to hear about cover songs, about my theories about different kinds of cover songs. I am a bit obsessed, I admit, in an […]

  5. […] taken through familiar songs. In fact, the very nature of jazz standards calls into question much of my musing about covers and pop […]

  6. […] I am not quite sure that the blues guitar that follows works that well. What does it mean if a cover of Tom Waits is the most creative thing someone has done? The guitar playing in the song is an intriguing […]

  7. […] a little obsessed not just with the artistic and philosophical status of a cover but also with the typology of the phenomenon and the criteria that go into song choices. I also suffered a brief obsession with amateurs […]

  8. […] Life episode about re-runs). This thinking has dove-tailed with some of my thoughts about the repeatability of the cover song and the tension between one ‘performance’ and another. Part of this thinking is a […]

  9. […] have mused about what it means to call a song the same song in different performances; I have tried to provide a typology of a cover-song; I have even dabbled in ‘arranged-marriages’ of sorts as I have tried to pair impossible, dream […]

  10. […] also goes back to what I find so powerful about music. I have written on several occasions about cover songs and the degree to which repetition is a key component of music; but what I haven’t isolated […]

  11. […] I have confessed before to loving cover songs. In fact, I have written so often about cover songs that it must seem like an unhealthy obsession. But this version doesn’t seem to justify […]

  12. […] Runners Up: “Hey Ya,” Outkast; “Cinder and Smoke,” Iron & Wine; “Every Moment”, Rogue Wave Honorable Mentions: “Take Me Out”, Franz Ferdinand; “Handshake Drugs,” […]

  13. […] remember, I have sort of an embarrassing obsession with cover songs. I have theorized about them (twice), I have gone through an intense period of watching amateurs perform them on youtube, I have […]

  14. […] Life episode about re-runs). This thinking has dove-tailed with some of my thoughts about the repeatability of the cover song and the tension between one ‘performance’ and another. Part of this thinking is a […]

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