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MetaMusician: My Love-Hate Relationship with Cover Songs

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MetaMusician: My Love-Hate Relationship with Cover Songs

Photo courtesy of Musicfeeds

Photo courtesy of Musicfeeds

Photo courtesy of Musicfeeds

Photo courtesy of Musicfeeds

Samuel Graziano, Web Staffer

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Earlier this month Denzel Curry performed a cover of the Rage Against the Machine classic “Bulls on Parade.” It was amazing to say the least. Energetic, angry, and sweaty-all the things one would want in a rendition of a RATM tune. Performances like this one that keeps covers on the map of respected musical expression. But for every example of an amazingcover in the public eye, there is another cover that’s nothing more than glorified karaoke.

In the spring of last year, Weezer put out a cover of “Africa” by Toto. It wasn’t terrible. It wasn’t great. It was kind of funny and, for me at least, it was quickly forgotten. Just like every other meme, it was relevant and then all of a sudden, it wasn’t. Something just as amusing robbed the song of the public’s attention.

Then, at the end of January, it returned. Weezer released the Teal Album which is a compilation of cover songs. Along with “Africa” came some other classic 80s synth pop songs like Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” by Eurythmics, and of course, a-ha’s “Take on Me.” After these first few songs, the 80s theme drops off almost completely. What follows is a grab bag of other cover songs like Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid,” ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky,” and Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” Weezer is a capable band with years of experience. That being saidese are all fine performances. But there is something left to be desired. Denzel Curry’s take on “Bulls on Parade” and the Teal Album allow us to really dig into what I call the problem of cover songs.

This problem can be understood by considering a few questions. Covers can be a fresh new take on a piece of music, but they can also be what I call celebrity karaoke. These don’t really add any understand of the piece and they really only get popular because the performer is popular. When do covers move away from being celebrity karaoke and become a new perspective on a beloved piece of music? Should we even seek a new perspective, or should we dig into the original work and study the aspects that were intentionally put there by the piece’s originator?

Since the idea of playing music written by another creator is so deeply rooted in the history of modern music, there are so many examples to support each side of the argument. For example, consider Panic! At The Disco’s cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” To me, this is the essence of what I see as celebrity karaoke; it’s a popular band with a great deal of talent, playing a cultural icon of a song, and that’s about it. When I heard that song, I didn’t feel like I gained any new understanding or appreciation for Queen or Panic. It’s covers like these that, in my opinion, keep the idea of “why don’t you just listen to the original, it’s so much better” alive and kicking.

On the other hand, there are covers that take you on a journey. They grab you and say, “Hey! I know you’ve heard this before, but I bet you’ve never heard it like this!” My favorite example of this is the Indigo Girl’s version of “Romeo & Juliet” originally by Dire Straits. I encourage anyone to listen to these songs back to back and have your own experience with them before I give my two cents. Although, I do have to warn you that the Dire Straits music video is full of peak 80s cheesiness.

 

 

 

 

Ok, now that you’re back, are you thinking “how are those the same song?” While Dire Straits has put out some great music, the whole “Why don’t you just listen to the original?” is completely ridiculous in this case. I believe the Indigo Girl’s take on this song is far truer to the essence of the song. The lyrics tell a story of lovers who want to be together but because of the seemingly unchangeable circumstances around them, they can’t. They know what will make them happy, but they are cursed to live a life in which it will remain a dream and nothing more. That is a sad and tortured story, but it still seems to be oddly uplifting because of the true love felt by the two. The original song conveys no emotional content when this story is nothing but emotion. It’s sung with this lazy sort of “Tom Petty drunk on white wine in a bubble bath” feel. This song doesn’t make me care about the struggle of the characters. It even makes me think that they don’t care themselves. In the cover, everything is just so right. The emotion is there and even the instrumentation is very helpful to the portrayal of the story. A single voice and a guitar aid the image of a heartfelt soliloquy in which Romeo is begging his partner to continue with him on this journey to happiness even though the road ahead looks bleak. This is just one of many examples of covers completely reinvigorating a track and creating something beautiful and worth our time.

But this doesn’t mean that for a cover to be good it’s just has to sound different than the original. Consider Rufus Wainwright’s take on “Across The Universe.” It is practically identical in every superficial aspect of music: instrumentation, key, tempo, song structure, etc. So, on a very surface level, there’s nothing new going on with this song. But somehow, its captivating.

 

 

 

I have come to believe that the key to a great cover song is to stay true to the piece’s essence. Now I know it’s an extremely amorphous term, but I haven’t been able to find a better label.  In the meantime, let me explain. To me, the essence of a song or a piece of artwork or a book comes down to a few factors. For a song, these factors can include the story, message, or emotion being conveyed by the lyrics, how the instrumentation adds or takes away from that message, why the creator made it, and how the song fits into the discography of the artist, along with a few other things. A consideration of these factors, I think, will help people understand what the song means, in the greatest sense of that phrase. This could either be what the song means to a specific listener or what the song meant to its surrounding culture. Once cover artists can figure out how to answer the question of a song’s essence, as long as they stay true to what they believe the song means, they can’t really go wrong.

A great resource to demonstrate this staying true to a song’s essence is Postmodern Jukebox. PMJ is group of talented musicians created by pianist Scott Bradlee. The group gained popularity through dozens of YouTube videos where they take various popular songs and play them in various styles of the last century. Here are my two favorite songs from the group.

 

 

 

 

What I find so incredible about these two covers isn’t just that they sound different from the originals. I love how this group was able to put these songs into a whole other historical context and yet keep the essence of each song center stage. “Stacy’s Mom” at its core, is a fun, light hearted song about a kid with a crush. And that light-heartedness is displayed perfectly in this bouncy hot jazz cover. “Creep” isn’t just a sad song. It’s self-conscious, it’s gloomy, it’s a doubt in your selfworth. And this cover conveys exactly that. PMJ has a great catalogue of covers just like these.

All this being said, my biggest problem with the Teal Album is, as a whole, it doesn’t do what I think covers should do. While some of these tracks do grasps their song’s essence quite well, too many of them just miss the whole point of their originals. The first few 80’s tracks do a fine job of capturing the fun spirit of the originals. Then “Paranoid” seems washed clean of any frustration and despair that made the song so iconic. The most glaring example of a cover not in the spirit of its inspiration comes from the closing song; “Stand by Me.” This is a song about the power of love. When everything else fails, love prevails. “If the sky that we look upon should tumble and fall, or the mountains should crumble to the sea, I won’t cry. I won’t cry, no I won’t shed a tear, just as long as you stand by me.” Weezer’s version just doesn’t convey any of the songs emotional content which made Ben E. King’s original such a masterpiece.

This isn’t a hit piece on Weezer’s Teal Album. If you’re a fan of theirs, it’s a fun way to spend a half hour. Listening to this album has been a great help to me. It has helped me figure out what I want from covers. And while what I want from covers may not have been in 80% of the album, I am grateful for the experience. While we have the right to our preferences, I feel there is a responsibility to try to think about why those preferences are the way they are, even if a concrete answer may never come out of it. Listening to this album has brought me to a new level of understanding about the nature of my musical taste.

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MetaMusician: My Love-Hate Relationship with Cover Songs