Cover songs have been a substantial and
important part of the music canon since pop music first began
evolving. The ability to absorb and reproduce a song was once
considered integral to an artist’s vitality. In fact, until
Dylan and The Beatles flipped the rock ‘n’ roll world
on its head in the mid ’60s, artists were not expected to
make it on anything but covers. Rock’s list of legends is
littered with artists who started their careers playing songs that
had already been commercially available: The Rolling Stones
(“Time Is On My Side”), The Byrds (“Mr.
Tambourine Man”) and Aretha Franklin (“Respect”).
Lately, however, covers have become cash-ins, a quick way to get an
artist on the radio based on the strength of someone else’s
songwriting. They have lost their importance, potency and
relevance.

Laura Wong

One must first ask what goes into a good cover song. Is it
necessary for the new artist to redefine the song, or is
re-discovering enough? Where and when are they appropriate? The
idea of covering someone else’s music was central to the
early blues and folk musicians, to whom the idea of writing
one’s own music was not only uncommon, it was borderline
sacrilege. In these proud traditions, artists grew up playing
standards, songs far too good to be supplanted by anything modern
or original. This thought process lasted well into the ’60s,
when Ledbelly’s “The House of the Rising Sun” hit
radio airwaves several times, and songs like “Man of Constant
Sorrow” became necessary parts of every folk artist’s
repertoire.

As pop musicians began writing their own music, choosing where
and when to cover someone else’s work became a more delicate
process. The number of covers decreased, but their prominence did
not. Eric Clapton rode Robert Johnson’s blues classic
“Crossroads” to stardom. Led Zeppelin’s first
album contained two covers of songs by legendary bassist Willie
Dixon. One of Jimi Hendrix’s most successful compositions was
a reading of Dylan’s folk tale “All Along the
Watchtower.”

Things have, however, changed. Covers are now kitschy throwaway
tracks or calculated marketing experiments. The most egregious
offender was Limp Bizkit, who turned an already bad song —
George Michael’s “Faith” — into an even
worse hit. The trend of alternative/metal bands following in
Bizkit’s footsteps was as predictable as it was laughable:
Orgy had their first hit with New Order’s “Blue
Monday,” Rage Against the Machine released a whole album of
revisions and P.O.D. rode U2’s “Bullet the Blue
Sky” to moderate success. And even if you think
“Faith” was kind of fun (you shouldn’t), how many
of your lives were improved by Disturbed’s “Shout
2000” remake? Didn’t think so.

But while metal musicians were busy making bad songs worse,
certain genres were staying away from the cover song entirely.
Hip-hop’s version of the cover song — the remix —
leaves a lot to be desired. Aside from the obvious disadvantage of
having what amounts to the same vocal track as the original, the
creativity of remix artists is sorely lacking. Also, not enough rap
artists cover each other. Who wouldn’t want to hear Kanye
West update an old Public Enemy track?

For those who do choose to re-interpret, there should be a few
ground rules. First and foremost, the cover should not outshine
your own music. This was especially troublesome in the case of
modern rock acts, and it was occasionally a problem with even some
of the better ’60s bands (here’s looking at you,
Byrds). Further, it is not enough to simply re-record a song.
Don’t take too many liberties, but if nothing new is injected
into a song, stay off it. The chance for error is simply too high.
Also, quit releasing the cover as the single. This is correlated
with the first rule — if it is the catchiest song you have,
start over.

Cover songs are still an important aspect of pop music, despite
recent transgressions. The ability of one artist to read
another’s work — especially if they can find a fresh
context for that work — is a fascinating process, and it will
remain an integral part of popular culture. In the hands of a
brave, discerning artist, a cover song can be a fascinating way to
read the past. Without the proper approach, however, covers are
nothing more than a disguise for the untalented.

For the record, here are one writer’s top five cover
songs, in no particular order: The Clash covering The Bobby Fuller
Four’s “I Fought the Law,” Nirvana covering
Ledbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” The
Talking Heads’ reading of Al Green’s “Take Me To
the River,” The Band covering Bob Dylan’s “I
Shall Be Released” and The Beach Boys’ take on the
traditional folk song “Sloop John B.”

 

— Whatever. E-mail Andrew at
“mailto:agaerig@umich.edu”>agaerig@umich.edu

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