March 6, 2011

Under the Covers

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Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” is often credited as one of the songs that kick-started the 80s synthpop movement. Accordingly, VH1 voted it as the #2 one-hit wonder of all time and #5 one-hit wonder of the 80s. The record is still relatively synonymous with the period today, often sampled in modern songs and mash-ups. It may come as a surprise that “Tainted Love” is actually a cover of a 1965 B-side by Gloria Jones, a relatively unknown soul artist. The success of the cover version entirely eclipsed the original recording. Nearly everyone today credits the song’s longevity to Soft Cell instead of the original artist.

Indeed, many of the most successful songs of all time are covers. Perhaps the most well known of these is Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” a cover of a Dolly Parton country hit that is now permanently associated with Whitney. Sinead O’Connor’s highly praised “Nothing Compares 2 U” is pop-rock version of an inferior Prince-penned record. Elvis’ “Hound Dog” is a cover of a song by R&B singer Big Mama Thornton. The song is originally about a man that repeatedly visits a female solely for sex; Elvis’ version strips away this narrative and replaces it was nonsensical, vaguely sexual lyrics.

Although cover songs are obviously not original, they have the potential to improve on their predecessors. In today’s industry covers receive somewhat of a bad reputation, but in the past they were more successful and commonly were chart-toppers. Covers have been a part of the industry from the beginning of music radio. In the 50s, many rock artists covered R&B songs for popular consumption by the predominantly white audiences of the time. White artists, who were more marketable, covered songs originally done by black artists. For these reasons, Elvis and other rock artists of the era have been charged with racism, tainting the cover’s legacy and legitimacy.

These songs were not just imitations, however. The artists left their marks on the originals by not simply copying but reinterpreting. I am a supporter of the cover, but only if the new artist takes the song to a different level. For example, changing the genre of an original song is admirable. Muse’s cover of jazz staple “Feeling Good” is one of my favorite covers, adopting an alternative rock edge and abetted by Matthew Bellamy’s original voice. It is also important not to copy the vocal style and inflections of the original artist — the point of a cover is to make the song your own. Jeff Buckley’s amazing take on “Hallelujah,” which is now considered the definitive version, exchanged Leonard Cohen’s raspy, deep tone and gospel-tinged instrumental for a significantly more emotional and acoustic interpretation.

These attributes that make covers actually worthwhile is something modern covers have taken for granted. Some of the worst song remakes have come from the 90s and the past decade. Britney Spears’ atrocious covers of “I Love Rock N’ Roll” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” were absolute travesties. She kept the rock influences but slightly added pop, which was not enough to view them as anything other than inferior, downright embarrassing carbon copies. More recently, Cascada has also massacred many original recordings. Although she is on the right track in changing genres of songs to dance, there is absolutely no interpretation involved other than re-recording vocals and adding unoriginal, nearly identical dance beats.

Despite the poor quality of modern covers, artists ultimately have the freedom to sing whatever they like as long as they have the rights. However, if a cover song is to be recorded, it better be amazing. I have no respect for artists that knowingly release records or even singles that are covers and massacre the originals. They have the opportunity to listen to the final version in studio (as do record executives), so they have no obligation to release a knowingly poor product.  It simply provides them with money that should go to the original artist responsible for the song’s definitive version.

It must be noted that a majority of covers these days actually take place live. I have absolutely no problem with live covers, no matter how awful. Live performances are a chance for artists to experiment and connect with audiences.  Often, cover versions elicit strong responses from crowds due to nostalgia. Since such covers are not usually released on recordings, there is minimal conflict involved in making money off another artist’s superior songs. I don’t believe anyone really expects a live cover to replace a definitive original either, no matter how great it is. Usually, successful live covers resonate with hardcore fans and become concert staples.

In the end, artists should use their discretion in recording covers. There is no need to embark on a Cascada route and have absolutely no originality. One cover per album is acceptable, as long as the artist puts his or her own spin on the song instead of recording a carbon copy. However, it would probably be best to record no covers at all, and simply perform them live with minimal backlash. Although some covers are bad, it is difficult to deny the pleasure of listening to an interesting take on one of your favorite songs. For that reason, covers are a positive part of the industry, albeit sometimes abused.

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Original Author: Matt Samet