I’ve written before about the tricky art of appraising a cover song, both on its own merits and in relation to the original. As cynical as it may seem, it turns out it’s much easier to say what isn’t a good cover rather than what is. There is of course that pesky ever-present quandary in the form of subjectivity, but in this realm there are some clear cut and nearly bulletproof statements one could make.
Here’s one: the Kidz Bop series of albums featuring popular hits redone for children is indisputably and wholly a commercial venture without any inherent artistic value. That’s not opinion. That’s a simple statement understood by most people, particularly those in charge of assembling these songs. These are karaoke tracks made strictly with the intent to market a product (the collected pop tracks) to a wider audience.
Their very existence is predicated on the popularity of the source material rather than the source material itself. There is literally no authenticity in the development stage, creative liberties are not taken with the instrumentation, and it’s all put together on a budget suitably smaller than the one given to the originals. While the artistic value of pop music as a whole has long been a hotly contested subject, no reasonable person would get in the corner for these songs.
Now to be fair, I singled out this series because it’s an instantly recognizable brand with an instantly recognizable mission. This can be applied to any music based simulacrum product where the intent is entirely commercial. Covers done for international markets, for cruise ships, tutorials, karaoke, weddings, the music played while a customer service representative shuffles off the responsibility of dealing with you – all of these can be lumped together into the same category. Let’s not forget situations where copyright fees can be greatly reduced by a band specifically playing a cover as-close-to-but-not-as-good.
So in these scenarios it’s nearly inarguable to say that the covers by their very nature cannot be as good as, let alone better than, the originals. They are a simulation and inherently substandard. They’re a bootleg of McDonalds.
Once we start spiraling outwards with this logic it starts to get a little more difficult, and objectivity is a bit harder to maintain. The worth of a cover becomes more and more dependent on each individual listener. But if we must broach the subject critically, there are three pillars one can stand on as an arbiter.
- The raison d’être of the original
- The raison d’être of the cover
From there you can throw in genres, the level of talent involved, and all sorts of other variables that turn the discussion into a matter of taste. Those three pillars though, are about as reliable as one can get when critically considering a cover’s value in relation to the original’s.
We’ve established the intent of Kidz Bop et al: lower quality product to broaden the reach of the original. No added value whatsoever. Moving one step above those we come to covers done for a commercial purpose, but recorded in a new style. Here the intent is also commercial, but at least there’s a modicum of authenticity to the proceedings. The reasons for these specific covers ranges from compilation albums to movie soundtracks to tribute albums to label obligations, but in many of these cases the result lacks genuine drive.
See: the Punk Goes… series.
Yes, here the music is all redone in a brand new style, but the template is always one of two choices: nasally pop punk or guttural hardcore. It’s just a pallet swap, a cosmetic redressing. If these covers mean anything to their respective performers, it’s hard to tell. They’re largely doing it for the exposure and the paycheque. Although these covers may appeal to followers of the scene, it’s hard to justify them. When the motivation is corporate, you can hear it.
To be fair, intent alone isn’t fully indicative of the final product, which is why you always have to take into account the second pillar.
Raison d’être – Original
The raison d’être of a song is an ephemeral quality and hard to put into words, but translating it into English might help. It is the reason the song exists in this world and what its intended purpose is. A combination of style, substance, and inspiration, it’s divorced from the pillar of intent because it puts the piece in consideration into a vacuum. It can be judged on its own terms and why it was of any relevance to the world at large. Did it revolutionize a generation? Was it rooted in a deeply personal experience? Did it gift the world with a remarkable, iconic example of talent? Or maybe it was just a straightforward pop song with an indelible hook? After taking all of this into consideration, you move to the rework.
Raison d’être – Cover
Whatever it was that made the original great should be matched or supplanted with a new x-factor.
Simply put: what is the purpose of the cover?
If it was just a pop song written for the highest bidder (as the custom was in the early days of the music industry when songwriters reigned supreme), then being rewritten or reused is of no consequence at all.
Take for example the two different versions of “Whaddya Want From Me?”. Originally written for P!nk, it was later performed by American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert after she rejected it. Years after its success, she recorded her own version. In this case the debate as to which version is better is one that could rage for infinity….if you really have that much time and passion to invest into it. The performing artist here is simply a facet of the song, a plug-in for a pre-existing mould that is completely interchangeable. There really is no way to approach it objectively.
If however this was a song performed by the original songwriter, then it’s only fair to compare and contrast the driving force behind both versions. Take for example the following three latter-day Johnny Cash covers. All three are done in an identical style, but hit with varying degrees of success because of the respective original’s impact vs. the cover’s intention.
Soundgarden‘s “Rusty Cage” is a noisy, rambunctious slice of grunge-metal, which Cash took and stripped down to a bare bones acoustic arrangement. Personally speaking, I am not a huge fan of the original and if I had to would rather listen to Cash’s version. But “Rusty Cage”‘s legacy isn’t one to dismiss. It was a key part of Soundgarden’s oeuvre and the grunge movement as a whole. Listening to these two side by side with that context it’s clear that Cash’s take does not hold the same weight in terms of cultural impact.
He gives roughly the same treatment to U2‘s “One”, but here the effect is moderately greater. While “One” was part of U2’s first renaissance, it on its own did not revolutionize a genre with some sort of mind-blowing innovation. The gap between original and cover is diminished here, though U2 still hold the upper hand as their arrangement was more fully realized and Bono is admittedly a better vocalist in this instance.
So what is it about Cash’s version of Nine Inch Nails‘ “Hurt” so incredibly powerful compared to the other two? Why did it resonate so strongly with the world? It uses the same instruments in a similar style, and it doesn’t push any sonic boundaries whatsoever. Yet it is persistently held up as an example of a cover that eclipses the original. That’s a debate that won’t be explored here, but the reason it even is considered a contender against its predecessor can be attributed to the fact that it carved out a reason to exist. Cash’s weary, broken voice fit ideally into the groove Trent Reznor had lain down. People believed that Johnny Cash hurt, because at that point he was hurting. It was a raw and honest capstone to his storied life; authenticity in its purest form.
When he covered Soundgarden and U2, he was singing their words in their songs. Those two versions didn’t hit hard because they didn’t reflect who Cash was at that time. He was no longer a rebel breaking out of rusty cages and running, and he was never a feel-good anthem kind of guy. He was however, a man who was nearing the end of a tumultuous life. By the same virtue, if this cover had been done by a modern country star like Jason Aldean or the Zac Brown Band, it would be virtually meaningless. Even with an identical arrangement, the vocals would be far too smooth to make any sort of emotional dent, not to mention the total lack of context in relation to either of those artists. The raison d’être here was Johnny Cash himself.
Now, not every cover needs to be some sort of devastating final chapter imbued with a lifelong legacy. Nor does it have to hold any sort of emotional value to begin with. Sinead O’ Connor‘s take on Prince‘s “Nothing Compares 2 U” was overflowing with drama, while Soft Cell‘s version of “Tainted Love” was decidedly less emotive than Gloria Jones‘. Both succeeded for wildly different reasons. If a cover is to be compared to the original in any sort of meaningful way, it needs to make its case in its own way. The following are examples of when covers don’t do this and fail bigly.
- As much as I loved teen soap opera The OC, it became an unwatchable parody in its final season, and the accompanying soundtrack was similarly disastrous. Just like the Punk Goes series, it turned into a platform for hopeful young acts wanting to be the next big thing. The covers are tepid retreads, ignoring every notable element of their respective originals. The worst offender? Some band called Goldspot transforming Modest Mouse‘s (maybe satirical) optimist anthem “Float On” into a Walmart commercial. Retch-inducing, and nearly as bad as Lupe Fiasco’s sampling of the same song for his tune “The Show Goes On”. His takes the tune out into a Disney street parade, with cornball trumpets stamping out all the subtlety of the original.
- As someone who’s a fan of both CHVRCHES and Arctic Monkeys, the former’s cover of the latter’s “Do I Wanna Know?” is extra disappointing. It’s a misfire on all fronts, a truly awful version that both totally eliminates the entire aesthetic of the original and displays the worst tendencies of contemporary electro-pop bands.
One of the biggest reasons “Do I Wanna Know?” worked so well is because it did so much with so little. Its minimalist sound belied its confident swagger, expressing nearly everything through one insistent beat and that guitar riff. Those are gone in this cover, replaced with an obnoxiously blown-out electronic drum and pointless synths scattered all over the place.
Also pointless: the altered chord progression. The flat, 80s pop inspired major-key sound has been one of the biggest problems with mainstream music over the past five years, and here it’s on full display. At least now there’s a solid point of comparison; listening to both versions of the song will show just how badly this trend wrecks promising songs. In its original incarnation, “Do I Wanna Know?” had a distinct melody. Here CHVRCHES take the main hook for a ride and lose it somewhere in the wilderness. Absolute mess of a cover.
- Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” should not be touched, ever. Why bother? We all know when that drum hits, and there’s no need to add anything to the rest of the song. But over the years bands have tried their hand at it and ended up with meaningless wrecks. Indie band Takka Takka take a sledgehammer to the melody, bending it into an indistinguishable mess and rendering the drum fill useless. Nu metal band NonPoint left the melody intact, but threw the drum fill in a verse early, robbing it of all tension when they use it again at its proper spot. You don’t use that drum fill twice!! Ever!
- Another 80s classic that was mangled irreparably was Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me”. Some Nada Surf wannabes called AM wrecked it on the Easy A soundtrack.
- Remember when Peter Gabriel did all the cover songs, hoping that those bands would cover his songs in return, and then barely anyone did and it was really awkward and embarrassing? And then three years later finally some of them did do some covers back out of pity but they were not good and it was even more awkward and embarrassing? The project was a mess on all fronts, with Gabriel’s versions being slow-as-molasses dirges and the reciprocal covers being almost entirely unmemorable. The only reason I can recall Arcade Fire‘s noncommittal take on “Games Without Frontiers” is because it sounds like they did it in one take and hit send file just to get it over with.
- Luckily Bush only does a cover of The Talking Heads‘ “Once in a Lifetime” live, but it’s still a totally incompatible attempt at branching out that you have to wonder why Gavin Rossdale bothers. He doesn’t turn it into a post-grunge song, but he also doesn’t stick to the traditional worldbeat sound. He just sort of…sings along to generic guitar and drums that approximate the basic structure of the original.
- Rock artists covering rap tracks is very touchy territory, but I think everyone can agree that Dynamite Hack‘s cover of Eazy-E’s “Boyz in tha Hood” is turn-your-head-away cringeworthy. It’s literally just “lol look it sounds different if you sing it gently”.
None of these songs have a solid reason to exist, and can be considered legitimately bad covers.
But you know in the end I can write all the words I want and the truth is sometimes, Rise Against‘s version of Journey‘s “Any Way You Want It” is just what you need, even if the world would have continued turning if they’d never recorded it.