A Brief Look Into the Art of Cover Songs

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by Nada Alturki

Cover songs, arguably an unpopular opinion, cannot be performed by anyone. There is definitely an art to covering a song, especially one that has such prominence in pop culture. I’ve encountered some extremely disappointing cover songs over the years, most of them by the Glee cast, and others that were brilliantly done and made my heart sing, also by the Glee cast. The factor that decides what makes a good cover song, maybe even better than the original, is completely subjective. Some might like the cover artist more than the original, some might like how they recreate the song, and others because they never knew the cover was one in the first place.

To Cover Or Not To Cover

I think it would be a crime not to start off the list of fantastic covers with “I Will Always Love You”, originally by Dolly Parton. Whitney Houston recorded a cover of the song for the 1992 film The Bodyguard, and with it, she made her way to the top of the charts instantly. I don’t believe any toddler, teen, middle-aged stay-at-home mom, or senior citizen will fail to recognize this song. This cover seems almost revolutionary, turning any room into karaoke night when the single comes on. Although some would argue that Houston stole Parton’s thunder in recreating the simple love ballad into a powerhouse break-up anthem, Parton is flattered by the cover. She mentioned on the Today Show that "a lot of people say that's Whitney's song, and I always say, 'That's fine, she can have the credit. I just want my cash.'"

Another of the most iconic covers to date is “Hallelujah”, originally by Leonard Cohen. Although there is an existing argument about whether Jeff Buckley or the movie Shrek gave the song the rep that it has, it can be agreed upon that the Buckley version has a more universal audience and likeability. Buckley strips down the instrumentals, and wins the hearts of listeners through his raspy and sincere vocals, leaving us on the edge of tears. I won’t lie, this is my go-to sob song, and I know it is for many others.

The Byrds manage to do the opposite of this tactic with “Chimes of Freedom”, originally by Bob Dylan. They took a broken-hearted humble folk song about instances of hope and made it a singalong bop of a track. They elevated the sound and made it systematic to their own sound. It is almost unrecognizable, and that is key to covering a song. This is what works: make it your own and do it purposefully. A true artist, it seems, knows when a change of direction could be a way to incorporate both genres, while still keeping a tribute to the original artist. Recreating their music becomes a sort of praise.

I think it’s fair to say that pop artists are more likely to cover a song more than any other genre. One Direction had chosen to do a mash-up of “One Way Or Another” by Blondie and The Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks” for Comic Relief back in 2013, and it is indeed comedic. The two songs have been done over and over again, and now, one more time. The boyband decided to go with such a generic route with this cover, trying to sound almost exactly the same as the original “One Way Or Another” and layering on the lyric, “I wanna hold you wanna hold you tight” from “Teenage Kicks”, and that’s where they went wrong. It’s simply safe and predictable.

Mr. Jonas Blue managed to do the opposite with “Fast Car”, and it is admittedly one of the most hopeful takes on this song. However, there’s a reason Tracy Chapman’s folk-pop songwriter track became an instant hit and won her multiple awards including a Grammy: the simplicity. The song is a ballad about wanting more than a dead-end life and dreaming of bigger things no matter how simple those dreams may be. “I had a feeling that I could be someone” rings on and on in people’s hearts, and the hit will continue to live forever because it is universal. No matter where you are in life, we all dream of more. However, there’s also a lot of character that goes into the original song, which is why not anyone can cover it and make it as impactful as it is. Chapman gives a voice to working-class Black women, told through a minority lens, and that’s what makes it special and so very sincere. The fact that a white woman performed the song, and a man who is neither a woman nor a person of color produced it, strips away the weight of the lyrics and dilutes the meaning.

The band Bastille did the same with their cover of “What Would You Do”, originally by City High. I applaud the band, who I am personally a fan of, for managing to keep the serious tone of the song while also making it catchy. However, there is still the question of who has the right to tell the story. “What Would You Do” is agreeably an anthem for single moms doing whatever they can to make ends meet, even if it means having to “sleep with a man / for a little bit of money.” Race and social class play an obvious role in shaping the context of this song, and it begs the question of whether the band is in a place or have enough background to tell a story such as this one. Especially when the song deals with such a touchy issue like prostitution. Musically, they have done well, but do they have enough cultural familiarity and justification as to tell a story about the everyday struggles of a prostitute?

Covering music can be quite a tricky creative process. It is key to be able to make a song your own, to the extent that listeners forget about that there is an original version. Failing to do that, failing to bring something new to the table, makes it just another karaoke cover regardless of how well it is done. It is also key to check one’s privilege. Music is an artistic representation of society and culture, and there is so much more depth to it than merely sounds to bop your head to. Cover songs are a recreation of someone’s experiences, and it would be unfair to disregard that.

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