Pop vs Indie: Cover Songs as the New Frontier
Wed, 16 May 2007 17:21:07
Week after week, the American Idol contestants are charged with a task
of Herculean proportions: to take a classic song and "make it their
own." To tweak a track they've had no hand in creating—no personal
connection beyond a quick pre-show, producer-approved selection—and
recreate the song such that it transcends the heavy baggage of its classic
status and becomes a statement of their own artistic abilities. For
amateurs in the spotlight, the challenge often proves too much, and
for every glory like Fantasia's "Summertime," there will be five dozen
Sanjaya (pictured) karaoke kisses of death. (It's a sad indictment of this season
that Blake's unnecessary Bon Jovi beatbox skiff is the closest this
clutter has come to an original thought.) But the wannabe-Idols are
not alone. Right now the covers game is in full force—with everyone
from hipster producers to retro vocal groups
trying their hand at the most tricky of all tracks: the cover song.
It can be done. As anyone who's seen Johnny Cash's wizened "Hurt" or the 7.5 million people who've viewed Alanis Morissette's caustic take on that irritatingly infectious ear-worm "My Humps" can attest, you don't have to take a hand in the original creation of a song to determine its meaning and message. Substituting bubblegum drawl for plaintive melody, minimalist beats for pretty-pretty piano chords, Morissette switched the babes 'n booty track into something edged with emotion and wry subversion. Matching the Black Eyed Peas' video almost shot-for-shot with her low-budget alternatives, Alanis writhed and bounced, pouted and shook, and in under three minutes reinterpreted an ode to raunch culture as the sad, desperate and conflicted reality it really represented—reminding garage bands and karaoke queens that the cover version can be a powerful thing indeed.
But gone are the days when the cover was a marginal affair, limited to a live audience or the fruits of a fan download or bootleg hunt. The current crop of cover girls and boys are operating in a new media landscape that widens the scope of their creative abilities and their potential audience by way of the proliferation of accessible technology and the ever-present demand for a hot YouTube clip of the week. Indeed, it's never been so easy for people other than the original artist to tinker, warp, and remake old tracks anew, while finding mainstream exposure in the process. Mark Ronson—the cooler-than-thou producer behind Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse—has constructed a number of these "re-imaginings" on his latest album (Version), including The Smiths and The Supremes twisted with samples and original beats into British radio favorite, "Stop Me."
At the other extreme from the irreverent mash-ups that litter the blog circuit is the homage. Instead of using the original song for parts to rebuild into something new, this cover is all about respect—an artist giving the nod to their own personal heroes by following in their aural footsteps. A version of Leonard Cohen's perennial favorite "Hallelujah" already under his belt, Rufus Wainwright recently turned to his other idol Judy Garland and staged not just a cover of her songs, but her entire 1961 Carnegie Hall concert, complete with spoken asides and set list—a performance he will be repeating on September 23rd in Los Angeles. Such doting gestures are rare as they are extravagant; usually an artist can't help but try and bring their own style to the cover. Retro vocal group the Puppini Sisters have dolled up songs like Blondie's "Heart of Glass" with a 1940s' twist for their debut cover collection, but more common by far is the acoustic make-under, which for indie acts has become almost a live show rite of passage.
From British band Travis' live ode to "...Baby One More Time" back in 2000, now it's rare to find a band that doesn't pick a commercial pop hit to slow down, strip back, and send out into the appreciative crowd —who may not admit adoring the shiny chart version, but will happily yell along with every word once their "credible" band are doing the singing. In England, the BBC Live Lounge sessions have created a mini-industry out of this phenomenon. Now up on YouTube, viewers can find a host of covers that run from redundant (The Fratellis jangling note-for-note through "Hotel Yorba"), to inspired (Corinne Bailey Rae's smoky version of "SexyBack") and downright blasphemous (Panic! at the Disco's butchering "Maneater").
The politics of this breed of covers is a sincerity minefield: while the artists themselves may claim genuine admiration for the elegantly constructed pop anthem, stripping back the vibrant beats and production work (if anything, the most integral part of a modern pop hit) can often leave a limp, trite shadow of the song's former self that's as easy to mock as it is to enjoy. But the pop songs can strike back, in kind; sometimes the indie cover will serve only to highlight just how superior that original melody is in comparison to the indie act's own material, or even their limitations as performers. His cover may have been inspired by a genuine love of Kelly Clarkson, but watching Ted Leo stretch for those top notes on his "Since U Been Gone/Maps" acoustic cover, it becomes clear just what a talented singer Clarkson is.
With the Guilty By Association collection set for an August release, starring indie acts such as Will Oldham covering commercial pop by the likes of Mariah Carey and the Spice Girls, and artists such as Bat for Lashes and Giant Drag featuring on Through the Wilderness: a Tribute to Madonna, the cover craze shows no sign of fading, particularly as the indie rockers who have traditionally stressed original songwriting as a key pass of "authenticity" wake up to the cover's potential for both creativity and kudos. As Alanis showed, with thought and a little irreverence, a cover can make more impact—both musically and politically—than an original track could achieve. The cover song is album filler no more.
- Abby McDonald