Oh, the cover song. They are the bread and butter of bar bands, the plague of free form jazz festivals, and are YouTube gold due to superb levels quality or extreme gut busting hilarity.
In honor of QYP’s Cover Compilation, I examined three of my favorite kinds of cover song hoping to break down and determine what makes a good cover.
The Stealth Cover
It’s happened to everyone. You see a new movie or T.V. show that is so fresh, funny, and/or thought provoking you have to watch the whole thing, and you have to do it spoiler free. Shut the lap top, turn off the smart phone and boot up your 360’s Netflix stream. It’s on.
After spending several hours (or days if it’s a series), you reconnect to the grid to satiate your undying need to share your discovery with the world; only to see this on the troll feeding ground known as IMDB.
What do you mean this story of class disparity and romance isn’t an original idea!
This is film’s version of the stealth cover, a work that is so well put together and ingrained in popular culture you didn’t know it wasn’t an original piece.
Stealth cover songs have ingrained themselves in society’s pop culture psyche, and this isn’t such a bad thing. More often than not, these covers are noted because of their quality and cultural status. The best part is if you’re a fan of the cover there is usually another version of that great song out there, waiting to be heard.
One of the most popular and well known example’s is Jimmy Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower“, originally performed and composed by Bob Dylan. Both are great tracks (I give a the nod to Jimi’s due to personal taste) and serve as a perfect example of the stealth cover.
Another famous song, Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah”, is the Inception of stealth covers.
Most of you know the tune because of the constant radio play the track still receives, and I’d say still deserves. After all, it is one of the best cuts off of one of the world’s greatest albums, the late Buckley’s “Grace”.
However, a good chunk of kid’s my age know this song because of THE SEX.
Sweet Donkey on Dragon baby making.
Yup, the song is covered by Rufus Wainwright (poorly if it’ worth saying) in the first Shrek movie. Stereotypically it is used when the hero’s are down, Fiona will wed Farquad, and….Donkey and Dragon get it on?
Remember the little donkey/dragon babies at the end of the film? They had to be made sometime and this is the only feasible moment in the movie where Eddie Murphy had a chance to get it on with Ms. Draconis.
When I was a kid I thought this version was great, but was mercifully corrected when hearing the real version; Jeff Buckley’s version. Except that it’s not the real version.
As Watchman showed the world, the song was originally composed and sung by the Leonard Cohen and has a decidedly different tone than the wistful Wainwright and Buckley versions, it was “sexy”.
The Sex: Superhero style.
Other surprising cover songs include Johnny Cash classics including “I’ve Been Everywhere Man” and “Ghost Riders in the Sky”, early Beatles records like “Twist and Shout”, etc. The existence, and quality, of stealth covers prove that nothing is untouchable and everything (no matter how renowned the original) can be improved upon.
The Gender Bender
One of coolest (funnest?) versions of the cover song is the gender bender. As you’ve probably inferred, it’s a role reversal between male and female vocalists.
I like this technique because it often gives the song another perspective, and even can change the meaning. For example, listen to She & Him’s rendition of “Baby It’s Cold Outside”
Simply reversing the vocal parts gives the song a whole new meaning, making the female the aggressor and the man the object of desire. It’s a simple, but extremely effective way to make a cover song your own.
I’d let her keep me inside. Wait, what? Damn you Ben Gibbard!
It’s usually assumed the gender bender is a female covering a male vocal performance. This does happen often, and for good reason. Take a gander at the two videos below, two perfect examples of why this translation goes over so well.
Don’t let this stop you from thinking the guys can get in on this. As Canadian “superstars” Crash Test Dummies proved, music is androgynous. It doesn’t care what you’re packing underneath it all.
Cake’s cover of “I Will Survive” is a fun example of the male singer being put in the position of the female vocalist. In this instance, John McCrea has taken the empowering Gloria Gaynor (Bet you thought it was a Diana Ross song, stealth cover!) track and turned it into a plea, almost a prayer, to get through his day.
Another male oriented example is Travis’ cover of “Hit Me Baby One More Time”, turning the pop hit into a sad crooning acoustic track, this stylistic change leads us to…
…my personal favorite type of cover; genre dissonance.
Genre dissonance is one of the hardest, but most effective ways to make a compelling cover song. The level of difficulty comes from choosing the song itself. For the successful execution of genre dissonance you must pick something universally loved and make it completely your own in delivery, craft, form and message.
Jimi Hendrix’s stealth cover of “All Along the Watchtower” serves as an excellent representation of genre dissonance. As discussed, it surpasses the popularity of Dylan’s version due to the heart and soul Hendrix poured into his track, his signature sound, and classic bravado.
Dr. Dre told me “Bitches A’int Shit”, but I didn’t believe it till I heard it from Ben Folds.
While fun, none of these do anything to change the conventions of the song, it doesn’t add to the message like the best examples of genre dissonance should.
Case in point, Matt Weddle’s cover of Outkast’s “Hey Yeah”
He takes one of the poppiest hits from the early 2000’s, strips it down, and exposes it for the truly sad (straight up depressing) song it lyrically is and musically can be.
In my eyes, the penultimate example of this Is Johnny Cash’s recording of Hurt. Cash’s version is so good, Nine Inch Nail’s singer disowned the song, citing the fact he could not compete with the meaning Cash imbued within the track.
When Cash sings “Hurt” becomes something so much more than a Nine Inch Nails cover. He took an emo, industrial, cry and turned it into a dying man’s reflection of his life, mistakes, and perceived accomplishments; perfecting the art of the cover.