"From a Different Angle, Under a Different Light": Deconstructing the Delicate Art of the Cover Song
"Music is everybody's possession. It's only publishers who think that people own it." - John Lennon
Last week, I wrote a piece about the intrinsic difficulties of adapting a bestseller to the big screen. In the comment thread located below the blog, an informed colleague mentioned something about the similarity between transferring a novel to film and a band attempting to "cover" another band's work. I think this was an especially astute observation – one that I hadn't considered when writing the blog - and it got me thinking about the myriad forms of artistic adaptation.
I came to the conclusion that the primary difference between adapting a book and covering a song is that the medium through which the art is repackaged remains (ostensibly) constant in musical remakes. Remakes often shift the general sound from the song's original genre, but the base form of consumption remains the same.
When we aren't forced to alter our sensory reception in accordance with an alteration in the medium, the experience is made more visceral somehow, more natural. There's less analysis consciously occurring and more raw feeling spontaneously happening. This allows for more flexibility on behalf of the artist, but also more pressure to pull it off without corrupting the essence of the original.
Imitation Is the Sincerest Form of Flattery
In the same way that it takes a brave and ambitious director to adapt a book to film, it also takes a bold and adventurous group of musicians to take it upon themselves to approach a previously recorded song "from a different angle, under a different light." As opposed to filmmakers, musicians have a considerable advantage in this regard in that they don't have to transfer the art to an entirely separate medium. However, they do have the added pressure of adding their own wrinkle to one of their favorite songs in a very short period of time in order to offer a new perspective.
Even though there are some really terrible cover songs out there, I don't believe that an artist would ever intentionally do a disservice to another artist's music. Musicians may make a silly cover song, but that’s not because they don’t revere the source material, it’s because they don’t take themselves too seriously. After all, imitation is supposedly the sincerest form of flattery. This isn't to say that cover songs aren't occasionally infused with irony, or that they don't occasionally deviate from the previous template, but for an artist to reprise a song written by someone else, there must be a great deal of respect, because the process involves a great deal of responsibility - not just to the fans, but especially to the original songwriters.
With this being said, 99% of cover songs are horrible and are a detriment to the prototype.
Rock 'n' Roll Nation
Musicians are musicians because they love music. The money, fame, and adoration are simply ancillary benefits that come with the territory, but there isn't a single professional musician whose success isn't based on their initial passion for song. Tommy Lee is a boorish poser, but he loves music; Brittany Spears is the very definition of a hot mess, but she loves music; Lars Ulrich is a whiny snob, but he loves music. Should it come as any surprise, then, that the amount of times a band's songs are covered is directly proportional to the songwriting talent of that band?
For instance, The Beatles (perhaps the most critically and commercially loved artists in the modern musical era) have had their songs covered by hundreds of artists over the last 50 years. Artist as diverse as Aerosmith, Nina Simone, Dwight Yoakam, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have all remade Beatles tunes, although some more successfully than others. Case in point: It's hard to take the Jonas Brothers cheesy cover of "Hello, Goodbye" seriously after listening to the black-hole-inducing gravity in Johnny Cash's voice in his remake of "In My Life."
Kick out the Jams!!!
There are a few different approaches to crafting the perfect cover song. Some artists choose to follow the structure and composition of the original song strictly, relying on their vocal talent and the inherent beauty of the song (The Righteous Brothers' version of "Unchained Melody” by Todd Duncan). Others will strip the music down to its most basic and vulnerable state to focus on the melody and lyricism (Gary Jules' cover of Tears for Fears' "Mad World"). Still others attempt to alter the visceral impact of a song by adjusting it to fit their specific genre (Dynamite Hack's remake of "Boyz in the Hood" by Eazy E), often to unintended comical effect. This last method is probably the riskiest way to approach a cover, but, if pulled off, can also be the most rewarding.
In listening to the gorgeously crafted covers listed above, in addition to hundreds of others, I've found that the single unifying element in a successful remake is choosing a song that highlights a band or artist's strong suits. Unlike book-to-film adaptations, the trick to a successful representation of a previously released song is the ability to deviate from the standard interpretation so that the newest incarnation is vibrant and vivid enough to stand alone. There's no point in covering a song if nothing will be gained in the process.
Let's explore a few song covers that I feel have done their predecessors justice.
Originally written by Prince for a side project of his called The Family, "Nothing Compares 2 U" was no more than a blip on the radar until a little known singer-songwriter from Ireland named Sinead O'Conner covered the song for her album, I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got. She stripped the song down to a simple drum beat and a subtle synth groove to emphasize Prince's poignant lyricisim. Already an agonizing poem of lost love, Sinead used her powerful vocals to evoke a desperate emotion that only the truly heart-broken can adequately experience. The video, featuring a weeping O'Connor, is a testament to the deep connection that she must have felt with the song.
Although she famously sacrificed her career for her political conviction by tearing a picture of the Pope in half during a performance on Saturday Night Live, the song remains a favorite choice for break-up mixtapes throughout the Central Michigan region...
If I wasn't at work right now, there's a good chance there would be tears streaming down my face. For the purposes of this blog, I just listened to John Lennon's "Imagine," followed immediately by the version off of A Perfect Circle's eMOTIVe. The two songs are both mind-numbingly gorgeous, but for diametrically opposite reasons.
The lyrics to "Imagine" suggest a Utopian vision for the world in which religious, political, and social conflict are abolished once and for all, clearing the way for the destruction of self-imposed borders that suffocate the collective consciousness.
"Imagine there's no heaven...
Imagine all the people living for today...
Imagine there's no countries...
Imagine all the people living in peace...
Imagine no possessions...
Imagine all the people sharing all the world..."
In short, it's probably the most beautiful plea for an anarchic state ever written. Lennon had a vision for the world in which we ceased fighting over religion, nationalism, and commerce and finally began caring for one another on a whole new level. Not free love, but universal love, an understanding and compassion that defied geography and belief, and eclipsed all tangible limitations of the soul. Then he returned home one evening to tuck his son into bed and was shot in the back four times.
As sad as Lennon's death is, the irony wasn't lost on Maynard James Keenan of A Perfect Circle. Here was a man (Lennon) singing about unity and peace only to be brutally gunned down by a born-again Christian. Keenan and A Perfect Circle played on this irony in recreating their own, much darker, version of "Imagine."
In the remake, Lennon's major chords are turned minor, the uplifting vocals now seem desperate and depraved, and the optimism, so present in the original, slowly corrodes with each foreboding strike of the piano's keys. The accompanying strings add an element of immediacy to the song, suggesting the ominous, chaotic nature of modern society and Lennon's decaying dream. As rock journalist Amy Sciaretto put it "Only APC could take a song with such a defined message, then make it sound so dark and droning, not to mention more than a little foreboding." If Lennon's version is a hypothetical elixir for a utopian state, A Perfect Circle's is a malignant tumor spreading throughout the body of the earth.
After years of working on the song, Leonard Cohen finally released the consummate track of his illustrious career on 1984's Various Positions. The story goes that Cohen originally penned over 80 verses to the song before finally settling on the six that we know today (although he rarely used the same collection of verses when performing the track live). A song so rich with linguistic dexterity, "Hallelujah" is always near the top of any "greatest songs" list.
In an article chronicling the history of the song, Elisa Bray quotes Cohen as saying of the song: "The song explains that many kinds of hallelujahs do exist, and all the perfect and broken hallelujahs have an equal value. It's a desire to affirm my life, not in some formal religious way, but with enthusiasm..." This sentiment seems all the more appropriate when the actual lyrical content is taken into account. Cohen basically wrote a song encompassing the entire spectrum of human emotion and Western society. Conflicting themes such as God and evil, sex and loss, injustice and revenge, despair and joy, and failure and success have allowed for the song to stay current and will probably continue to do so until the end of time.
Whatever Cohen felt about the song personally, hundreds of artists have added their own unique spin on the tune over the last 30 years or so. Most notably, Jeff Buckley produced a remake for his 1994 album, Grace, that was inspired on John Kale's (Velvet Underground) version.
Buckley's version is sparse, with his voice being backed only by his methodically pacing guitar, lightly fluttering along "the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, and the major lift." Where his remake really shines, though, is in the angelic vocal melodies that he applies to Cohen's all-encompassing narrative. Throughout the song, Buckley repeatedly climbs and descends a wide range of octaves like so many waves gently crashing against the breakers of the soul of man. He repeatedly builds to crescendo, only to recede to the calming undercurrent of his own harmony. There seems to be a rhythm to it that is, at once, both sexual and spiritual. Maybe this is why Buckley claimed that his version was a "hallelujah of the orgasm." The idea that the Old Testament images portrayed in the original version can be shaped to reflect a sensual eroticism are a testament to the songwriting capabilities of Leonard Cohen and the virtuosity of Jeff Buckley.
Cover Me Bad
The examples above are extremely rare cases in which the replica can actually hold up to, or even surpass, the prototype. For every cover that matches or eclipses the original, there are a hundred that fall flat on their atonal faces, never to be heard from again. In a way, this is kind of a bummer, but at least no one gets hurt as a result. At the end of the day, if a cover song sucks, the results are pretty harmless; the remake simply becomes a humorous and forgetable footnote in the history of the track, and the original lives on as the definitive version.
However, if, miraculously, a band or artist is actually able to outdo their predecessors, ownership of the song is transferred to the next generation. The artist is the straw that stirs the drink of music, and the cream always rises to the top. In either case, rock 'n' roll continues to rule the cosmos, and that's all that really matters.
Agresta, Michael. "The Redemption of Sinead O'Connor." The Atlantic. 3 Oct. 2012. Web. 2Jan. 2013.
Bray, Elisa. "Hallelujah - a song with a life of its own." The Independent. 5 Dec. 2008. Web. 2 Jan. 2013.
Sciaretto, Amy. "A Perfect Circle Performs John Lennon's 'Imagine' and Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks" at Lollapalooza 2011." Ultimate Classic Rock. 8 Aug. 2011. Web. 2 Jan. 2013.