A friend of mine recently wrote an article about Mumford & Sons cover of “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel. In the article, he states that he prefers the cover to the original, to which I cried, “Bullshit! No one can prefer this banjo-laden Brit-folk version over the quietly understated hippie folk original!” Actually, I didn’t say that, but it was implied. Another friend of ours chimed in, siding with me that the original was the better song, though not simply because it was the original. This then prompted the article’s author to pose a question on Facebook as to whether or not a cover song (studio produced covers, mind you) can be better or as good as the original.
My answer: Yes, but it’s very hard to accomplish. Cover songs, by definition, are created because the original was so good that the cover artist wanted to create their own version. Or some studio producer forced the cover upon them. I’d like to believe it’s the former, but we’ve definitely seen the latter displayed often enough.
For a cover song to do well it really depends on if the artist brings anything new to the song. Those familiar with the Supertramp song “Give a Little Bit” are probably aware that The Goo Goo Dolls did a cover version. And that’s about all you need to know. They didn’t do anything else to the song except make it sound like a Goo Goo Dolls song, which made it very boring. It was about as straight forward a cover as you could get and it made very little impact. You also have radical departures like Madonna’s cover of “American Pie” by Don McLean. The song was for her movie The Next Best Thing, but the butchering of verses – taking the song out of its original context of honoring the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valenz, and The Big Bopper - and dolling it up with autotune and electronica made the song a hot mess.
On the other hand, there are cover songs that do right by the original, but showcase an aspect of the song that might have gone unnoticed before. One of my favorites is Nirvana’s cover of “The Man Who Sold the World”. Originally a David Bowie song, Kurt Cobain’s raw vocal, especially on the Unplugged album, makes the song far better than Bowie’s snyth-style. Cobain makes the song’s voice far more desperate and regretful, which feeds into the somber music led by a haunting guitar riff.
There’s also the Dixie Chicks cover of “Landslide” by Stevie Nicks that was a very popular cover song because they honored the original, but still brought their own style to the song that, to borrow the most over used phrase on American Idol other than ”Yo Dawg!”, “made it their own.” Like the original, “Landslide” is kept very minimalist in the hands of the Dixie Chicks, but they still add their country twang without overproducing the song. Plus, the harmonizing of the three women make certain words and phrases pop, emphasizing the emotional resonance of a song about age, experience, and longing. And then there’s Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails. Do I even have to justify how beautiful that song is sung by The Man in Black? Trent Reznor has gone on record saying that the song truly belongs to Cash and I completely agree with him.
Cover songs, however, can be tricky when one factors in time, popularity, and the artist. We all know “Respect” as an Aretha Franklin song, but it was originally sung by Otis Redding. The song just took on a different meaning when the words came from a woman instead of a man, which also made more of an impact during the 1960s with the Women’s Liberation Movement. The Animals had a big hit with “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”, but Nina Simone was the original recording artist even though the songs came out within a year of each other. Both are very good, by the way.
The songs of the fifties and sixties were especially nebulous in terms of who sang which song first and how a more well-known artist might make a particular song skyrocket into popular culture even as a cover. We have to remember that cover songs are not new things. Rock and roll was pretty much built on cover songs with white musicians covering black jazz and blues artists to make them more “palatable” for white audiences. Pat Boone made his career off of cover songs of black artists. There’s even a website ! Even Elvis Presley was a cover artist with “Hound Dog”, which was originally sung by Big Mama Thornton.
Hairspray has a great sequence in the middle of the film that shows how white covers of black music were utilized and retooled to present what producers thought was a more “wholesome” image. And, lest I forget, The Beatles did cover songs too. Their first few albums, while featuring plenty of songs written by Lennon and McCartney, had a lot of covers as well. However, once The Beatles moved into only writing their own songs, they, in turn, became a band that others tried to cover. Movies like the God-awful Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the much better Across the Universe created narratives around cover songs of The Beatles’ catalogue.
I guess what it really boils down to is preference and taste. I tend to go for originals over covers as the better version of a given song, but a lot of that is also based on which version I was introduced to and grew up with. It’s kind of like how some viewers, generally younger kids, think that the songs featured on Glee are original songs when they are, in fact, covers made specifically to sell iTunes. Hell, sometimes songs on Glee are covers of covers. Case in point, the version of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” by The Beatles sung by Kurt is actually a cover of the slowed down version made for Across the Universe. You can call it snobbery or being too much of a purist, but it’s my preference, which means I really can’t begrudge anyone else’s taste in music. I do like a lot of cover songs, I just don’t necessarily believe they’re better than the original. That doesn’t mean that I won’t debate the merits of one song over another. That’s part of the fun!
So tell me your favorite cover songs! Do you prefer covers to the originals? Start a dialogue, people! Share your music with us!