It’s probably happened to you. You’re at a bar with a few friends, and they’re playing all the hits. Not those sugary Top-40 anthems you poke fun at when they pop into your head unannounced (“‘I can’t feel my face’? Have we depleted our body metaphor resources so entirely?”). The real hits. The newest songs by the truest artists of our era, according to Pitchfork.
The soft-spoken acoustic guy with a touching story. The ambient DJ, with the hair. The accessible hip-hop artist. The woman. Whoever’s in charge of the music at this bar really knows their stuff. They’re even busting out a few surprising and tasteful covers of pop songs! Who knew how thoughtful a song like “Shake It Off” could become in the right context? Who knew how heart-rending?
You’re considering this when your friend Dave asks one of those questions people ask so they can share their own answer.
“Favorite cover song,” Dave says. “Go.”
This leads to a mostly delightful conversation about the good (Cat Power’s “Satisfaction”) the weird (Britney Spears’s “Satisfaction”) and the divisive (The Flaming Lips’ “What a Wonderful World”). The merits of a successful cover -- when discussed at bars and dinner parties and in most music journalist’s musings about cover songs that I’ve read -- usually center on its ability to give a song new meaning or context, or at least generate a dialogue between the creator and the coverer. The consensus is usually that anything less isn’t much better than stealing.
In a recent piece on why cover songs are sometimes as popular as the original pieces they imitate, Maura Johnson notes that some bands have found success on Spotify by recording imitations of artists who’ve opted out of the app. She ridicules this copycat approach, writing, “It's the musical equivalent of search-engine optimization manipulation [...] Perhaps because of that, and despite the name being adulatory, ‘tribute’ versions of pop songs are looked at as more nefarious than your everyday covers.”
A cover that falls squarely outside of the tribute realm: the Screaming Females’ take on “Shake It Off,” a forceful anthem that adds an unabashedly powerful tone to Swift’s bouncy heartbreak recovery instructions. While Taylor Swift suggests shaking off the pain of a specific breakup, Marissa Paternoster treats the lyrics as a steadfast personal creed. She doesn’t strip the original song of its meaning, or imply that the original singer’s intention is vapid. She doesn’t just add something to the song; she adds without taking away.
Compare this with Ryan Adam’s version of the same song, and the problem with how we talk about covers is thrown into high relief. Like the Screaming Females take, Adams' version of "Shake It Off," which he recorded for a full-length cover album of Swift's "1989," is not a tribute. He doesn't mimic the original song's rah-rah chorus or the fun yet strong tone of Swift's verses. He repurposes the words to fit a new style, but, unlike the Screaming Females, his cover doesn't retain the mood or intentions behind the song.
Adams broods between ethereal, Bon Iver-like echoes, suggesting tragic undertones behind the peppy words. It doesn't make much sense, neither as an embracing or a subverting of the song's original themes. At first (and second, and third) listen, it sounds more like the melancholic sheen of successful, "serious" dude rock being dusted over an already smart and meaningful song.
His discussion of the cover album on social media suggests more of the same: as a well-reviewed artist embraced by more discerning (read: millennial male) listeners, his opinion on which pop songs matter, matters. And his choice to cover a woman’s energetic, bubbly ballad functions as a smug stamp of approval.
"Hey @taylorswift13," he tweeted with a link to "Out of the Woods," "What a song. Wow." Of “Bad Blood,” he tweeted, “Unreal song, Taylor. Wow.”
Suddenly, Swift’s catchy pop songs are more than catchy pop songs. They are complex! They are unreal! Thankfully, the winner of seven Grammys and a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame has Ryan Adams to tell her that.
A fan of Adams’ music, Swift tweeted her enthusiasm about the album, and other musicians and reviewers responded similarly. Gothamist called the works “beautiful,” and Details wrote that they were “REALLY good,” noting, “These two have more in common than you might think.”
Although Swift sounded her support for this particular project, the implication of the broader trend, and how it's received by critics, is clear and irksome: without Adams’ assistance, Swift’s songs are nothing more than simple pop hits. But with her words sung in his critic-vetted voice, a great album is born. It’d be an innocuous enough effort if it occurred in isolation, but, unfortunately, this specific breed of appropriation is common, and female pop sensations aren’t the only ones whose voices get the thumbs up once filtered through the tenor of an indie rock dude. More often, these icky covers involve a male musician repurposing the words of an R&B or rap artist, calling attention to the supposed humor behind the often anger-fueled lyrics.
Acoustic and rock covers of rap songs have been around approximately five minutes less than rap songs have, which is unfortunate for anyone who’s searched for a single on Spotify, and endured the 30-second layover between the conclusion of their chosen song and the start of their next selection. Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice” recedes quickly behind Phish’s rendition, made popular by Napster in the late '90s. For an incomplete but nevertheless informative compilation of other, similar efforts, VICE has rounded up a collection of white people covering rap songs on acoustic guitars.
The phenomenon isn’t restricted to the goofy, amateur efforts of YouTube stars. In 2000, Dynamite Hack’s rendition of Eazy-E’s “Boyz-n-the-Hood” became the first rap cover to stake out space on the Billboard charts. In 2005, Ben Folds’ cover of Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit” snuck onto Billboard’s Hot 100 at number 71. The song is still a regular fixture in Folds’ encore routine, in spite of his announcement in 2008 that he wouldn’t perform it again.
The nasally, glasses-clad singer is known for running the emotional gamut with his songs, which range from tragic to comic, with little middle ground covered. The nuance experienced at one of his shows comes not from the complexity of the individual songs, but from the quick, jerky gear shifts between manic laughter and deep solemnity. His “Bitches Ain’t Shit” cover fits neatly within his humor canon, as an interview he gave with Nerve acknowledges. “The former frontman of Ben Folds Five isn’t afraid to release a fake album, brandish a synthesizer, or cover Dr. Dre’s ‘Bitches Ain’t Shit’ while rocking Buddy Holly-esque black glasses,” the profile reads.
But what, exactly, is so funny about adding maudlin vocals to a rap song about, among other things, the deterioration of a relationship while one partner is serving jail time? By singing Dr. Dre’s exact lyrics in a comically dramatic tone reserved for his less sincere works, Folds is encouraging listeners to hear the words as ridiculous, as “other.” “Your problems are hilarious,” he asserts, if only by continuing to perform the song in spite of it being met, continually, with laughter.
Even if Fold’s intention is to add an air of tragedy to the dramatic scenes in the song, stripping the original of its flat affect is ridding it of something vital. When violent lines are piled together almost offhandedly, an artistic statement is made about shocking scenes becoming normalized. It might not be a feeling that resonates with everyone -- but that’s okay. It doesn’t need to. So while Fold’s cover adds something of questionable value to Dr. Dre’s song, it also takes something away: the gritty voice needed to make the words feel real for those who’ve lived them.
Fold’s “Bitches Ain’t” Shit” and Adam’s “Shake It Off” are evidence that when a cover song “adds something,” be it the personality of the coverer or a different, perceived context, it often also takes something away.
Which is why the oft-criticized tribute -- the cover song that takes no liberties with tweaking the tone of an original -- can be a valuable means of disseminating the music of undervalued or marginalized groups. If Adams could’ve somehow kept Swift’s songs feminine, his covers would prop her up rather than undercut her own artistic choices, which are so often dismissed as bubbly and unserious. If Folds had left Dr. Dre’s flat tone untouched, he’d have kept something essential about the original song in tact.
The most recent cover to circulate on music blogs does just that. In the middle of a stop on his deeply personal “Carrie and Lowell” tour, Sufjan Stevens broke out into a song most of the younger members of the crowd already knew the words to: Drake’s meme-inspiring “Hotline Bling." Stevens didn’t recast the lyrics in the sweetly melancholic crooning that makes up much of his tragic album; he stayed relatively faithful to Drake’s uptempo hit, and bounced around stage, providing momentary relief from his otherwise heavy set. The result isn't quite as powerful as the few faithful covers performed by female R&B artists, but it's decidedly less cringeworthy than Folds' or Adams' croon-heavy updates.
Critics might’ve read a little too much into this choice, crediting Stevens with a performance that transforms the song into something that really connects people. Of course, Drake’s version accomplishes that already, as popular songs tend to do. Still, Stevens has mentioned his reverence for Drake in the past, and his straightforward tribute to the song is a gentle reminder to the elitists more likely to hide out in his audiences that popular songs, in popular packaging, have a special power, too.
There’s another artist of the indie ilk -- albeit one who’s gotten more flack than Stevens, due to cutesy lyrics and a close association to “The O.C.” -- who pays simple homage to pop songs.
Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard might have a shaky reputation among the Pitchfork set, but his approval rating is likely higher than, say, Avril Lavigne, the Canadian punk artist who, in spite of being smacked with a “poser” label, succeeded in producing a few hit singles. The first, as anyone alive in 2002 probably knows, was “Complicated,” a sweetly sung rant about the value of sincerity. Gibbard covered the song during a live performance uploaded to YouTube in 2008, and his approach is something other artists should aspire to, in terms of tributes.
After a few seconds of strumming, he starts singing Avril’s words, matching her wounded tone. The crowd laughs and hoots with sarcastic enjoyment, assuming Gibbard’s performance was an attempt to “recontextualize” by mocking. He interrupts them, and adds before continuing: “No, it’s a serious song.” The chuckling continues, but slowly, something shifts, and condescension recedes behind something else: connection. By the end of the song, everyone’s clapping along, unguarded.
Gibbard might not’ve added some new layer of meaning to the song, but he delivered an artist’s words in a way that allowed a roomful of people to reconsider her value. In his case, and the case of others covering works by musicians who aren’t taken as seriously as those producing glorified dad rock, a tribute was a wise and beautiful choice.
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