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Get Your Hands Off My Song

2004-03-18 - 10:12 a.m.

While it may indeed be true that you can't judge a book by its cover, I believe that you can judge a band by its covers.

I say this because I heard the most God awful cover of "The Boys of Summer." I don't know who did it, but whoever did needs to be shot. What makes it so terrible is that it does virtually nothing to improve on the original. I don't think it was even sped up, actually. It was just another person singing the exact same song.

I've noticed that this is a disturbing trend in pop music. I've seen a number of cheesy covers on teenybopper soundtracks. They find some random band to cover a classic 80s or 90s hit, presumably so they don't have to pay as much with royalties, or perhaps in the hope that they will have a nostalgia based radio hit, when in fact all they do is inspire people to go download the original in an attempt to get the new, shitty version out of their heads.

Covers are bad when they are motivated by this desire to be recognizable, as a means of trying to ensure a hit for an unknown pop group or singer whose career is waning. A prime example for me is Anakin's cover of Bridge Over Troubled Waters, Anakin being the nickname that St. Caroline and I came up with for Clay Aiken. I heard the Penn Glee Club perform the song, and they sung it gently and simply, which is something that those guys aren't usually capable of. When Anakin did it, it sounded like something out of the Andrew Lloyd Webber songbook, and while I will admit to happy childhood memories of Cats and Phantom, I know that the excessive use of the glory note in a Simon and Garfunkel song is tantamount to bulldozing Greenwich Village and putting up a Super Wal-Mart. Mind you, I already had learned ot hate Anakin by then (the nickname, by the way, comes from the fact that he seemed cool on his first audition, but then quickly turned into a symbol of all that is evil.

Funnily enough, it was Kelly Clarkson's cover of Stuff Like That There that really got me to like her back in the day of the original AI. This was on The Big Band Show, perhaps the only episode of American Idol that has ever truly endeavored to challenge the singers. Many people have said that she was channeling Judy Garland, but I thought she was just paying respect to the origins of the song. She had done her homework, and it showed.

I think that's what it comes down to: covers, particularly by those artists who actually write their own music and play their own instruments, are a way of showing that a band or singer knows their history, that they haven't just heard what's on the radio and thought "Hey, I can do that."

My favorite singer is the one who taught me how covers should be done. Granted, Tori Amos is at an advantage, in that she plays an instrument not normally utilized by rock stars, so her covers automatically sound different. Regardless, she's done more to introduce me to good music than any radio station has ever done. Thanks to her covers, I began to get into Led Zeppelin and The Velvet Underground, who are now my favorite classic rock bands, along with The Rolling Stones, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, Kate Bush, and The Beatles. I mean, granted, I knew plenty of Beatles and Rolling Stones songs before I started listening to Tori, but it took me wanting to hear the original versions of Angie and Here There and Everywhere to get me to buy the albums. Now I wonder how I lived so long without these artists in my cd albums.

What I think makes her covers really great, though, is that she's just as likely to completely change a song as to play it straight, listening carefully to the music and lyrics and then creating something truly new. Her covers album is all about that, taking songs written by men and finding the anima within them. Only this woman could take Eminiem and create a feminist statement out of his work.

Those ironic covers amuse me, particularly in the punk genre. You can go to far--I've heard of bands getting booed off the stage for trying to cover American Pie (and, on a side note, it was Madonna's cover of American Pie that signaled the end of her brief return to coolness that went along with Ray of Light)--but a lot of fun bubble-gum punk bands have managed to spice up some songs. The ska peeps are particularly good at this. Go find the Reel Big Fish cover of Hungry Like the Wolf if you want a good laugh. Of course, it's also fun to turn the tables. I saw a burlesque singer named Kitten on the Keys do a lullaby version of Anarchy in the UK. That's something to have sung to you when you're going to bed . . .

I definitely try to keep an open mind when a band covers a song I like. I consider it a mark of good taste. A local Austin band, the Sexy Finger Champs, covered Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and it totally sold me on them. However, if a band screws up a favorite song of mine, I will never forgive them. Take, for example, the Frente cover of Bizarre Love Triangle, perhaps my favorite love song. The whole point of the New Order original is that it is upbeat and fast paced, about the euphoria of unrequited love. The downbeat Frente cover was just depressing.

OF course, there are times when the cover eclipses the original. Ginger Leigh is very good at doing that. She's got an amazing voice, a respect for music, and a great band behind her, and I would rather listen to her versions of The Air That I Breath, Phoebe Snow's Shine, and Concrete Blonde's Bloodletting than the original. Then, of course, there's the famous 10,000 Maniacs cover of Because the Night, which I think is one of the prerequisite 90s singles. And most people don't know, but Otis Redding released the original version of Respect. Good thing Aretha got ahold of it.

I guess this is all in my mind because it's SXSW, and I will be auditioning a number of bands for my CD collection. It will be interesting to see these folks try to do justice to those that came before them.

If any of them cover Tori, Ani, Dar, or any of my other faves, I will promise to be generous. After all, once Britney Spears covers I Love Rock and Roll, there's not much lower that anyone can sink.

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