Reader Request Week 2020 #7: Cover Songs
Let’s get musical! Keith asks:
Cover songs: The deity’s gift to humanity or an abomination unto said deity? What makes a good one? Any that you particularly love or hate?
I personally love a good cover song, and there are cases where I prefer the cover to the original, either because it’s the version I heard first (and therefore, to my ears, the “original”), or because the person performing it brings something to it that I thought the original lacked, for whatever reason — often this has to do with production but equally can be about performance.
Also, I think it should be understood that “covers” are a relatively recent concept, tied in inherently to the idea of the “singer-songwriter.” No one thinks of someone “covering” a song written by Gilbert & Sullivan, or Rogers & Hammerstein, or by Tin Pan Alley songwriters; they were just performed. There are in fact a whole lot of politics about musicians covering songs by other musicians — particularly, in the early era of Rock n’ Roll, white musicians covering the songs of black musicians and getting them onto the charts while the originals languished. I’m not going to get into that now, but just be aware it exists and is a real thing. “Covering” was not (and still sometimes isn’t) always a great thing.
As for what makes a great cover: Mostly, empathy and understanding on the part of the covering artist, of the original artist, or the original work, or both. It means that the covering artist gets where the song was coming from, and so when they make their version, can add to it in ways that build on the original, rather than detract from it. It’s not entirely surprising that so many great covers come from artists who are singer-songwriters themselves.
A bad cover, in my opinion, just lies there — a rote performance, or one where it’s clear the performer is not engaged with and/or does not understand the song. A bad cover makes you miss the original, or even worse, makes you wonder why anyone would have covered that song at all.
(There’s another category for me, which are songs that I don’t think are especially well covered but that I like anyway, often either because I have some personal affinity for the performer covering it, or because it’s so incongruous a cover, such an out-of-left-field choice, that I have to admire it even if I as a listener would not have ever considered it in the realm of possibility. Points for effort, basically.)
And now, because this would be the place for it, some of my favorite covers over the years. BE WARNED — remember how I said some covers I enjoyed even if I didn’t find them particularly great? Yeaaaah, there will be some of them here. This is not an exhaustive list of covers I like, and also, if in the comments you say something like “you forgot [insert cover here]” the answer is no I didn’t, this is just not an exhaustive list, okay, and also, that’s probably on your list, not mine.
(Also, I’m not putting in “Sweet Thing” covered by The Waterboys here, because it was featured in another recent compilation of other songs I assembled. But know it is one of my favorites.)