Uncovering the Complex Covers Controversy
I once read somewhere that four out of five people fear change in some form or another. That said, one would not assume that the complex art form that is the cover song would have much audience approval, since a cover song is a remake of the original. Despite this statistic, covers have managed to become an integral part of the music industry; not to mention that remaking songs has provided a huge economic boost to all those bars with house bands that don't have an original song on their set list.
First off, I should expand on these bands that lack original material. They don't just live in the bars anymore. Me First and the Gimmie Gimmies have based their entire punky output on covers from Dylan to show tunes. They seem to be well loved in their domain, but they can get old pretty quickly in my opinion. Nonetheless, there is something shockingly pleasing about fusing Barry Manilow and fast punk.
Making a cover unique is one of the keys to its musical (but not necessarily its commercial) success. The Flying Lizards do a demented cover of James Brown's "Sex Machine." The fact that it adapts the soul daddy's energetic vocals into a dull monotonous hum makes it stand on its own. It's sort of like the Backstreet Boys in that listening to it more than once makes you want to throw your stereo out the window, but its experimental nature makes it worth checking out.
Covers are interesting pieces of musical history because not only do they allow different artists to experiment with songs, but a familiar song in one genre of music can be completely transformed in another. "I Shot the Sheriff" can be found in both the reggae and rock sections of your favorite CD shop. Bob Marley's original is one of the reggae god's most well-known songs, yet it leads a second (and not so special) life as a greatest hit on The Cream of Eric Clapton as well.
In my musical snobbery days, I found it strange when covers became enormously successful. It seemed to me the original should be the most famous version, yet I have grown to appreciate covers like I appreciate a Duchamp ready-made: a creative adaptation of a well known thing. What musicians can do with a song they really connect with, even if they didn't write it, can be amazing or appalling.
Regardless of my view of covers as acceptable music or not, there are many instances when we catch ourselves more attached (or at least more familiar) with the cover as opposed to the original. Aretha Franklin's infamous "Respect" isn't her baby at all, but written by the late and lovely Otis Redding. While Otis is certainly well known, Aretha's version is one of the most popular and empowering songs in modern music history. The same is true for Jimi Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower". Hendrix does a marvelous job making it his own unique piece although Dylan was really the originator. Either way, I don't think Hendrix or Dylan ever did anything I couldn't find some bit of pleasure in. But they are the minority
Britney Spears' cover of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" is the worst cover I have ever heard in my life. I'm not kidding. I almost cried when I heard it, on top of feeling alarmingly nauseous. Why she thought she could successfully make a cover of one of the anthems of rock and roll is beyond me, but someone should have clued her in. It would have saved her a lot of embarrassment and spared the rest of us the horror. I could fill my 700 word limit with reasons why it sucks, but I'll save my rant and let you listen to it for yourself. You'll know exactly what I am talking about after you hear it. The reason I despise Spears's cover is not based solely on the fact that I'm a Stones fan-and I'll prove it by throwing some love to Devo's quirky cover of "Satisfaction." It's pretty fun, baby baby baby
In review, there are two ways to view covers: they either add creativity or they suck the song dry. Some make you want to dance, some make you want to cry, and some are much better than a lot of the junk being released as original music today anyway. Is it worth living in a world with covers? Well, would you rather live in an emptier existence without the Talking Heads' "Take Me to the River" and Jane's Addiction's "Sympathy for the Devil," or in a cheesier world with Puff Daddy's "Come with Me," a total rip-off of "Kashmir" and Marilyn Manson's horrendous remake of "Sweet Dreams"? That's a tough one.