Never, in the entire history of pop music, has there been a lazier excuse for a cover song than Rihanna’s version of Tame Impala’s “New Person, Same Ol’ Mistakes.” Some of you will inevitably find my criticism of “RiRi” to be harsh, but if you were to go back and listen to both, you’d instantly hear two things: the instrumental is exactly the same and her vocals differ only slightly from the original (hell, some of the original vocals are still in the cover). Kevin Parker, the original singer, songwriter and producer, likely received a decent paycheck and valuable mainstream exposure, so there’s probably no complaints on his end. But, this slack rendition sets a new precedent which, as a result, forces us to re-examine what actually counts as a cover.
Hopefully, we can all agree that a cover is a new interpretation, performed or recorded, of a song that was previously written by another artist. The act of recycling old material is not a new concept in the slightest, as many tunes, ranging from jazz standards to folk ballads, have been performed by many generations of musicians.
In 1877, some smart guy named Thomas Edison invented a crazy device called the phonograph, which first introduced the world to recorded music. This led to a larger number of people writing and recording their own songs instead of singing the same old crap like “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round The Mountain.” To protect these works from the greedy thieves that make up the music industry, copyright laws were put in place which allowed for covers to be performed and recorded after proper licensing and royalty payment. Now, you could ignore this last part, like some bands around Greensboro, have done, but you’ll have to cough up a lot of dough if the original artist finds out.
You’re probably thinking, “all this legal stuff is fine and dandy, but when it comes down to it, quality is the only thing that really matters,” and you’re totally right. Nothing is worse than a bad cover. Too many coffee shops have been tainted by acoustic-guitar-wielding white dudes and their unironic covers of “Wonderwall.” In fact, coffee shops seem to be breeding grounds for terrible covers. I know this because I’ve spent the last two years living above one that hosts a semi-regular open mic directly below my toilet. I’ve determined that this small detail is actually a metaphor for how crappy some of the performances are. For example, a girl, who shall remain anonymous, convinced me to attend her performance downstairs, which ended in embarrassment after her controversial cover of “Get Low” by Lil Jon and the East Side Boys. When she reached the notorious line, “ah skeet, skeet motherf*cker,” it became clear that she had single-handedly managed to offend every single person in the audience, which, in retrospect, was actually pretty impressive. Sadly, this wasn’t the worst performance that’s ever graced that stage.
In contrast, a good cover comes about when a musician takes another song and recontextualizes it through their own perspective or musicianship. A great example of this is Nina Simone’s cover of “Here Comes The Sun.” In her version of the George Harrison classic, Nina’s fragile voice turns the celebratory pop song into this bittersweet, yet reassuring message of hope and determination. To heighten this mood, the tempo is slowed, the poppy melody is simplified, and the synthy production is replaced with pianos and orchestras. Also, it just really helps that a skilled drummer plays on her version. Sorry, Ringo.
Another excellent cover is Iron & Wine and Ben Bridwell’s cover of Talking Heads’ “This Must Be The Place,” which is possibly the greatest pop song ever recorded. The two folk artists reinterpret the melancholy dance track as a laidback folk song, which actually compliments the lyrics a bit better. Whereas the original version juxtaposes its somber tone with upbeat drums and synthesizers, the cover embraces the mood fully. Sam Beam aka Iron & Wine, is no stranger to covers. His music career essentially started with his cover of “Such Great Heights” by The Postal Service, which is much better without Ben Gibbard’s shrill, whiny voice.
The beauty of covers is that an artist can take them in any direction he or she chooses. As long as it’s done respectfully and legally, a cover can serve as a great asset for a musician. An audience for an up-and-coming group may not know all their songs, but a well-placed cover will usually get a good reception. Sometimes a cover will garner the original band the attention they never received in their prime. Either way, covers won’t be going anywhere anytime soon, just as long as there are acoustic guitars and coffee shops.