Why is it that whenever you’re at a concert of a band you’ve never heard of, the loudest you cheer is when they do a cover? It doesn’t even have to be a song you like, or even a particularly good cover: You cheer nonetheless.
Now, this could be a bad thing, a culmination of the “ooh, I recognize that!” attitude that’s led to countless remakes, movies based on TV shows and the entirety of Family Guy’s humor. However, I say there’s nothing wrong with cover songs. There’s an art form to crafting the perfect cover, and so there is also a right way and a wrong way to do it.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying all good covers are good songs or all bad covers are bad songs. What is good or bad is based on purely subjective opinions, so a bad cover song could actually be a really good song, but still be a bad cover.
For instance, I really like the band The Black Dahlia Murder, and they did a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” that I really enjoyed … as a song. But it’s a terrible cover. Or, going the other way around, I think Bowling for Soup’s cover of Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time” is a great cover, but an awful song — because, fuck Bowling for Soup.
So, what makes a good cover song? A good cover has to do two seemingly conflicting things: a) it has to stand on its own and be distinct from the original, and b) the original should be recognizable in it. For example, I think that, objectively, one of the best cover songs out there is Marilyn Manson’s “Sweet Dreams,” originally by the Eurythmics. Now, whatever you think of the song subjectively is irrelevant when it comes to whether it succeeds as a cover or not. So, with Marilyn Manson’s “Sweet Dreams,” we have a) a song that stands on its own and is distinctly a Marilyn Manson song, but also b) a song that is clearly based on the Eurythmics original. So even if you don’t like the song or Marilyn Manson in general, you still have to admit it’s a great cover.
It’s a tricky balance. It’s also why Bowling for Soup’s cover is a good cover; it’s distinctive and they clearly make the song their own, while at the same time harkening back to the original. (Unfortunately it’s also a shitty, shitty song from a shitty, shitty band.)
One of the problems with covers is that they can get too distinct. I go back to my example of The Black Dahlia Murder and “Paint it Black.” While I subjectively like this band and their song, it’s a bad cover, objectively speaking. If you were to listen to the song, it doesn’t really sound like the Rolling Stones original, save for a quick homage in the guitar riff. It’s mainly just blast beats, double pedal and screaming. I’m not saying that straying from the original genre is a bad thing — the metal cover of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” by Throwdown or Graveworm’s black metal cover of R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” are both great songs — it’s just that you couldn’t recognize the songs side-by-side if you wanted to. And that’s important to a good cover. I say, if you can’t recognize the original, what’s the point of covering it?
The other issue that arises with covers is being too faithful. One of the worst covers I’ve heard recently was Korn’s cover of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall (parts I-III)” because it sounds so much like the original. Again, since Pink Floyd is awesome, and Korn’s cover sounds like Pink Floyd, the songs are technically guaranteed to be awesome. But since it sounds almost exactly like the original, it’s a bad cover. It’s like when Gus Van Sant remade “Psycho” shot-by-shot. What’s the fucking point? Whether you enjoy them or not, Korn has a distinct style and it would have been interesting to see how it meshed with Pink Floyd’s sound. Alas, it was not to be.
There are also many songs that actually surpass the original in public opinion. I’d argue that Marilyn Manson’s cover of “Sweet Dreams” is just one of these songs. Another example would be Gary Jules’ haunting and foreboding take on the otherwise generic New Wave song from the band Tear for Fears, “Mad World” (as heard by fans of “Donnie Darko” and in Gears of War commercials). Other more famous songs include Sinead O’Connor’s affecting and emotional take on Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” (you know, that 80’s video with the cropped-blonde hair lady crying directly at the camera the whole time?) as well as Joan Jett’s female rock anthem “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” which was actually originally sung by the male-led band The Arrows. Even Aretha Franklin’s bombastic “Respect” is a cover of an Otis Redding song.
I’ve expounded before on the benefits of remaking films, and I think the same argument applies here. For instance, sometimes a song is just generic, boring or not fully realized — until another artist can come and make it their own and better, like the aforementioned Gary Jules “Mad World” cover, or The Fray’s actually soulful take on Kanye West’s shallow, auto-tuned monstrosity “Heartless.”
Or, sometimes, there’s a new spin to an already-great song, which gives it a fresh life and new meaning, like the great Johnny Cash cover of the awesome Nine Inch Nails song, “Hurt.” Even with the success of the original, Cash was able to bring a worn cynicism and weariness to the already darkly poignant NIN song. There’s also an edgy, industrial cover of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” by Godhead that really embodies the grimness that The Beatles’ catchy pop-tune — probably purposely — obfuscates. Godhead’s cover doesn’t supplant The Beatles’ original, nor is it better; it is just a different and unique take on it.
In conclusion: Covers are here to stay, and I welcome them. As your own personal research will prove, some of the greatest songs out there are actually covers, even if you never realized it.