Thursday, May 12, 2005

On Cover Songs

"To redeem those who lived in the past and to recreate all 'it was' into a 'thus I willed it'--that alone should I call redemption."
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra in Walter Kaufmann, trans., The Portable Nietzsche (New York: Penguin, 1954), 251.

I like cover songs - not mash-ups or remixes or sampling (although come to think of it I like these for the same reasons) but covers. For one reason or another, they have tremendous power for me. I had trouble articulating why exactly I like the idea of covers so much until I remembered the above passage from Nietzsche.

So what follows is a quick and dirty examination of the function of cover songs:
  • Homage - It's important that this be pronounced "oh-mazh." This is cultural criticism here and I simply won't sound anything less than utterly pretentious. Homage covers your tribute bands: Beatles, Led, Stones, GNR, KISS. We love the band; we play the band; we are the band. It also covers bands that simply enjoyed another band's material and felt like playing it, e.g., bands doing a one-off of David Bowie at a club. We love the artist; we play the artist, but we obviously are not that artist.

  • Irony - While some covers demonstrate affection, respect, or even worship for a given band or tune, other covers have a different relationship with the covered. I'm thinking here of three covers in particular: Dynamite Hack's cover of Eazy-E's "Boyz in the Hood," Nina Gordon's cover of N.W.A.'s "Straight Outta Compton" and Ben Folds' cover of Dr. Dre's "Bitches Ain't Shit." All these covers are of material by hardcore rappers N.W.A. or its former members. The deadpan sincerity of the covers allow for the misogyny, profanity, and violence of rap music to shine in all its glory. Gordon's singing of Ice Cube's verse gives the words "punk motherfuckers" a sweet beauty, and you can hear the dejection of a man who discovers his ho with another man when Ben Folds sings, "Man, fuck that bitch." It's sublime. It borders on parody, but I don't know that Dre would take the hit if he weren't in on the joke, so I call it irony. Then again, I don't know Dre not to take a hit when offered.

  • Paying your dues - While the first two functions deal in a band's relationship to the artist covered, these next two deal with where a band is at in its career when it releases the cover. Early in their careers, bands have to build up their repertoires, and naturally they fill out their sets with other people's material. Sometimes, you see bands score their first hit with a cover, e.g., Alien Ant Farm with "Smooth Criminal" and Limp Bizkit with "Faith." Maybe they go somewhere from there; maybe they don't, but you have to be able to draw like Leonardo before you can paint like Picasso. You have to show that you have the ability to play just about anything before you can legitimately choose to play a certain way. You have to pay your dues, so you play a few covers. I cannot believe I implicitly compared Michael Jackson and George Michael to Leonardo and Picasso. My apologies to all who were offended.

  • Phoning it in - You'll also see bands playing covers at the end of their careers. You're under contract for another album but the band is coming apart at the seams, or maybe your career is waning and you need to build momentum. Either way, you need to do something and do it now, so you phone it in. You play some covers. I'm not saying these bands don't like the artists and songs they're covering, nor am I impugning the quality of cover or covered. I'm just saying that, at some point in a career, you can tell when a band isn't terribly invested in coming up with original, provocative material anymore (if they ever were in the first place). Rage Against the Machine's last album was all covers, but the biggest sinner here is Metallica. Since "Metallica," their last good album, they've written a sequel (songs have sequels?) to "Unforgiven," released a double disc of covers in "Garage, Inc." (covers we've played before and covers we haven't), and essentially covered themselves with "S&M."


  • Now, after that last category, I could accuse the inimitable Johnny Cash of "phoning it in" for the several albums of covers he did at the end of his career, but Cash's project reveals the redemptive power of the cover. Due to Cash's wide-ranging appeal, the video for Cash's "Hurt," for instance, played on all the music video channels, MTV, VH1, and CMT. Now, on CMT, they display the songwriter's name as well as the name of the artist, song, and album, so, for "Hurt," you saw Trent Reznor's name. My thought upon seeing that was: "Hell yes, there are millions of country music fans out there who hate the music I love and they're proud of it, and here they all are, marveling at the work of Nine Inch Nails." That's what I'm talking about when I say redemption, the work of both artists is raised up, if only briefly, from the mediocre morass of popular music by a creative and gifted will.

    1 comment:

    TS said...

    Could not have said it any better myself, love you comment's about Ben Folds and Johnny Cash