I’ve had many conversations over the years about cover songs: which ones are the best, which ones are so bad they require you to listen to them right now, which songs should never be covered, what makes a good cover song, and so forth.
These conversations were always fun, because I learned a lot about people by hearing them pontificate on what makes a good cover, what they want to hear from a cover, and what they don’t, and so forth. It’s a good icebreaker to ask someone, “Who does the best version of ‘Take Me To The River’?” A lot of bad first dates could have been prevented had I just asked that question ahead of time.
Most discussions among diehard music fans will become spirited, because as is true with most people and their musical tastes, the reasons for their opinions are personal and emotional, rather than logical. “I used to love that song until my I found my ex cheating with my cousin” is presented as a rational reason to hate a song that didn’t come out until five years after said relationship ended, and everyone around the table has to concede, “Fair enough, OK, that song sucks.”
This dynamic is even more complicated when cover songs are involved. The more artists one can associate with one song, the more reasons one has to hate, love, or feel conflicted over a song. What are you supposed to feel if your favorite artist decides to cover your favorite song from when you were a kid so that it could go on some benefit CD for some disease, and at the last minute, your favorite artist turns it into a duet with that artist that your ex best friend used to sing over and over in homeroom? How are you ever going to listen to your favorite artist and favorite song again without also thinking of pre-pubescent you running late for math class because you had a fight with your friend who wouldn’t stop singing Ratt? Kids can be so cruel.
If you have ever heard people try to explain the songs they love or hate, you’ll recognize that the the exaggeration above is not really an exaggeration at all. Memory is a visceral thing. It has its own senses: its own smells, its own tastes, its own sounds. Try as I might to numb myself to certain memories, it is those smells, tastes and sounds that triumph, taking me back in time. Songs can be the vessels for those memories, however beautiful, painful, awkward, scary or boring they may be.
Many of my roundtable debates about covers have come from listening to two of my friends DJing a night called “Under The Covers,” in which they would play all cover songs all night. Because they have such wide and varied tastes, their sets were always genre-agnostic, ranging from French girl groups to disco to country ballads.
I appreciated the challenge that came with guest-DJing at those nights. Any other night I get to play music at that bar, I just pick songs I like that I think at least a few others would also like. But on a covers night, I don’t play too many deep cuts covered by obscure artists in a row without including a well-known song or identifiable artist in there, because part of the fun is watching the faces in the crowd during the moment of recognition.
That’s not to say that I select note-for-note rehashes. My favorite covers are the ones that reimagine the songs, whether it be by switching the gender of the singer, adjusting the pace or changing the genre. Or all of the above.
Over the next 52 weeks, I plan on writing about covers and the originals on which they are based. Starting Monday, January 4, I will share a new post each Monday, each week writing about a different song. In addition to explaining some history behind the songs, I’ll dissect what makes the covers come alive or what makes them fall flat. I write this series not as a professional musician or music critic, as I am neither. I am merely a man who loves several genres and eras of music. I’ll sprinkle in my own stories of the siblings who shaped my musical tastes, the friends who introduced me to great covers, and the visceral memories that are accessible within the first second of certain songs.
I hope you enjoy this series and get to discover some songs you never heard. You might learn that a song you thought was an original is actually a cover. As I share these, I encourage you to share your memories and thoughts on your favorite versions of the songs being discussed.