Despite the fact that I’ve taken a grand total of zero science courses and that I have been known to pass out when getting shots, I still haven’t come to terms with the reality that none of my parents’ medical talent has rubbed off on me. In an attempt to counter my previous inexperience with all things medicine, I’ve decided to take up anatomy. Fortunately, the definition of anatomy extends beyond the limits of the human body, so I’m bringing anatomy to a field I do know — music. Specifically, the cover song.
Cover songs fill a larger role in music than might be recognized. Beyond being played by mediocre bands at weddings, covers have evolved into a complete and formidable category of their own. Bands in the indie and alternative categories cover each other’s work often, but covers exist in every genre, making the category difficult to define, possibly contributing to the reason why all of them cannot be lumped together. Regardless of genre, however, there’s a consistent anatomy to all notable cover songs: A strong cover artist, an appealing and not-overplayed song and a creative — but respectful — interpretation are all key to creating a great cover.
First, let’s talk bad covers. Madonna’s 2000 rendition of “American Pie” is by far the most heinous remake that I have ever heard. On the surface, it probably seemed like an interesting concept to Madonna’s producers; the woman is iconic, and the original “American Pie” is arguably part of the American canon. Yet the interpretation is so far removed from anything McLean ever performed, leaving listeners with an overproduced rendition full of hollow electro-pop beats. “American Pie” was never meant to be accompanied by gyrating hips, but that’s exactly what Madonna puts forth in her video for the single. In short, it is an abomination; a total injustice done to the original version.
An equally insulting cover is Heather Nova’s version of The Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out,” from the soundtrack for the 2002 movie I Am Sam. The music of the entire film is made up of Beatles covers — most of them flattering takes on the originals. Heather Nova’s voice, however, sounds pained and breathy, the musical equivalent of a goat in distress. Add to that an interpretation that otherwise sounds exactly like the original, and you’ve got a cover that only disappoints.
Fortunately, there are many covers that have been done right. One that’s received a lot of attention in recent years is Ben Folds’ 2005 rendition of the Dr. Dre classic, “Bitches Ain’t Shit.” At the time, Folds was already a well-established artist, so it was not a question of talent. Rather, the test was whether he could tone down a gangsta rap song into a quiet, melodious piano tune accompanied with soothing vocals. Folds did just that, crafting a track worthy both of the Billboard Hot 100 and your grandma’s ears (well, maybe if she couldn’t understand the words).
While many covers are slower versions of pop songs, Lauryn Hill covered Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” without losing any of the energy or spark of the original. Granted, her 1998 hip-hop rendition of the song certainly differs from Valli’s 1967 performance but her smooth singing, accompanied by a steady hip-hop beat, manages to retain all of the integrity of Valli’s version while having its own original qualities. It fully fits the anatomy of a strong cover, and it is certainly one of the most notable ones I have experienced.
In this small space, I can only hit the tip of the huge iceberg that is the world of cover songs. It’s not a perfect place, but it is full of songs that showcase the creativity of many artists who have put their own twists on the works of others.
Allie Prescott is a junior in the College. AMPLIFY appears every other Friday in the guide.