Earlier this week, news broke that Ryan Adams will be covering the entirety of Taylor Swift’s latest record – 1989. Amidst the joyful, shocked, and unhappy reactions I read all over the Internet in the days following, I began to think about the meaning of covers. What experiences, ideas, memories, identities, emotions and / or other social reactions do covers generate? What makes for a “good” or “bad” cover? How do people think about or engage with covers?
Just in case there is anyone unfamiliar with the term, a “cover” is a new version of a previously recorded and (usually) commercially released song by a new or different artist. While many musical genres rely upon the work of songwriters behind the scenes and thus regularly have artists singing songs someone else wrote or published, covers are considered distinct because the song in question has generally been released by and associated with a former artist whether or not that artist initially wrote the song. In fact, in some cases “cover versions” of previous songs actually become more popular than the originally released versions, and entire albums (often called tribute releases) are often made covering the work of a given artist considered to be important in some way.
Returning to the questions above, what reactions do covers generate? While I would guess the answers to this question would be as varied and broad as covers themselves, what I thought about first while following the news this past week (and yes I’m looking forward to this release as I’m a huge fan of Ryan Adams and have enjoyed what I’ve heard of Taylor Swift thus far) involved debates I’ve witnessed wherein people seek to claim one or another version of a song is more authentic than others. For me, the prime example of this involves the Bob Dylan song “All Around the Watchtower.” While there are many different recorded versions of this song by various artists, the debates I witnessed always revolved around the original Dylan recording and 3 specific cover versions.
In the original Dylan version, the song is a simple folk tune set to a story that makes little sense in concrete terms with a simple drum, acoustic guitar, and harmonica arrangement. In the most famous cover version of the song (and some say the most famous version of the song), however, Jimi Hendrix takes this foundation, and turns the song into a roaring rock n roll classic with a vibrant electric guitar solo inserted into the middle. In another version of the song, the Dave Matthews Band added a horn section and a fiddle-plus-acoustic-and-bass-guitar trio to the mix to create what felt like a surreal and somewhat creepy version of the tune, which sometimes included the Jimi Hendrix cover version of the “Star Spangled Banner.” Finally, I have heard people argue that U2 actually captured the “essence” (whatever that means) of the song with the pounding drums and guitars of Hendrix blended with a vocal delivery that amplified Dylan’s original delivery style.
I do not seek here to enter this debate (i.e., I actually like all four of these versions and many others), but rather to note the variation in how people respond to different versions of the same song. What do these reactions suggest for the people who have them, and what do cover versions come to mean for people – the artists, the audience, others – in relation to the original recordings? How do people interpret cover versions similarly or differently than original releases? What does it feel like when someone realizes their favorite song by “x artist” was actually originally done by “y artist”? How might people react when their favorite song is redone by another artist in a different style? What significance do tribute albums (and other albums composed primarily of covers) have for the people who buy them? I suspect the reactions to covers would likely provide some fertile ground for exploring meaning making in relation to music more broadly.
What does make a “good” or “bad” cover? If, for example, one takes a trip through Google, then they may see regular articles posted from various sources exclaiming things to the effect of “most covered songs ever,” “most over-covered songs,” “covers that are better than the original,” and all sorts of other lists promising the merits of this or that set of covers. How do people come to such conclusions about the covers they encounter? Randomly asking a few people this week, I got various responses along the lines of “well, if its better than the original,” “if it adds something to the original,” “if the artist is talented,” “if it’s a good song, “if its completely different from the original,” and “if it’s exactly the same as the original but with a different voice” to name a few. That I could tell (admittedly only based on a bit of conversation), there were no defining criteria for covers, and in fact, what would make something “good” to someone would make it “bad” to someone else. What I did notice, however, is that everyone seemed to have an answer to the question without needing to think about it too much. This makes me wonder what systematic study concerning people’s evaluation of covers (and other music) might reveal, and where people develop these responses in the first place.
Not surprisingly, I then started asking myself the same question. I have a whole lot of covers in my music collection, and a lot of my regular listening materials include various covers. I also have purchased my fair share of tribute albums over the years. In the end, I came up with three criteria that I think work for me – (1) do I like the song itself in the first place, its lyrics and / or melody; (2) did an artist I already enjoy do the cover; and / or (3) does the cover add something new to the song. I don’t know what these criteria say or mean in my case, but they seem to apply to all the covers I think of as “good” and especially to the ones I listen to regularly.
All of this leads me to consider what could be learned from people’s engagement with covers. Whether we look at official cover versions, countless covers posted on youtube, television shows – like the Voice or American Idol or Glee – that contain covers as a primary component of their storylines, or even people’s experiences of social activities like karaoke bars and open mic nights, what do revisions to existing songs tell us about people, society, and music in general. I’m not sure, but as I prepare for Ryan Adams’ interpretation of Taylor Swift I find myself hoping for such studies and considering possible answers while I listen to my own favorite cover versions (listed below just in case anyone is curious) and encouraging readers to share your own favorites or interpretations of mine in the comments section.
My ultimate list of the greatest covers ever:
- Counting Crows – You Ain’t Going Nowhere (original by Bob Dylan)
- Counting Crows – Return of the grievous angel (original by Gram Parsons)
- Ryan Adams – Always on my Mind (original by Brenda Lee)
- Pearl Jam – Twenty-five minutes to go (original by Shel Silverstein)
- Sinead O’Connor – Nothing compares 2 U (original by Prince)
- Nirvana – Lake of Fire (original by the Meat Puppets)
- The Fugees – Killing me softly (original by Roberta Flack)
- Johnny Cash – Hurt (original by Nine Inch Nails)
- Garth Brooks – Maggie May (original by Rod Stewart)
- Aaron Lewis – Afraid (original by Motley Crue)