When we think of cover songs, there is usually a foreboding sense of cringe-inducing disappointment. Think of dodgy Live Lounge covers: The Arctic Monkeys giving a drunken dad’s remix of Drake’s ‘Just Hold On We’re Coming Home’, or The Automatic’s notoriously cringeworthy Kanye West cover, with poorly played flute (and screeching), just to make your toes curl a bit more. The cover song is currently stuck in limbo; it isn’t original material from your favourite artist, and more often than not the cover isn’t as good as the original. So what’s the point?
But let’s not knock the elusive genius of putting a new spin on an old form. Cover songs were, after all, the making of musicians in the 20th century. Aretha Franklin’s claim to fame by singing ‘R.E.S.P.E.C.T’ – a feminist cry for respect from women, was previously an Otis Redding song in which he, the breadwinner, asks his apparently unrespecting woman for some “R.E.S.P.E.C.T”. The song ‘Summertime’ by George Gershwin, a jazzy aria from 1935 opera Porgy and Bess, has been covered endlessly; most famously by Billie Holiday, but also by the likes of Sam Cooke, The Marcels, Billy Stewart, and even Janis Joplin. Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix covered each other’s music and openly discussed their mutual admiration of each other’s respective styles. The very idea of a cover song – the admiration of someone’s music enough to give your own rendition – is a form of respect.
the admiration of someone’s music enough to give your own rendition is a form of respect
As we have moved into the 21st century, there has been a negative change in attitude towards cover songs. And arguably, mainstream media hasn’t helped. Television talent shows spend most of their time highlighting the embarrassingly awful renditions of songs loved by the majority. The X Factor auditions we remember are ones like Ant & Seb, whose cover of Peter Andre’s ‘Mysterious Girl’ became a viral meme with 6.2 million views on YouTube. Even some of the success stories give bland takes on popular songs; Cher Lloyd was one of the most popular performers on X Factor in 2010. Her take on Soulja Boy/Keri Hilson’s ‘Turn My Swag On’ was different, but while her vocal performance was pleasant, the supposed “swag” she sang about was not turned on.
So the question is, what makes a good cover song? Well, the fundamental aim in taking someone’s song and subverting it is that, hopefully, the listener will pick up something completely new from the song. Whether that is realising the versatility of the song’s basis, or find a completely new narrative angle.
the fundamental aim in taking someone’s song and subverting it is that the listener will pick up something completely new from the song
The best cover song I have heard in recent years is Flo Morrissey and Matthew E. White’s ‘Look At What The Light Did Now’, a punchy pop duet rendition on Little Wings’ previously skeletal song. In order to look at why this rendition is so ground-breaking, it is necessary not only to compare the stylistic differences between Morrissey and White, and Little Wings (Kyle Field), but also the changed meaning.
Field’s original version of ‘Look At What The Light Did Now’ is a profoundly earthy piece. It is sparse; merely an acoustic guitar and Field’s quiet vocal performance of alliterative, wildlife-related imagery detailing the circle of life. From the strength found in life, whether that is “land and water and bird or beast”, to the clarity of death, as the weakness of a well-aged elder is described as “like a dead tree that’s dry and leaving… I would finally fall to pieces”. The song is almost funeral-like in its fragility, yet somehow reassuring as Field finishes by noting that “we’ll meet soon as nephews, nieces/Look at what the light did now”. The skeletal effect of the acoustic guitar allows this visceral imagery to take centre stage with its eye for nature and subtle morbidity.
When Morrissey and White released their own version in 2017, the results couldn’t have been more starkly different. There is an element of theatre in the punchy electric guitar melodies that embellish their rendition, but arguably the power resides in the duet aspect of the song. Morrissey and White go back and forth, with a wholesome soulfulness. Morrissey is a soulful soprano with childlike wonder in her voice, while White’s light jazziness is charming and self-assured. The duet form turns Field’s previously isolated observations into something of a conversation, and its strength is in its humanity as a powerfully poppy rendition.
And when we consider the title of the song, ‘Look At What The Light Did Now’, in its individual sense, it becomes clear that the idea of shedding light on new ideas through cover songs can be an art, highlighting a myriad of hidden narratives and moods.
the idea of shedding light on new ideas through cover songs can be highlight a myriad of hidden narratives and moods
Performing a cover of a song is much like giving a poetic reading: it is wholly up to the performer to emphasise what they think is important. But there is no doubt that the beauty in its musical form lies in the ability to change the meaning or focus of the song entirely, whether that is through a change of genre, or narrator. Cover songs can say a lot about the versatility of a song, and of a musician. And therefore, they deserve more respect.