Tuesday, December 29, 2009

On Cover Songs

Most people associate cover songs with absolutely shitty versions of something they used to like, at least until it started getting played by every pissant garage band full of mop-headed high school students capable of playing a power chord. Thus, you're probably imagining a bunch of songs that got ridiculous airplay in 1997 like Bush and some Weezer tracks.

But to me the cover song is something special. They said of the process of getting my degree in creative writing that I was essentially being taught the appropriate rules for how to use the English language, that way when I was finished I would know how to break them properly.

Cover songs are the same. Most garage bands will only do a sloppy job of imitating the original piece. Every rock guitarist learns how to play the first few notes of "Stairway to Heaven," if only because he's seen Wayne's World. It's a learning process. First you learn how to make notes and chords, then you learn to structure them by placing them in a familiar order. The same way we teach children to speak and read and write, we inundate early musicians with songs familiar to them which they can easily replicate. Eventually these musicians are supposed to master the basics of a song and move to another, building their vocabulary and ultimately creating a full lexicon by which to express themselves originally.

Sadly, something like 300% of all teen guitarists will fall short of this goal. (I'm estimating. [If you couldn't tell.]) Many youths believe that the goal of a young musician is to replicate to replicate the original piece and nothing more. If they can passably perform "Blitzkrieg Bop" then they can get a gig playing a bar-mitzvah. Granted, The Ramones were awesome, but they also only kept maybe a half-dozen chords in their talent sac. People buy tickets to see your band, not someone else's. Short of becoming an official cover band there is no money or prestige in playing other people's songs live, and even then there isn't any money to it and the prestige isn't really yours.

No, my friends, the cover song is something to be cherished. It is an amusement among the musical elite. Like a poetic ode it can be a tribute ("I'll Be Missin' You" - Puff Daddy feat Sting), like a myth it can be told a million different ways ("All Along the Watchtower"), like The Aristocrats joke it can be traded amongst musicians for fun (Neil Diamond's version of Adam Sandler's "The Chanukah Song" or pretty much anything originally done by Weezer before 2004). Therein lies the joke. Covers are something taken by talented musicians and toyed with and performed again for their own sake. They bring honor to the creators and the performers who manage to rearrange them and create something new and interesting. Cover songs are not played to entertain the audience, they are played to entertain the band.

Personally, I tend to loath mass-market pop and country, and while I respect the talent of the lyricists in spittin' rhymes like it ain't no thang, I tend to dislike rap and R&B. The reasoning being I just prefer music in which the vocalist is in harmony with the instruments, not dominant over or subverted by it. As for country, well that's just annoying, twanging garbage.

Anyway, the point is I tend to hate these forms of music, but there are many covers which originally were written for these genres that I have come to love because the artists who covered them did something interesting.

Jonathan Coulton took Sir Mixalot's only hit "Baby Got Back" and transformed it into a comedy-folk masterpiece. Julia Nunes turns the hits of yesteryear into ukulele masterpieces. The Angry String Orchestra/Quartet regularly releases string arrangements of classic rock, pop and alternative Top 10s. Life On Repeat has made Miley Cyrus' "Party in the U.S.A." bearable for me (though you might also want to try the Biggie Smalls/Miley mash-up "Party and Bullshit In the U.S.A." by Hathbanger).

Basically, I'll take any ridiculous cross-genre cover that ends in pop-punk, light metal, a cappella, folk rock or ukulele. FACT: The ukulele is the best instrument for any cover, ever.

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