Friday, May 12, 2006
Arbitrary But Fun Friday: Insufferable Music Snobbery Takes the Helm
Whoops! I’m from Texas. Let me try that one again.
It is my great honor and pleasure to be pulling down guest-blogging duty with Lance Mannion while Michael is away. At my blog Pandagon, which I’m sure y’all are aware of, we are big on talking up progressive politics, pro-queer feminist politics, centrist-Democrat bashing, wingnut-mocking, our overblown egos, and we even occasionally discuss what’s in the news. But my true love is Insufferable Music Snobbery, which is why I was chomping at the bit to kick off this guest blogging stint with an Arbitrary but Fun Friday.
Sexier than Neil Young and smarter than Mick Jagger. (From here.)
My choice of a topic isn’t nearly as specific as some of Michael’s can be, but I’m hoping it’s no less fun. And it’s only arbitrary in theory; in practice, I have a specific reason it’s on my mind, which is that I’ve been helping a friend put together a mix CD dedicated to cover songs. So here it is:
What makes a great cover song? I don’t mean just the myriad of good cover songs out there, but the really stand-out cover songs.
In my never-humble opinion, I suggest that while both good and great cover songs should be enjoyable on their own merits, what a great cover song brings to the mix is that it functions as a commentary on the original song. Sometimes the commentary on the original provokes conversation, sometimes just laughter, but mainly it makes you think about the song just beyond simple enjoyment.
So, in the process of putting this mix CD together, my friend and I find ourselves gravitating towards songs that provoke at least the laughter, and hopefully the conversation. When Michael does these Arbitrary but Fun Friday topics, he usually sticks to one example, but I couldn’t limit myself. Here are some of my favorite great cover songs:
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine"--The Slits. This one counts as great because it’s just as listenable as the Marvin Gaye or Gladys Knight version, but it couldn’t be more different. The Slits are amateurish and sloppy, and the Motown versions are polished and mature. It upends the preconception that the quality that makes a performance “good” is ever going to be something as simple as technical skill.
“Superstar"--Sonic Youth. This is my pick for the subcategory of great cover songs where the cover is so good it makes you rethink a song you otherwise would loathe.
“Walking the Cow"--Mike Watt. It’s easier to get people to see the much-ballyhooed genius of Daniel Johnston when they hear Mike Watt cover this song in his strangely heart-breaking fashion.
“Let It Be"--Aretha Franklin. Franklin takes a deplorably maudlin Beatles song and turns it into a stunner, makes the shallow pseudo-philosophical lyrics come off as genuinely moving.
“Lola"--The Raincoats. I’ve yet to meet a person who isn’t amused by this off-kilter song where female vocals take the place of the original’s male narration about picking up a woman in a bar only to find out later that she’s a man. The layers of fucked-up-ness are delightful.
All sorts of cover songs by Devo. Devo are the kings of the great cover song. They’ve got a knack for remaking songs in such a way that it permanently renders the original boring due to a lack of sardonic yet poppy weirdness. Their most famous cover song is ”Satisfaction”, of course, but I’m very fond of their version of ”Ohio” as well.
But I’ll admit, my all-time favorite Devo cover is their version of ”Head Like a Hole” where they take the tediously dark song and manage to rock it the fuck out. I wouldn’t say “Head Like a Hole” provokes a deep reaction, but it does make people say, in so many words, “Reznor got PWNED!” Who can’t get behind that sentiment?
The flip side of this is cover versions that are so bad they actually make people enjoy the original version less. The classic example of this is “I Will Always Love You”, a fine Dolly Parton song that was damn near permanently ruined by Whitney Houston’s cover of it.
Leave your suggestions and/or tell me I’m nuts in comments. If you find this topic as fun/fascinating as I do, I have a couple follow-up links. First of all, check out this blog that’s dedicated to nothing but MP3s of cover songs--Copy, Right? And if you like cover songs and you like airy French female vocals--and who doesn’t?--check out this band Nouvelle Vague. These French producers dug up some singers and got them to sing a bunch of punk and post-punk songs from the early 80s in various lounge-y styles. The kicker is that the singers had never heard the songs and are working off the sheet music. I recommend their covers of “Guns of Brixton” and for laughs, “Too Drunk to Fuck”.