Rock bands and pop covers: man, this is just getting cliche

When Travis covered …Baby One More Time as tender British comfort rock, it was cute.

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When Jonathan Coultan did Baby Got Back as a singer/songwriter folk troubadour, it was funny.When The Gourds played Gin n’ Juice in up-the-mountain bluegrass style, it was just bizarre.


When Mat Weddle of Obadiah Parker re-invented Hey Ya! as a somber, heartfelt ballad, it was endearing.

Hey Ya Cover

Then there was Alanis, whose performance of My Humps showed sublime brilliance.

Alanis Morissette "My Humps" video

But this, this is just getting out of hand: Jenny Owen Youngs playing Nelly’s Hot in Herre:

I don’t mean to call out Ms. Youngs in particular, but hearing her play Nelly has got me thinking: seriously, what is going on here? What is up with this string of rock-mode artists covering hip hop/pop songs?

And conversely, why don’t we see the same thing in reverse: Contemporary hip hop artists covering rock songs? That might just be cultural differences; rockers cover, rappers sample.

One could argue that a great song is a great song and that successful reinterpretations reflect well on the source material. But I won’t be the one making that argument because, looking over that list of songs, I can’t help but notice that most of those inspiration points are of dubious artistic merit.

While Outkast gets props for artistry, Britney Spears is generally not regarded for the quality of her music. And I like Gin n’ Juice as much as the next guy (5 stars in my iTunes library), but it’s not what I would call “great music.” So, what is it about that song, or …Baby One More Time, or Hot in Herre that makes them attractive targets for rock-based musicians to cover?

Generally, to cover a song is a choice to pay tribute to it or its originator, a way to honor them for their influence and their impact on the development of the person performing the cover. Witness Beatles tribute bands, KISS tribute bands and Elvis impersonators. Shoot, Radiohead has created a cottage industry of cover artists and performers.

But, one does not create a bluegrass version of to pay homage to Snoop Dogg’s profound influence on the evolution of hip hop. It just doesn’t follow. So what’s behind these attempts to radically re-invent songs that are, by and large, not very good to begin with?

One possible explanation is that it’s been nearly a decade since vapid pop and profligate ego-rap began to dominate corporate music culture. Bad music is what the young folks are used to hearing en masse, so it makes some sense that the current generation’s crop of young musicians would play what they are familiar with. I know that when I was younger and in a band, a good part of our repertoire consisted of the contemporary hits of the time.

But we were a rock band playing rock songs. And it was heyday of grunge and its aftermath, where the ethos explicitly called for the rejection of corporate music. The irony of course, is that by the time grunge had become big enough to be called a movement, most of its artists had moved to corporate labels.

Still, those artists didn’t make names for themselves by playing the hits of their predecessors. Nirvana didn’t become famous by playing Rock You Like A Hurricane and Every Rose Has Its Thorn in the clubs of Olympia. Even at the apex of the irony-soaked 90s, one was more likely to see bands covering influential songs from the 60s and 70s rather than perform joking versions of songs by discredited 80s acts. The audience would not have stood for it.

And that’s the other part of this equation: the listeners. Modern audiences seem to LOVE these homages to the silly and ridiculous. Alanis’ My Humps made a huge splash on the net (7.9 million views on YouTube as of this writing). Jonathan Coulton owes a good portion of his stature to his remake of Baby Got Back.

But therein lies a double-edged sword. For established artists, the choice to release an unconventional cover can be a fun diversion for the fan base. But for new and emerging artists, taking a shortcut by means of using someone else’s song to attract attention threatens to forever pigeonhole that artist into the novelty camp.

Mr. Coulton, no matter his other merits, may forever be the folksy-Baby-Got-Back guy. The Gourds, despite their long history, might never outgrow their notoriety as hillbilly gangsters smokin’ indo.

And that’s when it works! There’s always the possibility that the new version might somehow be catastrophically wrong. The above Ms. Youngs cover is my first exposure to her work and from this point forward, she will probably be known to me as the purveyor of a completely unnecessary endeavor.

Why would a new musician take the risk for what is surely an unpredictable response? For the joke of it? Irony? Camp value? Plain harmless mirth? Sure, absurd cover versions might be fun for a while, but like candy, too much will make you sick.

I suspect a large part of the explanation for the phenomenon lies with ever-expanding democratization of the means of production. Until fairly recently, the barrier to entry was significantly high for the recording and distribution of music. In addition to musicianship, one needed to own relatively expensive equipment (mics, amps, multi-track recorders, etc.) and have the knowledge to use them, or one needed to have access to expensive professional studio time. Of course, there was the time and patience needed to get it all put together. And that was just to get the recording made. As recently as ten years ago, getting that recording into the ears of others meant a hefty investment in cassettes and authored CDs from a duplication house.

With so much time and energy involved, musicians, particularly low-resource ones, would surely try to avoid being frivolous with their efforts. Care and consideration of the material were required to make maximum use of scarce commodities.

However, with the aid of technology (inexpensive computers, video cameras, audio recorders and programs like Apple’s Garageband, etc), the process of proficiently recording music is much more manageable and far less time consuming. High-speed Internet makes that music instantly available to a billion people. It can easily seem like a lark to throw together any ol’ ditty based on a whim, including songs that have only recently been released.

In fact, I would not be surprised if that were to become a new trend, the near-immediate release of covers of new songs. Indeed, such an occurrence has already happened. Franz Ferdinand’s version LCD Soundsystem’s All My Friends was released as an official b-side on the All My Friends single. It’s not so far fetched to imagine that Britney’s next single will get a folk treatment on YouTube within days of its release.

Why anyone would do that is beyond me, but it is a distinct possibility.

OK Computer: 10 Years Young

A number of people pointed out to me recently that Radiohead’s seminal masterpiece, OK Computer, turned ten years old a couple weeks ago. That’s right, it’s been a full decade since the band began to cement its reputation as “world’s greatest rock band.”

Where does the time go? It seems like just yesterday, my friend Dan was imploring me to give Radiohead a shot. At this point in the band’s career, I had been less than impressed with their offerings. Don’t worry though, I came around.

Anyway, if I recall my history correctly, the record label received it coolly and feared that its immense sound and intellectual themes would scare away buyers. Fortunately for the band, people are smarter than record labels give them credit for. The rest, they say, “is history.”

To celebrate OK Computer’s decennial, Hypeful has compiled every song on the album, each covered by a different artist, as downloadable mp3s. I’m not sure which is the most intriguing, Shawn Lee’s quasi-soul adult contemporary rendition of No Surprises or the String Quartet version of Electioneering or The Illuminati’s glitched and distorted interpretation of Subterranean Homesick Alien. For my money, I think it’s Silent Gray’s inexplicable rock recording of Fitter Happier.

Of course, none of them improve on the original, but after ten years, the new perspectives are refreshing. But if imitation and inspiration are the sincerest forms of flattery, then the existence of these covers goes to show the extent of OK Computer’s legacy.


Update July 10: Not to be outdone, stereogum has compiled its own unique list of track-by-track OK Computer covers. This further demonstrated the impact of the record. It’s astonishing that it would be that easy to pull together, from existing sources, TWO complete cover records featuring 24 different artists, with no overlap.


Radiohead, Paranoid Android live on Later with Jools Holland, May 31, 1997 (two weeks before the record’s release). The band rocks oh so much:

Radiohead – Paranoid Android (on Jools Holland, 1997)

Clean up your Composer tags already!

Update: The revised sorting feature/problem in iTunes 7.3 and later renders portions of this advice useless. Some of it still applies for Smart Playlist building, but the segregated sorting no longer works. If you’re using a version prior to 7.3, go nuts. If you’re using 7.3 or later, be warned.

In striving for zen-like simplicity while maintaining and extending the usability of iTunes, please follow me as I introduce you to the technique I use to keep my Composer tags orderly and navigable particularly when using an iPod. The idea is to streamline the presentation of the tags while adding meaning to them.

In my library there are three types of songs that require use of the composer tag:

  1. Classical and other so-called “serious music”
    Principally includes all works by traditionally-recognized composers and performed by orchestras, quartets, etc. Also includes film and television recordings that are not the originals, such as when the Royal Philharmonic plays Star Trek or Trotter Trio’s jazz CD Sketches on Star Wars.
  2. Cover songs
    Whether live or in studio, remakes or performances of songs that were originally recorded and released by another artist or group.
  3. Remix Albums
    Collections of remixes of other artists’ songs released under the marquee of the remixer. For example: Fila Brazillia’s Brazilification.

If a song in my library doesn’t belong to one of those categories, the composer tag is left empty, completely blank. There’s no need to use the tag in the pop/rock idiom; all the relevant info is contained in the song-artist-album structure.

The same goes for movie scores and other “Original Motion Picture Soundtracks.” It’s redundant to put “John Williams” in both the artist and composer when it’s his recording of the original release of the album that you’re tagging.

Some people are tempted to put the songwriter in the Composer space and CDDB/Gracenote often includes it when retrieving a CD.

Well, don’t. And if you already have, delete it.

How likely are you to go to the Composer field and select “Cobain, Kurt” when you want to hear Heart-shaped Box? Not very, I’m sure. You are much more likely to select “Nirvana” from the Artist field. If you must obsessively keep that info, put it in the Comments field. That way you can still find it in your Encyclopedia iTunica if you need it, but it won’t get in the way of using your iPod.

So how do we keep these styles from intermingling, so that you don’t end up with Guns n’ Roses next to Gustav Mahler?

It’s rather easy; just add leading character to the beginning of your composer text based on the type of file it is, particularly if a song does not fall into the Classical category.

In my scheme, classical music takes priority, as it is the format that best benefits from using the field. In these cases, the composer is, well, the composer. Syntax is up to you: Mahler; Gustav Mahler; Mahler, Gustav; however you see fit to do it.

Likewise for film and tv music that’s not from the original release. I treat those recordings the same as classical. The Artist tag goes to the ensemble performing the work while the original composer gets credit in the Composer tag.

ipod plays composer tags with brackets for cover tunes

Cover Tunes

With cover tunes, the original performer’s name is surrounded by brackets [ ]. So when The Cardigans play a Black Sabbath song Iron Man, the Composer tag looks like this [Black Sabbath]. Now all the cover songs are sorted alphabetically together on the iPod. Plus, I can create a Smart Playlist with condition Composer starts with [ and have all of them gathered in a single spot. If new cover tunes get added in the future, they’re automatically included in the Smart Playlist.

Cover tunes smart playlist. Click to see larger version.

Finally, there’s remix albums. There’s a long discussion to be had about how to treat those with iTunes.

Hopefully, these suggestions are helpful and will assist in taking full advantage of iTunes’/iPod’s power.