Big Shoes to Fill

Why we love to hate cover songs (and why we love them, too)

There is nothing trickier than a cover song. When an artist is so bold as to rework a hit, I am automatically overcome with an unusual combination of doubt and what can only be described as rage as to why someone would think that he could do a more effective job than the original. For most listeners, the idea of cover songs is stained by their reputation of being repetitive and unfulfilling. But then, I remember the wonder I feel when hearing one of those life-changing original  tracks for the first time: a song so good that I replay it until I know it so well that I can pinpoint precisely when the muted horns begin to sound. All of us music-lovers have those tracks and would give anything to relive those moments just one more time. Recalling those instances makes me wonder if it would be possible for an artist to achieve this same kind of wonder in a cover. Thus, I feel compelled to listen just in pursuit of this feeling—a feeling which is really the lifeblood of any music fan.

Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” did this for me, reinvigorating the body-consuming aur-gasm I felt when hearing Leonard Cohen’s version for the first time. Cohen’s hymnal “Hallelujah” touches on everything, from religion to sex to sorrow. But his ballads are somehow artfully restrained alongside such powerful words, making “Hallelujah” one of those all-encompassing tracks that can be played for many situations. The song was perfect to me, and my mind was blown when Buckley’s angelic falsetto reached heights I had not known before, taking “Hallelujah” to the ethereal place for which its lyrics beckon. The simple guitar, unaccompanied by Cohen’s back-up singers, provides a flawless background for Buckley’s melancholy vibrato, making the song free with his far-reaching vocals and heart-melting, all at the same time.

In contrast to Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” did not impress me in its original form. It was unlike anything I had heard from Dylan before, and most Dylan fans agree: the song seems to directly express his feelings, a contrast to the exciting puzzle Dylan fans usually experience when trying to dissect meaning from his lyrics. The song feels ordinary. Unusually ordinary. But “ordinary” does not mean entirely bad, as the guitar still manages to flirt beautifully with a classic country style, slowly accompanying Dylan as he sings, “When the rain is blowing in your face / And the whole world is on your case / I Could offer you a warm embrace / To make you feel my love.” This song made an impression on me the first time I heard it not because it was the greatest love song ever played, but because it seemed to be exactly what it presented itself to be: a standard feel-good love song. This same understanding occurred when Billy Joel covered it, and Garth Brooks, and Neil Diamond. It wasn’t Dylan’s best, but it certainly wasn’t his worst. Yet, it certainly was not a favorite of mine.

But then I heard that same, soft melody on the piano. It took me a minute to realize that I was listening to a cover of the same song, as the piano turns this uneventful track into something bold and assertive. And maybe I’m just a sucker for piano ballads, but the power behind this song can’t be argued with once Adele finally chimes in. The piano is the subtle but robust mise-en-scène to Adele’s impassioned performance. Just as the instruments were the background for Dylan, the piano allows Adele’s voice to carry the song, but in an entirely different way.

The simplicity of the chords and Dylan’s delivery is nowhere to be found in Adele’s cover, as she interprets the song with a darker, more complex approach. Adele isn’t singing to her lover in a moment of honeymooning bliss; she is reminiscing. She sings about love lost. Just as I thought I understood a song in its entirety, a few vocal runs and a couple chords later, my understanding had been flipped sideways.

What’s more mind-blowing than the idea of entirely re-making a perfectly good song (especially when the original belongs to a legend), though, is an artist’s ability to rework it so much so that it takes on an entirely different meaning. Perhaps this is even more difficult when the original is a classic hit like White Stripes’s “Seven Nation Army.” The simple bass line that introduces the song immediately sets the stage for the gnarled guitar/drum buildup and subsequent explosion that defines the White Stripes’s classic repertoire. Jack White’s vocals are as emotionally charged as ever, challenging gossip mongers to step back: “I’m gonna fight ’em off / A seven nation army couldn’t hold me back.” The rage with which White delivers these words is so perfect, it’s almost dirty.

Who knew that the fury could escape “Seven Nation Army” without hearing it firsthand from French soul man Ben L’Oncle Soul himself? Why he has yet to explode on the American music scene is beyond me, and skeptics should look no further than this cover for evidence of this modern-day Steve Wonder’s ability to turn any song, even one filled with indignation, into a sexy, retro, soulful hit.

L’Oncle Soul’s cover begins with the faint pop and crackle of vinyl spinning, with the infamous “Seven Nation Army” bass perpetually carrying the song throughout. The bevy of instruments used to achieve this soulful sound is no joke, with the piano, organs, and horns delivering a tone reminiscent of any Temptations track. This ’60s vibe is only enhanced by Soul’s voice, which delivers the White Stripes’s words so casually and with such ease that it begins to sound like a Motown love song, an unfamiliar divergence from White’s outcry of fury. L’Oncle Soul’s cover is so transformed that we begin to forget that it isn’t an original.

Covers can be so many things; they can be new and exciting, at times boring and disappointing, or wonderful and nostalgic. Whatever the combination of feelings may be, we begin to see music differently—or rather, we hear it differently. Whether you dismiss a cover in its entirety for not measuring up to the original or you have a new allegiance to an artist whom you’d never heard of before, covers move us to analyze and appreciate. A challenge to what we already know (or what we think we know) forces us to think critically about our choices and tastes. And that, alone, is worth listening to.

—Staff writer Lauren A. Rubin can be reached at laurenrubin@college.harvard.edu.

Tags