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Columns

Cover Story

Covers are the best evidence that music is, in fact, a universal language

By Nikhil R. Mulani

Covers give a strangely pleasant sense of displacement, like being in two places at once. I accept the idea of music being a “universal language,” and so I don’t understand the fury of a diehard fan raging at the inaccuracy of a song adapted and translated to fit different places and time periods. If sentiments expressed in music are infinitely diverse, then covers are rare bridges between disparate experiences and emotions of people all over the world.

Listen to the English folk band Daughter’s cover of French electronica duo Daft Punk’s recent single “Get Lucky.” More than a channel is crossed when a groovy nightlife refrain becomes a tired hymn. The new version brings out the meaninglessness and ennui when days and nights blend together, and reminds us that feeling one has “come too far to give up” can be a listless sensation.

Things move in the opposite direction in Purity Ring’s cover of Soulja Boy’s “Grammy,” where Megan James’ childish, Canadian voice turns Mississippi rapper DeAndre Way’s unworried flow, a mature assertion of skill, into an aggressive and over-excited call to arms by a young upstart, full of reverberating synth.

The immense self-assurance it takes for a musician to make another’s song her own comes across in the quality of her music. “Hanging on the Telephone” and “The Tide is High” were unremarkable before Blondie, and their brazen new-wave conviction made them irrevocably belong to Debbie Harry. The disco years, full of imitation and experimentation, were an era that overflowed with more confident and universally engaging songs than ever before.

It’s hard to think of a song more unfamiliar to their works, but nothing better expresses the contradictions at the heart of The XX’s music than their cover of Aaliyah’s “Hot Like Fire.” Behind rolling waves of bass, the English pop band manages to transform the Brooklyn R&B singer’s lyrics “I won’t keep you” from the words of someone excitedly giving in to the desires of a significant other into weary sentiments heard in a relationship moving just past its peak. It’s strange that some of the least faithful covers are best at overcoming seemingly unsurpassable musical divides.

But, though there are few things more beautiful than one thoroughly unique artist thoughtfully imitating another, a cover is much more than just that. They tie together entirely different experiences and memories in a remarkable way. We all lead our lives somewhere between folk, rock, pop, disco and hip-hop, and covers help us figure out where exactly we are.

If someone asked me what my favorite music was before the age of 13, the answer was always Paul Simon. These being days before I had an iPod, I was oblivious to the predictable order of track listings, and pleasantly surprised whenever cozy tunes like “Kodachrome” or “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes” came on the family stereo. But with the adrenaline pace of junior year in high school, I found the percussion-fueled clarity of the Austin, Texas band Spoon to be more soothing, since their opaque lyrics and reliably strong percussion could fit any part of my life.

It was only a couple of years back when I heard Britt Daniel cover Paul Simon’s “Peace Like A River.” Two very different parts of my life found a link there, in the same way two very different kinds of music did. Paul Simon’s music will always have a place in the living room of the house I grew up in, playing Scrabble with my family. But Britt Daniel’s voice evokes late nights during the summer, driving myself back home from hanging out with friends or seeing a movie.

Covers are remarkably fun to listen to because they transport us, much in the same way that music you hear during a great scene in a movie sounds better than it actually is. With two songs, you get two sets of experiences, and a sense of understanding about how each experience is part of an indistinguishable whole: nightlife is both exciting and draining, being an artist is a confidence game, and relationships are emotional roller-coasters. Covers are worldly in more than one sense of the word. When artistic inspiration crosses the globe, it allows half-formed ideas lying dormant in lyric and noise to become more sophisticated.

Music is one of the most intensely personal art forms, kaleidoscopic to the point of seemingly unbridgeable difference between alternative indie rockers and folksy singer-songwriters. But knowing that a passage exists between Britt Daniel’s shrewd, acute southern-city drawl and Paul Simon’s wise northeastern levity makes the whole world smaller in a very reassuring way.

Nikhil R. Mulani '14, a Crimson editorial executive, is a classics concentrator in Eliot House.

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