Pop Continues to Eat Itself
There’s nothing inherently wrong with a band covering another band’s song. In fact, I think mainstream music would be much more interesting if it happened more often; there are plenty of good songs floating around out there that would benefit from modernization and reinterpretation. Who can forget Jeff Buckley’s haunting rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” or David Lee Roth’s masterful, harrowing re-imagining of “Just a Gigolo”? Unfortunately, the songs that always seem to get covered are the songs that need it least. There’s little wonder as to why this happens; pop musicians are lazy, stupid, greedy, artless, and soulless. In most cases, the cover has become a cheap novelty gimmick rather than a legitimate musical expression. Within the world of the bad cover song, my all-seeing pop-music gaze has detected several distinct trends:
1: The Soundtrack Cover
Bear with me, because I can’t discuss this one without giving a little bit of background on soundtracks. Movie soundtracks, as we’ve all noticed by now, are fucked. Believe me, if there were a better word for it, I would have used it. Many years ago, the soundtrack to a popular movie tended to sell on the basis that it contained the songs that were actually in the movie. Soundtracks would spawn hits, occasionally, when the movie contained a memorable song; we all remember “Mrs. Robinson” and “Don’t You Forget about Me.” Such a soundtrack would be called, for example, “Music from the Motion Picture .com for Murder.”Michael Stipe: Batman?There came a point when this wasn’t good enough; blockbuster films aimed at teenagers, the very films likely to spawn a marketable soundtrack, would often demand having actual film scores rather than pop songs playing the background. They might be able to squeeze in a song or two during the credits, though. Hence the second incarnation of the soundtrack album, which would be composed of about sixty percent songs that were nowhere in the film, included under the ridiculous pretense that they were “inspired by” the film (I can just imagine REM calling up Warner Brothers and saying “you know who really inspires us? Batman”). Bullshit. The studios took to simply throwing together a collection of outtakes and b-sides from popular bands which bore absolutely no connection to any film and releasing them as padding for to film’s big play-during-the-credits pop single. This, of course, would be called “Music From and Inspired By the Motion Picture .com for Murder.” Or, in cases where none of the songs actually appeared in the film, “.com for Murder: The Album.”
Eventually, it deteriorated to the point where studios couldn’t even rely on bands to come up with decent enough outtakes or b-sides to carry a soundtrack album, so the practice of raping the past came to prominence; thank God for otherwise worthless novelty acts like Smash Mouth, always keen to whore themselves out as soundtrack filler with worthless rehashes of bubblegum pop hits of the past. Such abominations generally occur in teen-centered comedies, perhaps in the hope that the viewers of the film will be too young and too beguiled by Sugar Ray’s wily charms to remember how much “Abracadabra” by Steve Miller sucked the first time around.
A comprehensive list of covers which appeared on soundtracks in recent years would not only be way too long to read, but it would be so thoroughly disgusting that it would probably be deemed to be in taste too poor even for Something Awful.Nick Hexum: Ken?However, I’m sure you’ll forgive me if I take a bit of time to bash one that’s currently burning up the nobody-gives-a-shit charts: 311’s cover of The Cure’s “Lovesong.” I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that if you’re too lame to cover The Cure properly, you have to be a pretty massive pussy. As is their mellow frat-boy wont, they have set the Reggae dial to “medium” and flaccidly plodded through the song, keeping it fairly similar to the original. Of course, they saw fit to replace Robert Smith’s plaintive, emotionally nuanced vocal performance with an absolutely blank, robotic rendition that may as well have been sung to a cat, thereby stripping the song of what little impact or meaning it may have originally had. The video is even more appalling than the song; in it, smarmy singing Ken-doll Nick Hexum sleazily croons to a sorority girl in a bar, transforming the song into nothing more than an exaggerated pick-up line. But hey, if that’s what the studio needs to do to get more people to watch Drew Barrymore give a handjob to a walrus (or whatever that movie is about), then whatever, it’s not like art still exists or anything.
If you were one of the lonely nerds who sat through Donnie Darko, you might recall that at the end of the movie some nobody named Gary Jules covered a mediocre Tears for Fears song called “Mad World.” You probably didn’t think too much about it, because unless you’re some sort of masochist you have better things to do than listen to weepy, warbling covers of substandard, long-forgotten songs from the 80s. However, bizarrely enough, this very cover recently went to the top of the singles charts in the UK. I honestly can’t explain why, other than to point out that the English have had a thing for sad-sack crap in the past. I hope it doesn’t fare similarly well in America, because, being a concerned humanitarian, I don’t want anyone here to have to go through the crushing tedium of hearing it on the radio.
2. The Breakthrough Cover
The last time I recall performing a full, exaggerated slapstick comedy spit-take was when I heard OrgyJay Gordon: Bowie?(at the height of their fame) being interviewed on MTV and describing themselves as “somewhere between David Bowie and Joy Division.” The only way to make that sentence anywhere near being remotely truthful is to replace the words “David Bowie” with the words “fleeting, ill-gotten success” and the words “Joy Division” with the words “total obscurity.” In case you’re lucky enough not to remember, Orgy was the band who got on the bad side of pretty much anyone who was born before 1985 by doing a highly stylized, finely polished, and absolutely abysmal cover of New Order’s dance-pop classic “Blue Monday.” A cover of Blue Monday, if done properly, if interpreted by a capable and artistically credible band, could work. Orgy, as you might imagine, did it all wrong. They saw fit to infuse it with some sort of steely angriness which made basically no sense for the song. If you’re familiar with the lyrics, you’ll recall that it’s a song which is quite specifically about not knowing how to feel; infusing it with nu-metal anger, of course, destroys the ambiguity of the song, making it nothing more than a soulless parody. Leading off with a cover was certainly a callous and underhanded way to break into the mainstream if ever there was one- apparently, one can just record a cover of one of the best selling twelve-inch singles of all time and put a great deal of promotion behind it and be assured of success. However, success for Orgy based on their own material proved elusive, since their own material was, not surprisingly, terrible.
Another one we might recall is Alien Ant Farm’s breakthrough single, a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.” While the song was not really bad in any compelling sense, it was totally unnecessary in every possible sense. Was it better than Michael Jackson’s version? Certainly not, since Michael Jackson, reprehensible pervert or not, could bring a tune to life like a sonofabitch. Was it reinterpreted in a striking enough way as to be fresh and new and interesting? No, it sort of sounded like the Michael Jackson song sung by white people. Someone immune from cynicism would conclude that it was covered just for the sake of covering it, but it’s hard not to think that it was a shameless grab at airplay: cover the hit song, promote the hell out of it, and watch the cash roll in. It’s hard not to let it dim one’s view of Alien Ant Farm’s capabilities on their own terms.
3. The Credible Old Song Cover
Fred Durst: Twat?In an extreme miscalculation of what any sane person would be willing to accept out of him, Fred Durst decided to cover “Behind Blue Eyes” by The Who. The song was self-absorbed and whiny enough coming from an artist who the whole world didn’t desperately want to stab with a pitchfork, but coming from Durst, it’s unbearable. The problem is not necessarily that the cover is terrible (which it is); the problem is that when one is hanging by a mere thread in the consciousness of a public who has lately come to realize that one is as annoying a twat as is ever likely to exist, and when one is facing a backlash of Milli-Vanilli-like proportions, the best move is probably not to perform a song which whines about how misunderstood one is; furthermore, if one does happen to perform a song whining about how misunderstood one is, it’s an even worse idea to ineptly cover a song written by a band that is in most people’s eyes about a light-year out of one’s musical league. Perhaps Fred Durst was unaware that he had done absolutely nothing in his entire life to earn even a shred of artistic credibility; perhaps he failed to anticipate the fact that anyone who had any amount of taste or historical perspective would have no choice but to hate him even more for butchering a Who song. Whatever the case may be, his breakthrough single, a cover of George Michael’s “Faith” and his current single (clearly fated to be his last hope of airplay) provide fitting bookends to a truly pathetic career.Eddie Vedder: Hoary?Pearl Jam’s cover of “Last Kiss” (a song originally made famous by one-hit-wonders J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers) was probably not a stab at any sort of heightened credibility, nor is it likely a stab at chart success. This one is pretty much just as simple as it gets: it’s a bad song covered badly by a bad band. Pearl Jam has spent the last decade ceaselessly drowning in a musical swamp of hoary, melancholic, traditionalist rock garbage. They made a career out of sounding like Neil Young with a brain-splitting hangover, and managed to write some of the most thoroughly irritating hit singles of the 90s. Their cover of Last Kiss, however, could make even the staunchest Pearl Jam hater drop to his knees and beg to hear “Alive” instead. It’s an overly long and lugubrious epic about a teenager causing the death of his sweetheart; it thrives on the same sort of callous emotional manipulation that one would expect to see in a made-for-TV movie on Lifetime about a woman accidentally shaking her baby to death. It’s easy to see why Pearl Jam chose to cover it; judging by all their music, they seem to believe in something like the opposite of utilitarianism. They just want to make as many people feel like crap as possible. Fred Durst may be a twat, but at least he didn’t write what I can officially decree to be the least enjoyable song of all time.
4. The Ironic “Look How Different I am from My Parents” Punk Cover
In the hierarchy of artistic credibility, the Ironic Punk Cover falls somewhere just below erotic Harry Potter fan-fiction and just above Anne Geddes photography. I’d say that it’s partially due to the trend of “hilarious” ironic covers that punk music has at this point thoroughly lost its good name and ought to be retired forever as a failed social experiment. Some of the foremost purveyors of this tripe, serving only to deteriorate the social value of punk music while hiding behind the incredibly irritating guise of fun-loving wisecrackers are Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. They’re formed from the dregs of the worst pop-punk bands in the world, and their entire gimmick is ironic punk covers. They’ve released something like five albums, all chock-full of unmitigated worthlessness, and it doesn’t look like they’ll be stopping anytime soon. Although I usually don’t advocate violence, I would be more than happy to see them all carved up like turkeys if it meant that they’d finally just shut the fuck up.Don Henley: Lame?Anyone with ready access to a modern rock station has probably also heard The Ataris’ cover of Don Henley’s ballad “The Boys of Summer.” Frankly, I’m impressed that The Ataris were brave enough to release the song. Everyone knows that Don Henley sucks. It’s one of the more concrete axioms of musical theory. He’s old, he’s socially conscious, he whines a lot, he was in the Eagles, he’s a drummer; he’s basically desperately uncool in every possible way. Therefore, it takes a lot of balls to come out before God and everybody and publicly admit that you suck worse than Don Henley, which is exactly what the Ataris did. They released a cover of a Don Henley song which was quite simply not as good as the original. It was, in fact, far enough below the quality of the Don Henley song that any listener might say “I wish this were the Don Henley version instead.” Either the Ataris are viciously, pathologically self-deprecating or they tragically miscalculated their own work; if it’s the latter, I pity them. It must be the hardest thing in the world to take a smirking, ironic jab at Don Henley and be thoroughly hoisted by one’s own petard.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about all these terrible cover tunes as much as I’ve hated hearing them. I hope that if you were dumb enough to like any of these songs I’ve managed to make you see what a pathetic loser you are, because my self-worth is entirely dependant on putting other people down. As always, if you have questions, comments, requests, complaints, anecdotes, gripes, or beautiful dreams that you must share, you can shove them right into your own diseased colon. If you have any glowing praise for me, however, it must be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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