The Lost Art of the Cover Song

The A.V. Club has initiated a fun new project: a video series of bands playing cover songs in their Chicago studio. So far, we have Ted Leo & the Pharmacists covering Tears for Fears and Fruit Bats covering Hall & Oates.

Both of these versions are a lot of fun, and the project itself seems like a rollicking good time, but it has the potential to be more than that. Depending on how you feel about the influence of The A.V. Club, the A.V. Undercover project could re-energize the music community to re-discover the importance of the cover song.

Covers used to be an integral part of most bands’ repertoires, and a binding thread in the fabric of the music community.

For young artists, covers serve multiple purposes:

  • They fill out setlists when bands only have one or two album from which to select material
  • They help artists self-identify. When bands play shows early in their careers, their audience might not know much about them, so a well-chosen cover can explain a lot about who they are. “Oh, OK, these are the type of guys who are into Modern Lovers.” Or “Wow, I had no idea this band would be into New Order.”
  • They provide recognizable material for the audience, which helps form a connection. I’m not saying audiences should be spoon-fed and coddled, but when you’re going to see a band for the first time and you don’t know much about them, a cover can help bridge the gap.

But covers should be part of the repertoire of established bands too. For veteran artists, playing a cover shows the audience that you don’t hold yourself above the rest of music, and that you still consider yourself part of a larger community.

More importantly, covers are just fun. They get everyone involved, they change the pace of a show. They’re perfect for encores, when bands can stop pretending their music is so fucking serious, and just try to get people to dance. But covers can be serious too — new takes on material can bring new depth or power.

Somewhere along the way, though, covers stopped serving as an essential component of live shows. Bands are too self-important now. Too self-involved. There’s not enough time in their one-hour setlists for a song that was actually written by someone else. Not when they have to play all 11 tracks from their debut album, plus 2 new songs, plus 2 songs from their debut EP. And so covers, which are the musical equivalent of storytelling or oral history, are fading.

Pop music is one long narrative, from Sinatra, early blues, Elvis and Sam Cooke through to American Idol, Lady Gaga and Arcade Fire. The better you understand each part of that narrative, the more you can appreciate everything you listen to. And covers help fill in the blanks in your own personal experience of pop music.

I can’t even tell you how many bands I’ve discovered because a band I already like covers one of their songs. I started listening to the Velvet Underground much earlier than I otherwise would have because I loved R.E.M.’s versions of “Femme Fatale” and “Pale Blue Eyes.” It’s an artist’s obligation to pay tribute to those who influenced them, and those that paved the way for them to even exist as a band, let alone achieve any kind of success.

Choosing just the right cover to play on a given night, or to include on an album, is an underrated skill, and one that is becoming as anachronistic as the art of bunting. Bands can choose a song they think they can add a new dimension to, they can choose a song they can radically re-work, or they can just choose a song they love.

So good luck to A.V. Undercover, and here’s hoping it rekindles a spark out there in the darkness.

After the jump, a few of my favorite all-time covers (that happen to be available on YouTube):

Ted Leo/Since U Been Gone/Maps (Kelly Clarkson/Yeah Yeah Yeahs)

Bruce Springsteen/Trapped (Jimmy Cliff)

David Byrne/I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Whitney Houston)

10,000 Maniacs with Michael Stipe/To Sir With Love (LuLu)

Neko Case/Runnin’ Out of Fools (Aretha Franklin)

Nirvana/The Man Who Sold the World (David Bowie)

Pavement/Killing Moon (Echo and the Bunnymen)

Joe Cocker/She Came In Through the Bathroom Window (Beatles)

The Decemberists/Human Behavior (Bjork)

The Eels/I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man (Prince)

…and of course:

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3 Comments

Filed under Music Has AIDS, The Dilemma

3 responses to “The Lost Art of the Cover Song

  1. Pingback: The Covers Not Yet Played | Pop Culture Has AIDS

  2. Pingback: Eponymous Songs « Pop Culture Has AIDS

  3. Pingback: 23 Questions About the 2010 Pitchfork Music Festival « Pop Culture Has AIDS

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