In defence of song covers
Too often, song covers were written off as not inventive, not creative and not a musician’s best work. But in this op-ed, Australian singer-songwriter Emma Swift urges the industry to embrace the recycling, enjoy the reinterpretations and evict the cynicism.
For some folks, nothing beats the original. But it shouldn’t go unnoticed that 2020 has seen a resurgence of the cover song. From Phoebe Bridgers’ tender take on Merle Haggard’s country classic ‘If We Make It To December’, to Nick Cave’s reflective reworking of the T-Rex classic ‘Cosmic Dancer’, to Sharon van Etten and Josh Homme’s contemplative version of Nick Lowe’s ‘(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding’, covers are having a moment. And as someone who loves them, and who also happens to record them, I’m delighted.
I’m partial to covers for a multitude of reasons. The first is that singing other people’s songs has taught me more about singing than I ever learned doing vocal exercises or scales. The second is that I love folk music, and the handing down of songs from one generation to the next is an important part of that tradition. And the third is that I think covers are a wonderful way to honour the song as a being that exists outside of the songwriter: a majestic, stand-alone, lovely, mutable and sometimes shapeshifting lifeforce all on its own.
Though “singer-songwriter” is a highly respected genre, we shouldn’t forget that many artists celebrated as some of the greatest performers of all-time, did not, in fact, write their own material. Without covers, we have no Elvis Presley, no Ella Fitzgerald and no Dusty Springfield, to name but a few.
In Australia, you only have to time-travel back to 1987 to recall that the first single from the woman who would become the nation’s finest exporter of gold hot pants, Kylie Minogue, was an irresistible bubblegum pop reworking of ‘The Loco-motion’.
First recorded by Little Eva way back in 1962, this catchy little crowd-pleaser was written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King in a hit factory in New York City called the Brill Building, back when King was a songwriter for hire and not yet one of the defining voices of the 1970s.
When Kylie released it as her debut single, not only did it skyrocket her off the set of Neighbours and onto dancefloors across the globe, it landed her in the history books as well: the song spent seven weeks at the top of the Australian music charts and became the highest-selling Australian single of the 1980s.
As a child of the 1990s, two of my favourite early memories from watching music television are of recordings of covers: The Lemonheads’ glorious alt-rock reimagining of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Mrs Robinson’, originally recorded in 1968, and Sinead O’Connor’s mesmerising, heart-shattering and career-defining take on ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’, which Prince wrote and recorded back in 1984.
While the cover has existed as long as radio stations have played popular music, these songs tend to fall in and out of favour with the press and with fans. But I’d urge you, don’t dismiss the cover. Sometimes they can be fun (see: David Bowie, ‘Friday On My Mind’), sometimes they can be desperately sad (see: Linda Ronstadt, ‘Alison’) and sometimes they can find an audience for a song that might never have discovered it otherwise (see: Sonic Youth’s sublime reimagining of The Carpenters’ ‘Superstar’).
Now that we live in a culture that has become more or less relentlessly online, more and more musicians are required to be non-stop content creators. With this, I assure you, will come the need for more (not less) covers.
So, I beg of you: Embrace the recycling. Enjoy the reinterpretations. Evict the cynicism from your mind. And take them for what they are: a time-honoured way for musicians to do what we love, while championing the folks who came before us at the same time.
Emma Swift is an Australian singer-songwriter, currently based in the US. Her album Blonde On The Tracks features a collection of Bob Dylan covers and is out now.