Verdict: – The Originals Or The Covers?
By Caellin Rodgers
I’m sure you all know Ryan Adams has recently released a covers version of Taylor Swift’s 1989 album, so I thought it was time to have a little chat about cover songs.
Firstly, let me preface this long rant about covers by saying that for the most part, I actually really like cover songs. It’s cool to hear songs you love spun differently – like ‘upcycled’ clothing etc, covers often breathe fresh life into originals and allow you to fall in love with songs all over again – or bring new audiences to old material. Arguably (although I prefer the original), Nirvana’s cover of Bowie’s Man Who Sold the World did exactly this. I can understand, too, why you might often prefer the cover to the original – while I love Bob Dylan, his voice can become a bit draining at times, and it’s nice to hear his songs sung by people who can… well, sing. Covers can also be nearly totally unique and nearly as creative as an original composition – Dope’s version of You Spin Me Right Round is totally different to the original, similarly the Zuton’s cover of Valerie.
Whichever version of a song you prefer though, it’s important to recognise the original is always the ‘better’ version. Okay, I understand the absoluteness of that statement, but let me explain for a second. The ‘best’ a thing can be is exactly how it was intended or created to be – Mona Lisa memes might be funny but they’re never ‘better’ than the original, and who doesn’t love Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but it ain’t the same as the original. Thus, while a cover artist might find cool things in the song, presenting it in a totally different way, and in such a way that might speak to you more than the original (perhaps Marylin Manson’s Sweet Dreams as an example of this), the original is almost always the way the creator of the work intended that song to be, and therefore it is the best possible interpretation of that work.
The problem with a lot of covers is when they are read by critics as being ‘better’ than the original. I don’t mind average Anne or Joe passionately arguing that a cover is better – because they are arguing on personal taste. Critics are given a ‘higher authority’ – they’re expected to be above subjectivity and pass judgement based purely on musical elements and other aspects that can be quantified. They very rarely do this. The problem with critics not acknowledging their own subjectivity is that when they review cover works, they often don’t acknowledge their internalised sexism, racism and homophobia*, although this very much comes across in their judgement calls on the value of cover works compared to the originals.
This is very much evidenced in reviews of Ryan Adams’ 1989. The telegraph’s review opens as such: “What is the gap between punchy radio friendly mass market global pop and introspective critically credible adult oriented alternative rock? Not very far at all, at least on the evidence of a cheeky act of cultural appropriation by Ryan Adams.” This entire sentence (without even getting into the rest of the article) very much grinds my gears. Let’s break it down.
Firstly, “critically credible” when used here implies that Taylor Swift’s original work is not. Really, Neil McCormack? Rolling Stone Magazine reviewed it, it got four stars. In fact, T-Swift’s style of music is so ‘critically credible’, it’s even being covered by other artists – artists don’t tend to write covers off work that isn’t ‘critically credible’, because it lacks the depth to make new things out of it. Secondly, are you serious with this ‘adult-orientated’ bullshit? What you mean is male-orientated, is it not? Taylor has a large fan base of all different ages (she’s not 1D or Hannah Montana, come on), but they are mostly female. McCormack seems to have mistaken his own sexism for a valid criticism of music here. I doubt anyone would argue very much that The Beatles are one of the most successful bands in the history of time, a band that built itself on a very female-orientated fan base. A better opening line, perhaps – What is the gap between global pop and alternative rock?
The last part that frustrates me about this opening statement, although I won’t go into too much detail here, is the use of the words ‘cultural appropriation’. No, Neil, no. Cultural appropriation is when people (usually white) take things from another culture, which usually has cultural significance, and appropriates it for monetary gain. American First Nations’ headdresses, Hawaiian lays, traditional Geisha dress when worn by people not of the culture to which they belong (or not invited to by people of that culture) are all examples of these. A white man writing covers of a white woman’s songs in a slightly different style is not cultural appropriation. Taylor Swift is not a culture.
A part of me feels sorry for Ryan Adams. I would like to think it was not his intention at all for critics to review his covers as ‘better’ than the original, in part because of his gender, instead that he truly intended to honour a songwriter he has a massive amount of respect for. This isn’t a critique of Adams, or of his work at all, it is a critique of the way in which value is attributed to works. And we need to seriously re-evaluate how we’re assigning that value. Covers are never ‘better’ than the original.
If you’re looking for cool covers, however, I’d definitely recommend checking out Alex Boye’ and Changing Lane’s version of Shake It Off, or Postmodern Jukebox’s version: both are surprisingly excellent versions of one of Taylor Swift’s catchiest tunes.
*I wrote another article on this massive problem in the music industry if you want more details: www.highlightnation.com/news/authenticity-racism-popular-music
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