To cover or not to cover — that is the question faced by up-and-coming performers and established artists alike as they prepare for future world tours and studio albums.
Though some in the industry view newcomers adding their favorite songs to their band’s setlist as an homage or respectful gesture, many hit songwriters and musicians see the act as vilifying, commercially compromising and for some, a reason for physical violence.
Why such disdain for cover songs in the modern music industry? Are musicians so vain and narcissistic that they think only they can perform their songs properly? Or are they simply butt-hurt because someone can perform their songs better than they can themselves?
When the hit TV show “Glee” covered Goyte’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” in 2012, the Australian pop star was none too pleased. “They did such a faithful arrangement of the instrumentals but the vocals were that pop Glee style, ultra-dry, sounded pretty tuned and the rock has no real sense, like it’s playing to you from a cardboard box,” he told the Sunday Mail.
He also told the Sunday Herald Sun about the performance, “It made it sound dinky and wrong.”
That same year, Frank Ocean sampled the master track of The Eagles’ “Hotel California” and used it as the foundation for his song “American Wedding,” which forced the band to investigate possible legal action against him. While some musical pundits argue as to whether or not sampling is the next evolution of covering, Eagles frontman Don Henley believes what Ocean did was simply criminal.
“He needs to come up with his own ideas and stop stealing stuff from already established works,” Henley told Australia’s The Daily Telegraph in 2014. “You can call it a tribute or whatever you want to call it, but it’s against the law.”
The “Boys of Summer” singer added, “I was not impressed.”
Then there’s Etta James, the famous 60’s songstress who had an intense reaction to Beyonce’s cover of “At Last,” a song which the former “Destiny’s Child” lead sang during President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama’s first dance at the Neighborhood Inaugural Ball in 2009. Beyonce was invited to belt out the tune after playing James in the 2008 hit film “Cadillac Records.”
“I can’t stand Beyonce,” the late James said a week after the performance that brought the First Couple to tears. “She has no business up there … singing my song that I’ve been singing forever.” She added, “I tell you that woman…she’s going to get her ass whipped.”
Ironically, James’ version of “At Last” is itself a cover of a 1941 Glenn Miller song of the same name.
Whatever the reason, those who hate, fear or loathe cover songs need to realize a very simple truth: without cover songs, a musician’s or band’s music remains in a stagnant comfort zone that prevents creative cross-pollination or an expansion of an artist’s following.
Over the years, many feature acts embraced the idea of paying tribute to their creative inspirations and their efforts led to both success and a greater awareness of the music they covered.
For example, the Guns N’ Roses’ remakes of Wings’ “Live and Let Die,” The Skyliners’ “Since I Don’t Have You” and Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” are amongst the band’s best and more popular studio recordings. Metallica’s 1998 release “Garage Inc.” successfully showcased songs from a larger heavy metal universe and introduced their fans to genre staples like Motorhead, Mercyful Fate and Diamond Head — bands many are still exploring and discovering to this day thanks to the 2-disc album.
Lastly, pop music dynamo Lady Gaga, who is named after one of Queen’s biggest hits “Radio Gaga,” influenced a new generation of fans — her “Little Monsters” — by introducing them to musical favorites in David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen and former Queen frontman Freddie Mercury via her own creations.
“I adored Freddie Mercury,’ Gaga once said of the late rock icon. “Freddie was unique—one of the biggest personalities in the whole of pop music.”
Gaga even joined Queen and new frontman Adam Lambert on stage to perform “Another One Bites The Dust” when the band toured Australia last summer. “[Mercury] was not only a singer, but also a fantastic performer,” Gaga added. “A man of the theatre and someone who constantly transformed himself. In short: a genius.”
Musical connoisseurs, in the end, desire variety and cover songs feed that need by presenting creative variations on familiar themes. A concert-going audience enjoys the idea that performing artists might be super-fans also and hope they might add another band’s song or two to their repertoire. It doesn’t mean that either one dislikes the original artists; rather, they both enjoy the journey that comes with exploring a melodic deviation from something familiar and well-known.
After all, imitation — or in this case cover songs — are the sincerest form of flattery.