By Dorian Grayson
Cover songs are a contentious topic. Some feel they’re uncanny rip-offs of songs that don’t need changing. Some, like myself, are in favour of them. Others have opinions outside of a love/hate binary. Covers are not all alike in quality, though; not all songs take equally well to being covered.
Despite the huge array of eventual covers, “Golden Brown” by The Stranglers was actually popular in the UK at first. I doubt you’ve heard it, but it is wonderful. It’s also about heroin.
Through the song, the constant piano melody grants the reader passage to the feelings of the song’s persona. The lyrics combine with the melody to spin outward in a hypnotic spiral. Eventually the lilting guitar slides into your ear like a needle into a vein and delivers musical ecstasy.
In other words, “Golden Brown” is very much about heroin. It commands such an impact through its use of sound that many have tried to cover it. Cage the Elephant put out a cover in 2017 that, in my opinion, lacked the fire and passion the original had. This is because the lyrics to “Golden Brown” are so personal and specific.
This isn’t to say Cage the Elephant or anyone else is wrong to cover “Golden Brown,” or that others shouldn’t enjoy it. Covers are about participating in a song, changing it and letting it change you. The most common form of covering a song is singing along, an act we all do to join in with the songs we love and the emotions we feel.
Some songs, then, lend themselves more to being covered, like those that are universal, that ask their listener to participate. Songs like “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” will always invite being covered by different people. “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is a very different song, but expresses a similar universal truth.
In his essay, “The Literature of Knowledge and the Literature of Power,” Thomas De Quincey argued that literature was that which spoke the truth:
“Tragedy, romance, fairy tale, all alike restore to man’s mind the ideals of justice, of hope, of truth, of mercy, or retribution, which else would languish for want of sufficient illustration.”
In other words, the art we hold up and perpetuate is that which speaks to our core truths. Songs that do this and aren’t too rooted in specifics are better suited to reappropriation by others and, thus, covers.
Cover songs take the familiar and not only copy it, but manipulate it. On the website OverClocked Remix, aspiring musicians and video game enthusiasts post covers and reinterpretations of music from video games. From the classic chiptune themes, to modern scores, these artists take songs across key, genre and instrument.
A catchy beat from a SNES RPG, — “Longing of the Wind,” becomes an aching piano ballad, “Yearning of the Wind.” It initially sounds nothing like the original piece, until you notice that it’s constructed something new out of the same musical parts. This act of creation pushes against our definitions, as it isn’t wholly original, nor really a cover.
In the end, creating and participating in music is fun. Whether you’re in the shower, in the car with friends or even on a stage, music is about expression and enjoyment. Through reinterpretation, we use what we see in ourselves in something else to express ourselves.
“It’s the only way I have learned, to express myself / Through other people’s descriptions of life,” wrote Justin Pierre in the song “L.G. FUAD.”