I recently had a debate with a friend about cover songs.
This was not the first time the subject had come up in my life, but it was recent and it dealt with remaking classic songs, so it is relevant here. She said that certain songs (“Landslide” for her) should never be covered as they are too iconic. If you think about it, there are several songs like that in the pantheon of pop music (Stairway to Heaven immediately comes to mind).
Yet that doesn’t stop people from making cover versions of them.
Again, I’ve had this discussion many times and one of the themes that almost always comes up is that, unless you are doing something new with the song, you shouldn’t cover it. Otherwise, you’re basically just putting out a karaoke album.
A couple of years ago, I worked for Verizon and one of the playlists that was piped through the store every day included a cover of “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen that sounded a heck of a lot like the original (confession: I have no idea who performed the cover anymore, so the link is to the original). I enjoyed it because it was a song with a lot of energy that was covered very well by whatever band did it. One of my colleagues was annoyed to no end, though, because it sounded almost exactly like the original.
We debated the issue many times during its run in the playlist.
Generally speaking, I agree with him. If you’re going to cover a song, do something special with it. My favorite example is a remake of the Pink Floyd classic “Comfortably Numb” by the Scissor Sisters. That’s a version that sounds nothing like the original and I love it!
Then there are covers that were, arguably, more popular than the originals. A few examples would be “Blinded by the Light” by Manfredd Mann and his Earth Band (cover of a Bruce Springsteen song), “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston (cover of a Dolly Parton song), and “Nothing Compares 2U” by Sinead O’Connor (cover of a Prince song). All great songs, but also all covers.
So what makes it okay to do a cover song and what makes a cover song good?
Based upon the examples I’ve given, one could formulate a rule that the song being covered either has to be sufficiently different from the original as to make it original in its own right or it has to be an obscure enough song that few people know the original and the cover would be the first time they hear it.
Then we have Cher’s 2018 album “Dancing Queen,” an album comprised entirely of ABBA covers.
A different friend of mine posted something today about listening to it and really loving it, so I gave it a listen. I listened to the whole album, start to finish, and have come to the conclusion that I am very confused.
ABBA has been covered plenty (see the movie/musical Mamma Mia or Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga), so I would hardly say they fall under the should-never-be-covered category of bands. But they are iconic, so there’s that. I was excited to see (or hear, as the case may be) what Cher would do with their music.
As “Dancing Queen,” the first track of the album began, I literally could not distinguish it from the original until Cher began singing. And that followed for the remainder of the album. She adds her now-trademark autotune enhancements in a few spots and a few slick production techniques that also make Cher’s recent music sound so easily identifiable as Cher’s music, but it is basically Cher singing along to a great karaoke background track of ABBA hits.
But is that okay or not?
I love ABBA. While I enjoyed watching Mamma Mia well enough, I still felt it was a lame cop-out of a way to make a musical and felt unfulfilled by the music itself. ABBA is ABBA and nobody can do it like they did. In that sense, I did not enjoy Cher’s take on ABBA at all. I would rather just listen to ABBA.
However, Cher is Cher. She has a very unique and distinctive voice which lends value to anything she sings. Plus there’s the fact that she’s Cher and can do whatever the fuck she wants. I can’t deny that there is value in listening to Cher rock out on any damn thing she wants to. And, from that perspective, I am glad I listened to the album.
Still, after having listened to the entire thing, I am left with a bit of an empty feeling inside that can only be filled by one thing.
Happy listening, friends!