A History of Covers

I have beef with a very specific facet of the popular music industry. It’s not a new phenomenon, in fact, it might be one of the oldest musical traditions there is, but my frustration lies in how artists have been utilizing covers lately.

There’s a long tradition of covering other artists’ music. Prior to music notation or recording technology, the main way music was spread from place to place was by covers. In Medieval times, traveling musicians, called Minstrels, were mostly to thank for the spread of music from place to place. While most of them composed and improvised, a lot of what they sang of were songs by other musicians. Of course, the music was stylized, maybe the lyrics were revised, and eventually it became partially a creation of its own. These covers became the most efficient manner to circulate musical ideas that otherwise might have gone unnoticed. It’s easy to see how this could be important to, say, the advancement of musical style or artistic expression.

 Even Monty Python and the Holy Grail featured a minstrel.

Even Monty Python and the Holy Grail featured a minstrel.

Minstrels covering the songs of other minstrels was happening long before the Medieval ages, and it certainly happened afterwards, but audio recordings changed the whole ball game. Artists can now store their music like little time capsules. They can record a performance, pack it up and send it across the world. For the first time in history, the consumer can hear the primary source without needing to be at the live event. This ends up being a completely different experience than hearing a song of a song from some traveling minstrel.

I know there is more to a musical cover than the idea of passing down music through the ages, but given the technology we have now it’s easy to forget. Today covers hold a different type of importance, some are extremely successful and skyrocket an artist to stardom, while others fall flat. Some serve a purpose and paint the music in new ways, and others irritated me enough to fall down this rabbit hole to begin with.

After digging into as many covers as I could find, I began to put them all into 2 overly broad categories: those that use their cover to showcase something new, and those that do not.

A discussion about covers really ought to consider Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” It stands as one of the most sanctified pop songs ever created. And while it has become such a standard part of the modern musical psyche, the song was a complete sleeper when it was released in 1984. In fact, to this day Leonard Cohen’s original version might sound rather unfamiliar to most ears. That’s because it wasn’t until Jeff Buckley got a hold of the song 10 years later, (a song so underground that he reportedly didn’t even know who wrote it) that it skyrocketed in popularity.

The life of arguably the most infamous song of the last 50 years is thanks to a cover. How could that happen? Who knows. Perhaps it was because the world couldn’t really handle Cohen’s half sung half spoken voice. Maybe Buckley’s record label pushed it into the right radio stations. Whatever the reason Buckley made a wise investment. He saw ingredients of a magical piece of music: the perfectly crafted lyrics, the naked emotion, whatever it may be. But he knew that he could give something to these ingredients that wasn’t already there. In this case he shows the music in a completely new light. The result is not just a colossal chart buster, but also a new life for a piece of music that may have otherwise evaporated into the decades.

At the other end of the spectrum is what I call the American Idol Syndrome. Artists have climbed the fame ladder on the rungs of the already famous for years. In the 70’s, the Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, most famous for “Blinded By The Light” rose through the ranks by almost exclusively covering Bruce Springsteen tunes (including the Bosses own “Blinded By The Light”). But today, a disproportionate number of artists are gaining notoriety through TV shows like American Idol and The Voice, which are inherently based on an artist’s ability cling to the rungs of the already successful and cover their most recognizable songs. The result ends up flooding the market with covers, most of which do nothing for the music but dilute the original. The decision to arrange a piece of preexisting song becomes less dependent on an artistic need or choice, but rather to complete a rite of passage.

For reference, Chance the Rapper’s tune “Same Drugs”, a song which seems purposefully and fundamentally simple, has been licensed by other artists to sell their covers dozens of times. Big name artists like MisterWives, and smaller artists like Pat McKillen, all took a stab at their own version, and they all said absolutely nothing new with it. Most of them end up being an exact transcription of the original. At that point why even bother recording it? Chance is giving his fellow artists an alley-oop to musical innovation with “Same Drugs,” but their inability to engage in artistic decisions themselves demonstrates that the modern state of covers is based on the strategy of color by numbers, rather than original music making.

***Greg LaRosa is a percussionist at the Colburn School in Los Angeles and a contributor at Movement Zero.



Justin Kelly