Covers: An Overview of Approaches for Reimagining Pop Music

By Jonah Krueger, News Editor

So, you want to cover a song? Wonderful! Let us start by congratulating you for making this tremendous decision and reinforce how excited we are that you chose us™ to help you along this rewarding journey.

Legally, we are required to inform you of the potential risks involved with covering a song. In the worst of circumstances, a misfire can result in—but is not limited to—the following: embarrassment, teasing, harassment, loss of fans, angry mobs of keyboard warriors, humiliation, meme-ification and/or death by the hands of the original artist’s followers.

But fear not! With careful preparation, you too can succeed in the great musical tradition of the cover song. Just take it from some of our most well-known customers—Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, Cyndi Lauper—as many of their versions now precede the original recording.

In this introductory lesson, we will define the main approaches to covering a recording, discuss the pros and cons of each, and, hopefully, find the best avenue for you to achieve your rightfully deserved stardom.

Intro

While utilizing this guide, it is important to keep in mind the following two facts:

1) This is a modern perspective on the purpose and value of covers. 

In the earliest days of popular music, or more specifically, recorded popular music, covers were a significant portion of the industry. Whether receiving songs from the famous Brill Building or lesser-known artists on their label, many top-selling acts were performing music someone else wrote and—more relevant to this discussion—music that was already recorded. Most commercial albums included several covers; in fact, a notable amount featured exclusively covers.

Everybody’s favorite pop icons turned experimentalists, The Beatles, exist as an apt case study for the changing function of cover songs. The Fab Four of 1962 and 1963 were characteristic of the industry up to that point. Covers and originals mixed and got comfortable with each other in the track lists of their albums. Yet, with their 1964 classic A Hard Day’s Night, all 13 songs were Lennon/McCartney compositions. Soon, with landscape-shaking records like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road, the idea of the LP as a cohesive artistic expression was widely accepted, leaving little room for frivolous covers. The band—and the industry at large—left the liberal use of the cover behind.

This is to say that—while covers were once commonplace enough to require no specific interpretation—today, covers almost exclusively exist in live settings or as an artistic decision. The cover song now carries artistic baggage. Is it a subversion of the original? An affirmation? How does it fit into the context of the artist’s wider output? What is the meta-textual statement this artist is making by including this song? The meaning is now deeper and luckily for us more interesting. 

2) These categories are not brick walls. 

Covers can, and often will, occupy multiple spaces. For example, the slew of metal artists covering top 40 hits can likely be classified as both “Tone Inversion” and “Sardonic.” Likewise, the oft-lampooned “coffeehouse cover” exists somewhere between “Tone Inversion” and “Adoption.” Think of this guide less as a DSM-5 of musical stylings and more as a spectrum or Venn Diagram of approaches.

Tone Inversion

Tone inversion, as the title implies, is the act of taking a piece of music and performing it in a style that is not only unrecognizable to the original but also antithetical. The rhythm, melody, and harmony of a track stay intact, as is usually the case with covers, but the genre signifiers get flipped on their head. Sometimes this results in a characteristically soft, slow, or easygoing song pushed through a meat grinder and three different distortion pedals. Take Idles’ punk-ification of Solomon Burke’s “Cry To Me” or Frank Black’s aggressive, alt-rock version of The Beach Boys’ “Hang On to Your Ego.” Other times, a fun, dance-y, upbeat song will be flattened out and given room to breathe. This can be seen in the melancholic, ‘70’s R&B revivalism of JPEGMAFIA’s “Call Me Maybe” or The Last Town Chorus’ slowed, steel guitar infused “Modern Love”.

Tone inversion is a powerful and appealing tool—yet user beware, as an over-reliance on this technique can lead to groan-inducing levels of cliché. Look no further than any number of theatrical trailers that feature slow, “eerie” renditions of pop songs, the only trend that can compete with the “Inception foghorn” in its overuse.

Tone Affirmation

Maybe, however, you’re not looking to cover a track that contrasts with your style. Perhaps the song you seek to reimagine is one that already lies within the history of the genre you occupy. In this case, tone affirmation may be the right choice. This approach consists of taking a recording’s trademark sound as far as possible. A perfect example of this comes by way of sludge metal band Thou’s rendition of Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf”. Two truckloads of mud are added to the already heavy guitar tones, leading to a recording that reimagines “Sweet Leaf” as a track released after the countless stoner metal bands Sabbath inspired, rather than before.

Tone affirmation is not reserved for pot smoking and devil iconography, though. The Microphones’ cover of the Eric’s Trip song “Sand” takes the already simple, lo-fi tune and doubles down on every endearing aspect. There are tighter harmonies, a distant police siren, and somehow even stranger percussion choices. In the case of “Sand”, as well as “Sweet Leaf”, homage was paid by way of extension.

Adoption

Adoption may be the sneakiest approach, but it can also produce the most interesting results. This approach involves an artist taking a song and, rather than expressly inverting or affirming the tone, imbues the new recording with so much of their own style that an unfamiliar listener would likely accept it as an original composition. Often, adoption leads to covers with the greatest number of changes relative to the original song, as artists may amend the vocal melody or chord progression to fit their idiosyncrasies. 

A popular example of adoption is the closing track of Dinosaur Jr’s legendary You’re Living All Over Me, a cover of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven”. J Mascis’ vocal delivery is unrecognizable to Robert Smith’s and the entire track is compressed and overblown to the point of being unmistakable Dinosaur Jr.

Art-pop trailblazers Xiu Xiu’s Plays the Music of Twin Peaks—which, yes, is an entire project dedicated to reimagining the soundtrack of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks—and Tropical Fuck Storm’s version of Talking Head’s “Heaven” both fall under this category. If the pattern wasn’t already clear, the most successful attempts at adoption come from artists with unmistakable, irreplaceable sounds.

Sardonic

Not to imply that you would ever intend to be mean spirited, but perhaps you are looking to poke fun at an artist. Maybe the song is widely mocked or comes from a genre your particular scene detests. In that case, the sardonic cover is the route for you. A favorite of the punk and metal crowds, these covers usually have their tongues placed so firmly in the side of their cheeks that they rip right through the walls of flesh.

Many are soaked in irony, letting the audience peek into an industry-wide in-joke. Listen to Mac Demarco’s utterly ridiculous “Photograph” or watch this clip of English post-punkers Black Country, New Road take on “Say it Ain’t So” (in which they are quite literally laughing through the performance).

Sarcasm can be utilized in less overtly combative ways, however. The Raincoats’ “Lola,” as wonderfully strange as it is, clearly has no disdain for The Kinks original hit song. For an even more extreme example, there is the work of one Mr. Richard Cheese, a Las Vegas act who takes popular songs and reimagines them in the context of the smokiest, sleaziest lounge imaginable. The joke is clearly on Mr. Cheese himself, not the original artists.

Vocal Cover

Lastly, we have the classification that likely takes up the largest space—vocal covers. These covers come in two flavors; covers that keep the original instrumentation mostly unchanged (see Denzel Curry’s “Bulls on Parade”) and covers that strip the original tune down to a voice and a single accompanying instrument (see Jeff Mangum’s “I Love How You Love Me”).

Vocal covers are often looked down upon as the laziest, least creative approach, but they are also often the most lucrative. Weezer scored their highest position on the charts in a decade with their surprisingly faithful version of “Africa”. Many contemporary artists have kick-started their careers by uploading themselves singing karaoke to YouTube.

Don’t let the cynics dissuade you, however, as there is just much artistic potential in a vocal cover as any other type of cover. Especially when it involves reducing a song down to a single instrument, the songwriting of the original and the performance skills of the artist can combine to be extremely powerful. Regina Spektor’s “No Surprises” or Courtney Barnett’s “Never Tear Us Apart” exemplify just that.

Conclusion

In the modern landscape of the music industry, covers have the potential to be even more impactful than an original song. They can flip or re-contextualize meanings, pay tribute to influences or be an absurd amount of fun. Attention will be paid, so be responsible with this power.

Hopefully, this brief guide helped illuminate the ways in which you can create your very own cover. Once again, we are very happy you chose to take this ride with us™.

Your credit card will be billed upon completing this course. By reading this guide, you agree to give us™ up to 25% of any royalties for any cover you go on to record.

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