As I was driving home from UCR last Friday, I was unlucky enough to be flipping through the channels on my car radio (most of the stations were on commercial breaks) and happened upon a pair of musical monstrosities. No, it wasn’t Taylor Swift; I would have been able to ignore bad pop music. Instead, it was a pair of trashy covers of a couple of my favorite songs — “Walk This Way” by Aerosmith (at least originally) and “Smooth Criminal” by Michael Jackson — performed by Run DMC and Alien Ant Farm, respectively.
Now I’d be a liar if I said I disliked all covers of songs; I believe five songs on my personal list of my 313 favorite songs are cover versions, and there a few other covers that I can stand listening to because they didn’t diminish much from the original. But as a general rule, I’ve come to find that covering a song raises far more intellectual, artistic and monetary questions than they can resolve. (You can thank Panic! at the Disco and their covered version of my all-time favorite song, Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” for this animosity.)
For starters, covering songs is intellectually lazy. If a band or singer decides that the only thing they can think of to do for a song is to take the exact words from someone else’s song, change some of the instruments used and sing away, then they essentially plagiarized the song. If I did the same thing with another person’s essay — copying it word for word and only tweaking it slightly — I’d be kicked out of college, because that’s plagiarism. It doesn’t matter if they got permission from the original singer or whatever to make the cover; at the core, the intellectual offense is still there, and no amount of legality changes that fact.
Creating a cover of a song only has two end results: Either the cover is very similar to the original, or it is drastically different. In the former case, the cover is a waste of time. Why listen to what is basically the same thing as the original, but slightly different? Yes, it would probably be good, but that’s only because it owes way too much to the version that came first. On the other hand, one might think that a substantially different interpretation of a song could make it good in its own right, but odds are, that radical a change would betray the spirit of the original. The further the style of a cover gets from that of the original piece, the more it deviates from what was intended by the original, and such deviations detract from the cover’s ability to use what was worthwhile about the original song.
One also has to question why a singer or band, especially an established one, decides to go ahead and write a cover of some existing song. A significant motive for this choice certainly seems to be profit. Consider this: Nirvana covered David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” in 1994; Guns n’ Roses covered Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” in 1991; and Aerosmith covered the Beatles’ “Come Together” in 1978. All three of these bands were well-established by the time they performed these covers, so it isn’t as if they were trying to use someone else’s song to make themselves noteworthy. Instead, the explanation is simple — they just opt to use someone else’s song because it’s popular, and people will more than likely buy a new version of it, lining their pockets for all the great things that rock bands do with money.
And it’s funny that singers can have this mentality, because I am certain that there are fans out there of various performers that would see a cover of their songs as some form of heresy. I for one would feel this way about any Queen song being covered. Especially when a singer is deceased (as is the case for Queen’s Freddie Mercury), a cover of a song can be seen as trying to replace that person’s work, and this is unacceptable. Such songs should be a person’s legacy, not a tool for a group to profit at their expense.
Maybe not all covers of songs are bad. I won’t say that they are. But the idea of covering songs is a dangerous one for the music industry, because it allows a singer to manipulate their fans (and other singers’ fans) to their benefit, and without having to write a word.