Saturday, April 29, 2006

Cover me

I am a fan of music. By this, I don't mean that I am a "serious" music fan. I don't spend hours a day deciding if I want to sort my CD collection alphabetically by lead singer's first pet, or from west to east by band's city of origin. I'm happy for people who are fortunate enough to have found their particular talent in life in this manner, but if that's mine, I'll just keep looking.

No, when I say that I like music, it simply means that, most of the time, I'd rather have the radio on than off. My CD player is the first thing I turn on when I walk into the kitchen, and I'd rather drive across the country without A/C than without FM. Like ribs (for her), it just makes things more pleasurable.

I realize that the very act of listening to the radio rather than some obscure garage band diminishes me in the eyes of the "serious" music aficionado. I have heard some independently-produced albums that sound great (yeah Dogfight, woohoo!) and some that don't. Ditto for the radio. I know that the songs sung by Avril and Snoop and Eminem and pretty much anyone else I've ever heard of are in some way influenced by the record companies that pay them millions of dollars a year. Frankly, I don't see what the big whoop is. If you prefer what they sing to nothing, leave the station on; if you don't, put in your college roommate's demo tape. Live and let live, I say.

But even though I say that, there are still a few basic conventions that need to be made clear. We may argue back and forth all day about classic subjects like indecency vs. art, free speech vs. obscenity, to-MAY-to vs. any vegetable that doesn't taste like puke. But there is one area which must be addressed, and must be addressed soon:

Cover songs.

Yes, taking someone else's material and foisting it on mankind as your own is as old as Prometheus. Sometimes it's no big deal, sometimes it really is an improvement, and sometimes it's Celine Dion singing "I Drove All Night."

But why was it OK when Roy Orbison covered Cyndi Lauper's song, and not when Celine Dion did? I'm glad you asked! May I present:

Three Simple Rules for Cover Songs

1) Your version must add something.

In the example above, Roy pretty much added the Y chromosome to Cyndi's original. Can't argue that *that's* not something. Celine added a bad French accent. I'm not saying that there was necessarily anything wrong with her version, but...did it really add anything to the music world that a Montreal karaoke bar couldn't?

In fact, maybe that should be the rule: "Your version must add something that a Montreal karaoke bar couldn't."

I'm not saying the new version has to be earth-shattering; Hall & Oates added a jazzed--up guitar part and an extra "don't" to the Everly Brother's "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling", and that was enough to make it different. But if an artist can't even do that, then he's just trying to siphon off record sales from confused youngsters who think that Michael Bolton was the first person to sing "Dock of the Bay". And yes, I have reached the age where I'm trying to look out for America's youth. Don't sass me, you whippersnapper.

2) You cannot cover an artist's defining song.

I know, I know...who decides what a "defining song" is? Well, as the saying goes, if you have to ask if it is, it probably is. Anyone who thinks they can deliver more "Satisfaction" than the Rolling Stones deserves to be beaten soundly with Mick Jagger's lower lip. C'mon, that would be like me trying to take a piece about exploding toilets away from Dave Barry. That's just arrogance.

To take a subject that's closer to recent history, Michael Jackson had scads of hits, and we could debate for days on whether or not "Thriller" was a more defining song for him than "Beat It." (In light of his recent legal troubles, it probably won't be "The Girl Is Mine.") At any rate, I think we can agree that, for a number of reasons, it's definitely not "Smooth Criminal," and since Alien Ant Farm kicked things up several notches in their version, that passes muster.

In a similar vein, but different enough to deserve its own rule, is:

3) You cannot cover a one-hit wonder.

I heard a cover of "Jessie's Girl" on the radio a while back. Leaving aside the fact that the band (Frickin'A) broke Rule #1...c'mon, guys. This is the only reason Rick Springfield ever shows up on a Google search. How can you try to take that away from him? You wanna kick his dog while you're at it?

There you go. Aspiring musicians of the world, please take note of these three simple rules, and we can all live in harmony (nyuk!) with one another. At least until some record label hears me singing "Tiny Dancer" in my kitchen and signs me to a deal.

No comments: