I’ve heard a lot of opinions on covering songs as a practice. Does it mean an artist lacks originality? Or are they just paying their dues? Is it a rite of passage, an entrance into a musical lineage?
In 1992, scholar George Plasketes explored the concept of covers in an article cleverly titled “Like a Version: Cover Songs and the Tribute Trend in Popular Music” for the Journal of Popular Music. He writes that “Covering songs is a musical tradition that often marks a starting point or apprenticeship period for many bands and musicians…”
For me, covers connect us to a musical history. Because many bands get their start playing covers, it becomes a section of personal history for that artist too – simultaneously individual and collective history. Tom Petty even said that it was an important step to take in order to become a songwriter. Plasketes cites Petty, who stated, “You’ve got to [play covers] if you’re going to learn anything [about songwriting]. It’s the only way to really figure it out. I can’t imagine not starting that way.”
For me, covers connect us to a musical history, and because many bands get their start playing covers, it becomes a section of personal history for that artist too – simultaneously individual and collective history.
There are certainly times when I don’t particularly care for a cover, but it’s incredible to see the different preferences people have when it comes to a favorite one. Take “Hallelujah.” Originally performed by Leonard Cohen, the song has been covered over and over again by different artists. Some prefer the Shrek version by Rufus Wainwright. My favorite is the version by Michael Henry and Justin Robinett. Justin Timberlake and Pentatonix have also done covers of the song.
The point is that covers often achieve much more popularity than the original among different audiences. Some artists even receive undue credit for the song, due to the popularity of their performance. Examples of this phenomenon include Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” (originally written by Ed Cobb and performed by Gloria Jones), Elvis’ “Hound Dog” (Big Mama Thornton), and Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (Robert Hazard). I never knew until recently that these were actually covers.
From Single Songs to Whole Albums
As I said above, views on these songs can change once you discover that they’re a cover. It challenges our conception of originality, and, while I’m not going to tell you what to think about it, the prevalence of covers is almost unstoppable. So much so that artists will invite others to cover their songs. I’m talking of course about Hamilton.
TheHamilton Mixtape was released in 2016, which had premiered on Broadway in 2015. It quickly gained popular acclaim, and it deserves the attention. With artists like John Legend, Chance the Rapper, Alicia Keys, and Kelly Clarkson, among others, we hear the American Revolution revitalized once again.
Then, Lin-Manuel Miranda released a “Hamildrop” every month in 2018 – different, new, or left-out songs from the musical. Like the mixtape, the songs are performed by a variety of artists, including The Decemberists, Weird Al, and Ben Platt. The final one even included a voice over from President Barack Obama as he read George Washington’s Farewell Address for the track.
…it’s cool to see musicals become more accessible through popular artists. Musicals, as a genre, are not often seen to be popular for those other than the usual suspects, but they should be.
Now, The Greatest Showman has taken a page out of Miranda’s book with The Greatest Showman: Reimagined. With covers from Panic! At the Disco (which was performed for the first time in my hometown of Buffalo!), P!nk, the Zac Brown Band, and Pentatonix (who, you can see, are basically cover royalty), the album has revitalized yet another historically-based story through the use of contemporary artists who move the music beyond the already stellar performances of the original cast.
While my feelings on The Greatest Showman as a whole are mixed, I think it’s cool to see musicals become more accessible through popular artists. Musicals, as a genre, are not often see to be popular for those other than the usual suspects, and they should be.
Hamilton broke down some of these barriers. The Greatest Showman continued this stride with its Grammy and Golden Globe wins. However, just because the professionals deem a show good or of note, it doesn’t mean that an average individual will take the time to get to know a musical. But, something performed by a widely recognized artist might just intrigue someone enough to have a second listen or look at the album.
What’s Your Cover?
Let’s hit up both sides: originality versus accessibility. Covers open artists up to so many opportunities to be original and to make a track new. When a musical goes through a revival, different people are singing the same songs and adding their spins, their pitches, their rhythms, onto them. People don’t question that. They don’t say “rewrite this whole story with new songs.” Yet, it’s true. They are the same songs, and musicals as a whole receive credit. The writer still receives the credit for the song itself.
Covers invite us to a history. They invite us to hear a different type of music than we might usually listen to.
On the other side, accessibility. A revival cast in a musical might give more attention to the original. A cover can revive interest in the original track. It can even drum up more attention for the original artist.
Side note: Women have been covered less than men, so this is a cool way to lift up a woman’s work too.
So, I guess, for me, it comes down to that. Covers invite us to a history. They invite us to hear a different type of music than we might usually listen to. Finding out something is a cover might encourage a person to investigate the original. It might get a person to listen to Hamilton. It might get someone to take it a step farther and listen to In the Heights. Or, it might just get you to tap your foot along with the beat, and there’s nothing wrong with any of that.