Derivative Works III: Cover Songs and Culture

I originally wrote this article for Generamus Magazine, though I remain unsure if it was printed in their most recent issue, or whether it was slated for the third, upcoming, one. Here, it will work as the third in my series of articles about derivative works, this time discussing how cover songs can stand in where mass culture can’t.

This is the premiere of what I intend to be a series of articles looking at ‘derivative works’; that is, works that deal with content originating from another work, oftentimes by another artist. These works are often looked on with disdain by the artistic community for lacking ‘originality’ or ‘authenticity’, but I would argue they are just as valid and just as valuable as an original work.

Cover songs are often ignored as pieces of artistic merit, except in any original alterations to the arrangement of the music. But the story of the song can change in a cover variant, even if the lyrics themselves remain unchanged. An artist’s reinterpretation of a song can bring new meaning to old lyrics, particularly when infusing them with irony. Note this observation within Cover Lay Down‘s review of Sinead O’Connor’s skill at reinterpreting well-known pieces, characterizing her cover of “Someday My Prince Will Come” as “[not] wistful; it’s resigned, conflicted, and startlingly feminist” (1). These sorts of recharacterizations stand on their own as well as commenting back on the original.

Sia, covering Britney Spears‘ “Gimme More”, infuses what was originally produced as a sexy dance song with a sad sort of desperation, which feels like a subtle reflection of its originator’s very public fall of grace. Alanis Morissette‘s April Fools release cover of The Black Eyed Peas works as a double statement, skewering its subjects vapid lyrics while at the same time taking aim at Morissette’s own emotive music. Not every cover song contains such explicit response to the original, but those that do have a case that they are just as worthwhile a piece of art, changing how we think about the world. And sometimes, cover songs can do what their original counterparts can’t… or won’t.

One culture that has long been forced to look for its own stories in song is gay culture. It sits as a minority with an estimated 2-13% of the population, making it too small a target for the record labels to aim at, especially as it would be considered a turn-off to the majority heterosexual population. With the economic incentive so low, and the potential for contreversy so high, producers are reluctant to release even a basic love song that has same-sex pronouns, likely finding it easier to simply change the pronouns and make what was experienced as a gay story into a heterosexual one. So an entire subculture is unable to find any music that applies to them, because they are ‘poisoned fruit’ for both the hit artist who can’t face controversy and the up-and-comer who can’t afford to rock the boat. This means that, for the average person to come across a gay song, it will usually be a cover; and ‘queering’ the right  hetero-centric songs can create a powerful song addressing the queer experience.

Consider Jonathan Coulton‘s decision to release a cover of Alanis Morissette’s iconic “You Oughta Know”, a song that is often heralded as one of the first times a woman was able to be powerfully angry, even vicious, about a breakup in music and garner sympathy. When Coulton queers the song, by covering it while retaining the original pronouns, the story changes completely: it becomes the story of a man whose male lover has left him for a woman, the shadings of which offer a much more complex story than the original. The loss of a gay partner to a heterosexual relationship is specifically a gay experience, and the protagonist’s rage and frustration take on a different tone.

Because this isn’t just a simple tale of loved and lost, because the lover isn’t just abandoning our protagonist but seemingly male/male love altogether. It changes the cadence of our guy’s hurt, but also adds questions to the subject of the song: why leave a man for a woman? Realising his true sexual orientation? Afraid to continue a gay/bi lifestyle? Or merely a shift of feelings, wherein the sex of his partners is irrelevant? The idea that this girl is “another version of me” is particularly interesting with the gender switch.

Note the alterations this makes to one specific line: “And would she have your baby? I’m sure she’d make a really excellent mother.” There’s so much added bitterness here, because suddenly our protagonist is someone who specifically can’t offer this man a child, which tosses that into the equation of the separation. The childless factor of gay relationships is such a huge divider between that and heterosexual ones, and the idea of a man leaving another man for a woman purely so that he can have children is a devastating story for the protagonist, because he can never offer what his partner seems to want. And the idea of betrayal, of “[not being] open wide”, definitely tells a story in which our protagonist is left not understanding how his lover could suddenly leave him for a woman. So many questions, as opposed to the idea that the guy’s just a scumbag to drops one girl for another; a lot of the rage that made the original such a potent feminist-centric song is gone, letting the song stew in almost-pleasant bitterness. This is a perfect example of what I mean here; if you heard the cover first, you might get a completely different story than the original, and both have a very specific and powerful value in different contexts.

Released on Engine Room Recordings’ covers compilation “Guilt By Association Vol. 2” is Kaki King‘s take on Justin Timberlake‘s “I Think She Knows”, originally a cocky-yet-unsure song about being attracted to a lady at a club. The original is one of two halves: a sexy, headstrong song filled with confidence, and a back half engineered to be quieter and more paranoid. King very specifically chooses to cover only that paranoid second half, while keeping the pronouns intact, creating the story of a lesbian/bisexual woman eying another woman at a club, and debating with herself whether the potential partner is aware of, and open to, her advances.

Why is this significant? Because in the gender switch, it goes from a guy eying a beautiful woman to a woman doing the same. Where a hetero guy can typically assume the girl he’s interested in is straight, it’s a much different world for a lesbian trying to discern a potential partner’s sexual preference. The paranoia here (“She’s got me lovestoned and I think that she knows…”) takes on an entire other layer of meaning, because there’s stakes here: outing oneself to a stranger could end very badly for her, could get her yelled at and abused or worse. A scene made by an offended woman could ‘out’ the protagonist to anyone around, making her a target for homophobic bullying.  This beautiful girl isn’t dangerous because she’s a sexy female who knows what she wants, she’s dangerous because she has control over the situation – and knows it – while our girl can only play with what she’s given.

LGBT folks, even in open societies, still commonly deal with the fact that any crush or attraction requires their partner to be open to a homosexual liaison in the first place, which makes seeking a mate much more difficult. King‘s cover of “I Think She Knows” perfectly taps into that experience, offering a high-profile song speaking to a gay experience, with a level of exposure no original ‘gay’ work would be offered. This is just one way a cover song can not only be a worthwhile imitation of the original work, but offer a unique and even deeper experience than the original, reminding us that a song belongs to no one person.

(1) Boyhowdy. Cover Lay Down: Sinéad O’Connor Covers: from Disney to Dolly, from Nirvana to Nilsson. Sunday March 16, 2008.


One response to “Derivative Works III: Cover Songs and Culture

  1. Pingback: Derivative Works IV: Taking Back the Culture | The Diversionist

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