Song: Shania Twain and Lionel Richie: Endless Love

Written by Jody Rosen

If you look at Billboard’s top-selling albums of the year 2012 you may be surprised to find, in the eighth spot, Tuskegee, the duets record that paired Lionel Richie with country stars in new renditions of hits from Richie’s back catalogue—covers, if you will, of Richie, by Richie, with help from the likes of Blake Shelton and Darius Rucker and Little Big Town and, lord help us, Rascal Flatts, who mauled “Dancing on the Ceiling” in that special way that only Rascal Flatts can maul. And, of course, there was this song, “Endless Love,” a No. 1 smash in 1981, in Richie’s original duet with Diana Ross, whose place is taken on Tuskegee by another diva with a slight voice, Shania Twain.

The success of Tuskegee was eye-opening on a couple of counts, at least for me, highlighting the genetic links between Lionel Richie and the kind of adult contemporary balladeering that has found a home in Nashville over the past few decades—a trend that may have begun, come to think of it, with “Lady,” the Richie song that Kenny Rodgers took to the top of country charts in 1980. Tuskegee also underscored the subtle twang in Richie’s work (think of a song like “Stuck on You”); but mostly, the album reminded me, with a force that took me by surprise, that Lionel Richie is totally fucking awesome, and even if Tuskegee was basically a crass cash-grab, tossing a little mandolin and banjo and pedal steel at Richie’s greatest hits to sell them again—well, who cares, because any chance to luxuriate in Richie’s boudoir is a chance I’ll take.

Richie is the biggest American pop star of the 1980s who is, you might say, not-quite-canonized. Commercially speaking, he’s up there with Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, and Springsteen. But he’s not charismatic like they are; nor, unlike those other 80s legends, has he gotten anywhere near the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Richie is a demure star, genteel in both his art and his affect. His songs are extravagant, reveling in grand emotions and lavish melodicism, but Richie presents himself with courtly restraint. Courtly is indeed the word with Lionel—“Lady, I’m your knight in shining armor, and I love you,” he wrote in that big Kenny Rodgers hit—and you can hear him being a gentleman on “Endless Love,” making the relatively straight and colorless singing of both Ross in the original and Twain here sound great, enfolding them in his plush, precise harmony vocals. In any case, the point of a song like “Endless Love” isn’t to grandstand vocally, but to ride the cresting and tumbling waves of Richie’s tune. He is a supreme writer of High Schlock melodies; his only rival in the category is the Stevie Wonder of “Ribbon in the Sky” and “All in Love Is Fair,” and forced to choose, I’d take Lionel.

“Endless Love” is, for me, Richie’s greatest song. If you pull the song apart you find it has a conventional form: a verse, a kind of pre-chorus, and a chorus. But the song conceals its structure, presenting itself as a series of crescendos, a ravishing flow of melody and harmony, which makes sense—the melodic rapture, like the romantic and sexual rapture it thematizes, is endless, boundless, untrammeled. As for the lyrics: they’re typical of Richie, who’s one and only subject was love, and who’s one and only way of expressing it was by pressing the point. He’s pop’s master of tautology, or at least of the charmingly gratuitous repetition. To Lionel Richie, you’re not just a lady: you’re once, twice, three times a lady. And we must never forget the full title of his 1983 hit, with the greatest parenthesis in 80s pop: “All Night Long (All Night).” Richie loves love, but more than that he loves saying I love you, and he loves saying how much he loves saying I love you. The elaborately gallant knight-errant pledge of devotion: that’s what gets Lionel Richie off. Consider a couplet from “Hello”: “I long to see the sunlight in your hair/And tell you time and time again how much I care.” Or these lines from “Lady”: “Girl, tell me only this/That I’ll have your heart for always/And you want me by your side/Whispering the words, ‘I’ll always love you.’” Or this famous chorus: “Say you, say me/Say it for always/Naturally.”

I’m fortunate to have woman in my life who not only is brilliant and beautiful but who loves Lionel Richie the way I do: endlessly. And so—maybe this is a critical karaoke first—I want to send out a long distance dedication to Lauren, back in Brooklyn. Lauren, no one can deny the love I have inside. And I give it all to you: my love, my love, my love—my endless love.


The Song: Rachid Taha’s “Rock El Casbah (a cover of The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah”)

Written by Maysan Haydar

I will advocate for the title of best cover song fitting in with the theme of the conference to be awarded to Rachid Taha’s 2004 interpretation of The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah”, appropriately titled “Rock el Casbah”.

Rachid Taha is of Algerian birth and descent, though he emigrated to France when at the age of 10, more than 40 years ago. Though often incorrectly categorized as a raï singer in that messy arena known as “world music”, his music is a mishmosh of all the influences in his life – his area of origin, his long-time homeland, his experiences, his interests and passions. There’s lore attached to Rachid Taha and the origins of “Rock the Casbah”, of his handing a cassette of his Algerian/French fusion rock band to The Clash when they were in Paris for a show in 1981, and then hearing “Rock the Casbah” on the radio months later.

Whether he directly influenced the creation of the song or not is not the most compelling draw. What’s interesting here is how the song represents an artist’s intention getting away from them, and how a thing gets co-opted in a way that makes it unrecognizable to its creator. Joe Strummer had been devastated when the genial lyrics he’d written, and the song The Clash played with humor and charm, were co-opted by the military in the first Gulf War. He was reported to have wept when he saw photographs of a bomb ready to be dropped on Baghdad inscribed with his lyrics. Fast-forward a decade, and the song was placed on a Clear Channel “Do-Not-Play” list in the months following 9/11. And a few short years after that, the National Review places “Rock the Casbah” on their list of “Top 50 Conservative Rock Songs“, citing its popularity with troops for its place at number 20.

When you create something and put it out in the world, what you intended can evolve or devolve into something unrecognizable. Who could have predicted that Prince could be made better, but covers by Sinead O’Connor and Crooked Fingers and James McNew make a strong argument that the covers progressed the songs, evolved their nature. And in the reverse, something good-natured becomes the soundtrack for pumping up soldiers to rain anonymous death on civilian homes below. Even how this song’s lyrics are misheard indicates a mindset: Neo-conservative, hawkish types favor the refrain “sharia don’t like it/ rock the Casbah, rock the Casbah”, because it supports their worldview that everything and everyone tainted by Islamic philosophy or history is suspect. Whereas the actual lyrics “shareef [the ruler] don’t like it” pins the power and blame on individuals, how they interpret, how they govern.

The happy ending of this story is that the creation came full circle, to Rachid Taha’s interpretation, and his sharing the stage with Brian Eno and The Clash’s Mick Jones at an anti-war show in 2005. The Rachid Taha version is more directly political, telling a story of the power of ordinary people in overcoming the great might of military and autocratic rule, not by overthrow, but by gathering collectively and bringing the rulers around to their side, with a really great song.

The song isn’t just political, it’s clever, good-humored, and catchy. And if you want them to be, the lyrics are only mildly political, in an unoffensive way – like a “Good Wife” character carrying Jimmy Carter’s book on Israeli/Palestinian issues across the screen for a noticeable moment. Intriguing to those who want it to be, and, for everyone else, a minor quirk in something that is totally awesome.


Song #1: The Deep Six: “Paint It Black”

Presentation by Ian Balfour

1966. SoCal. This is the lead track on the only album by The Deep Six: “six” for the number of band members and “deep” likely means “not just another surfer band.” Maybe the name signals a presentiment that if anyone listened to the band for long, it would be deep sixed. It should have turned out better, with crème de la crème session players like Larry Knechtel, Glen Campbell and the legendary Carol Kaye. And who knew that, before his stint in Buffalo Springfield, Jim Messina was a member of The Deep Six? But it all went horribly wrong, like The Mamas and Papas on acid, and a bad batch at that.

Slowing tempos down can conduce to melancholia, as we saw with Dump’s “1999” and “Paint It Black” seems tailor-made for just that strategy. Isn’t the original rather too fast for its downbeat lyrics: black this, black that, all of it so depressed and depressing. Maybe The Deep Six understood the song better than the Stones? But after the first languid verses by the female lead, the tune takes a fatal turn with a cheery chorus of “Hey-Hey-Hey”s bearing no conceivable or organic relation to the original or, worse, the first part of the cover. Usually to be manic-depressive is to oscillate between those two poles. Here it’s both, incoherently, at the same time.

Still, slowing down the tempo had potential, as realized, say, in Cat Power’s cover of “Satisfaction”. But in also retarding the words The Deep Six proffer some parsing out fit for an atrocity exhibition. Bad phrasing is one of my pet peeve in covers, as here in the enunciation of the slow, doubly stressed “HAP-PENS in “it just happens every day”. It was already a bit of a problem that Jagger had to say “I could not FORE-SEE this thing happening to you.” It’s not as if anybody does or can expect song phrasing to line up one-for-one with regular speech. One marvels at how great singers dilate on a single note or syllable. Small and large variations in phrasing are prominent in covers because there’s a tendency not simply to reproduce the original at that level, unlike chord changes or lyrics with which one rarely messes. The Deep Six’s downbeat strategy breaks down words usually light in their combination of stressed and unstressed syllables into sequences of clunkier monosyllables (for which the extreme example is Alexander Pope’s “And ten low words oft creep in one dull line”). This and other travesties make one long for the brilliance of The Feelies’ unnerving version of “Paint It Black” where they took a fast song and made it faster.

Song #2: Dump: “1999”

This is a cover by James McNew, the bass player and much more for Yo La Tengo. Less famously, he records by himself under the name “Dump”. Yo La Tengo is not one band among others in terms of cover songs, having done countless ones, from the Kinks to Cat Stevens, not least on their aptly named album Fakebook. Their multiple styles are self-consciously eclectic and the cover is only the most extreme and extensive of their citational modes. In one song the singer says to a friend: “maybe it’s just like you, one day I’ll forget every hit song America ever had,” as if there’s an imperative to remember them all. Or better: to be able to cover them all. Yo La Tengo often participates in a fund-raising drive for one of their local radio stations by gamely attempting to cover off the cuff any song a caller-donor wants to hear. The results are not too shabby and sometimes dazzling.

The version of “1999” you’re half-listening to responds to the original first recorded in 1982 by the artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince. The original is a remarkably upbeat dance number – literally a party song – that became a signature hit for him. Then along comes James McNew, a decade and a half later in 1998, recording (in his basement, they say) his delirious rendition of “1999” to be the lead track on an entire album of Prince covers called “That Skinny Motherfucker with the High Voice?,” a phrase from a song off The Black Album referring to Prince himself.

“Sue me if I go too fast …” Prince challenges his audience. But you can already tell there’s little chance that James McNew would be sued even by Prince’s litigious lawyers. The original features a more or less forced euphoria, a carpe diem scenario, where, sensing the eve of destruction, Prince figures: Why not party like it’s 1999? The world is ending anyway. But when these words and sounds pass from the hip, black rising superstar in 1982 to the unglamorous, not-so-slim, average white guy in 1998 and the tempo is slowed down drastically, euphoria turns to melancholy. The instrumental parts are dragged out and skewed sonically, adopting a far more apocalyptic, if depressed, tone than its source. It’s the end of the world as we know it and Dump doesn’t feel nearly as fine as Prince did. Dump takes an anxious song and makes it sadder: life is just a party, parties weren’t meant to last, and this party of the millennium will have been a bust. It’s not so clear Dump was even invited to the party.

The sense of time and history in both versions of the song is bound up with certain complications of “tempo-rality” figured in the elusive date 1999. Dates are enigmatic enough to begin with and then all the more so when enunciated in a song, a song that is designed to be repeated and could in principle be repeated infinitely, like a broken record. The work of art both dates and un-dates itself: Adorno chides narrow historicism for thinking a work of art can be consigned to the moment of its production. It never has just one date – it has two at a minimum. “To write history,” Benjamin said, “means giving dates their physiognomy.” Prince certainly does that with “1999” and so too does James McNew but differently. The cover comes along and “dates,” in effect and retroactively, the source. You might notice that McNew slightly alters Prince’s lyrics from “we’re going to party like it’s 1999” to “we’re going to party: 1999”. No longer just like it, in the song it’s now suddenly 1999. A literature professor of mine used to ask, helpfully, in class: “What time is it in the poem?” Morris Day in 1982 also asked on his album of that year “What Time Is It?” Cover songs make you ask and try to answer just this question.
So what is this 1999? In 1982 the date 1999 sounds like a figure for the end, on the cusp of 2 thousand zero zero, the millennium as end-time. Then, shockingly, for Dump, it’s literally 1999. But it’s hard to keep this 1999 in its historical place. 1999 is on “repeat”. Is it the same 1999 in Dump’s re-working the moment of the song? What is the force of this “1999” in 1982, 1998, 1999, 2001 (when Dump’s version was released on CD). Is it 1999 when listened to now? I don’t really know the answer to these questions but we can say at least that we’re dealing with “the long 1999,” whatever that year or figure portends. It’s certainly not something confined to the circumscribed year we first tend to imagine. Dump’s “1999” shakes up our sense of what that time is.

Like all good covers, Dump’s rendition of “1999”destabilizes retroactively the original. A strong cover makes you think—this is the effect of Nina Simone so often—that the original could have been otherwise. The good cover certainly helps canonize the original—it was worth repeating, worth covering, after all–but at the same time it makes the original tremble, all of a sudden less etched in stone or vinyl or electrons than before. It’s not like every cover song, if structured like a revolution, is going to party like it’s 1789 but it does arrest history momentarily, jolting us momentarily into a moment of the past. At the same time, it is a leap, not a series of steps, forward, rendering history mobile and precarious.

Dump’s 7-minute recasting of “1999” leaves off of any of singing Prince’s words half way through the song. The extended outré outro, lasting a full three minutes, begins with a kind of crazed organ-synth fantasia, with lots of interference, noise, and feedback and then the small number of instruments gradually gets smaller and the sounds sparer until we are left with only the drum-machine-like loop, even now as we approach the end of the world and the song. More with a whimper than a bang. It’s not clear that anyone is playing anything.

Still, it has been Prince and the revolution, from the start and then once again. Can we not say with confidence that if there is a prince, sooner or later there will be a revolution?

Party almost over. Oops. Out of time.


“Opening Remarks for Critical Karaoke Covers”
by Ian Balfour

I’ll offer some brief remarks that don’t necessarily speak for everyone on the roundtable but that try to get at the interest of the cover song for thinking about music and mobility in history. I’ll slide after a while into the first example, which, though it won’t be everyone’s idea of the greatest cover ever, might conjure some of the salient issues or crystallize something of the genius of the mode, not without a rather grand proposal about the cover song as a kind of little revolution.

Our roundtable doesn’t aim to present a unified field theory of the cover song. Indeed we’re privileging examples, which don’t easily stand in for the whole shebang. Joshua Clover suggested that we take as our examples the greatest and worst of the bunch, which should have the virtue of marking out, in their exposure to and of extremities, the horizons of the strange, resonant thing that is the cover song.

Covers are by definition secondary and derivative. You could be forgiven for wondering: “why bother with them when there’s so still so much to do with originals?”, to say nothing of attending to the pressing issues of the day. But I hope to intimate how covers can show us something of how music and history work – before the fun starts with the examples from others.

Covers do a lot of different things: they imitate, they critique, they ironize, they render homage, they acknowledge debts, they revel in the power or beauty of a prior song. Every single instance of a cover is mobile and crosses boundaries of some sort: genders, genres, races, decades, eras, cultures, continents. Covers are particularly good for summoning up not just the original songs on which they are modeled but moments associated with it: a summer or love, a winter of discontent, a time when there was a riot was going on. Covers make and re-make history.

In the first instance, and historically, covers are designed to make money. “Capital records,” as it were. Or capital re-cords. Capital records what it imagines will sell and that includes covers. It’s calculated gambling about what will turn a profit, even the modest profit that might come from padding an album or affixing a B-side to an A-side. (This is not to say that that the profit-motive precludes products from being great works of art. One might even say: on the contrary.) The eye is on the prize of hit and record companies often raced each other to get a certain cover on the charts. There are, of course, non-commercial forms related to the cover song or with an affinity to it, from someone performing a song in the privacy of a garage or basement to karaoke to the wanna-be moneymakers in the cogs of the machine of American Idol or The Voice. But we are concerned with recorded or publicly-performed-for-money cover songs. These we consider distinct from ‘standards’, songs that go through countless renditions and for which the source is either lost in the mists of time or a matter of indifference. The cover song is a charged, pointed response to an original (though sometimes there are also intervening covers to deal with). With an eye to profit, the cover—especially a good cover of a good original—arguably has a leg up on original material by virtue of the recognition factor, the in-principle- pleasurable repetition with a difference afforded by a new version of something already enjoyed in a different mode. We like to hear good things again and again, and that includes the displaced originals that are covers. In what might be called “the golden age” of the cover–the late 50s to mid 60s–white rock and pop took off, not least on the backs of all kinds of black music cravenly or lovingly lifted and delivered to new audiences (though often “received” without any clear sense of the originals). “I look all white but my dad was black,” sing The Who in “Substitute”.

Our examples lean decidedly to pop songs, broadly understood, but a wish list for “covers studies” would include good accounts of what exactly constitutes, across the broadest range genres and subgenres across the world (drone, raga, klezmer, you name it) core elements of originals that need to be retained for a cover to be a cover. This would involve us in matters of historical complexity and metaphysical niceties, for the very identity of the cover song wavers between what it is, as if for all time and everyone and how it actually works for musicians and listeners, to say nothing of producers and record execs, who “know” the original and have an attitude to it, that is, between the idea or ideal of the cover and the contingencies of how different people experience it differently.

I want to propose, maybe a little perversely, that Walter Benjamin’s theory of history can help us understand the texture and dynamics of cover songs. Benjamin brushed against the grain of centuries of habits of thought by newly conceiving of history as structured not as continuous causal sequences of one damn thing after another but rather as instances of charged relations of one moment to another, between a given present and a given past, entailing a kind of leap from one to the other. This goes for the thinking and the writing and even the acting of history. History moves. History is on the move but it also manifests in the screeching to a halt of movement, in a strike, in a pause to think or catch one’s breath, in a photograph or, to cite Benjamin, “the reach for the emergency brake”. And then it moves again. Attentive to the first pages of Marx’s “Eighteenth Brumaire”, Benjamin finds Marx there adducing the tendency of revolutionary discourse and even action to cite and draw strength from a single loaded moment of the past. In this configuration, revolutions—revolutions per moment, so to speak—emerge not as rare things almost off the scale of history but as the its very paradigm. One might have thought that if ever an event were so completely of its own moment—because it marks a radical rupture with the past—it would be a revolution. But Benjamin sees the revolution as a model of how history in general works, as the freighted articulation of one moment with another. If history then is structured as the charged citation (Benjamin’s word) of one moment in another, it doesn’t take much effort to see how the cover song fits neatly into this pattern. The cover, in thoroughgoing fashion, cites at a somewhat advanced or at least later moment in time an earlier song or number, an action that sets the past in motion all over again, repetition with a difference. It jolts us back, partly, into a past moment but in the present. It performs in extreme fashion what history is really doing without so often being recognized as such.


“On the Negro Question” (Song #1: Dynamite Hack’s “Boyz N Tha Hood”)

Written by Joshua Clover

I’m going to need your help, EMP. It’s been a long conference, but when I throw my hand in the air like this, I’m only going to do it twice, I need you all to throw your hands in the air too, maybe even wave them side to side. It’s like we’re covering a concert. OK? To work!

A terrible cover by its nature needs you to know and have strong feelings about the original; it exploits these mercilessly, makes a mockery of that on which it entirely depends. Hands in the air, Seattle!

This is why we can’t have nice things. Eazy-E’s “Boyz N Tha Hood” ends, as Jeff Chang notes, with a fantasy restaging of the tragic episode wherein Jonathan Jackson — having taken hostages in trying to secure the release of the Soledad Brothers, including his own brother George — is gunned down outside the Marin County Courthouse. The Dynamite Hack cover omits this final episode, of course, omits the Panthers and the historical secret, so as to caricature some lesser feature. That surely is the formula for history’s worst covers: First time as tragedy, second time as farce. With the narrative and historical hook excised, all that’s left is empty race-play, an ironic registration of hiphop’s suburbanization circa 2000: Look everybody, we’re saying gangster shit! But we took out the beat and replaced it with a melody! It’s almost ingratiating in the facile ambiguity of its idea. It is hard to tell if this is a joke about alt rock, or just…alt rock. A joke about white people, or just…white people. Either way it’s not funny. Hands up!

[a capella break]

…And that’s where the awful magic happens. Having indecently solicited our complicity, solicited our ironic distance from the cover’s ironic distance, it burns it all away; you recognize, if you’re the white male audience, how not ok it is to say reached back like a pimp and I slapped the ho. How it was never ok, how we cannot get away with that shit. And we see how we always needed the irony, even back with the original, how we needed a set of racial fantasies to have somehow made that okay, all those times you sang along before. I don’t really think it does this on purpose. It’s not critique, it’s farce. But it changes the original, sort of ruins it, transmutes tragedy to farce, and for that it shall not be forgiven.

“Critique of the Goth Program” (Song #2: Johnny Cash’s “Hurt”)

A great cover is dialectical: it abolishes the original while preserving its kernel in the very act of negation. Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” rescues that earlier invention even as we realize immediately that no one will ever again listen to Nine Inch Nails version.

What is the original’s greatness? Miserablism, I guess. But absolute: the junkie pathos on offer makes other pop pathos seem trivial: “What have I become, my sweetest friend? Everyone I know goes away in the end.” But that’s just a start, moving from there to empires of dirt and then the abyss of the chorus, “I will let you down, I will make you hurt.”

Trent’s imageset is Biblical, drawing on its endless transformations. But catastrophe here is the reverse: the song chimes louder, more insistent, but it never transforms.
“You are someone else, but I am still right here.” Everyone is going away; our singer will fail them all. It’s the fucking first half of Free Bird, the slow half, not just in tempo but tenor. But it refuses the temptation Free Bird cannot resist. There will be no turnaround, no acceleration, no guitar solo, no redemption. Lord I can’t change. It holds to that, brilliantly.

It’s doubly brilliant then to cover the song, to change it. But what changes? Not much. It’s more acoustic, albeit the chromed acoustic of millennial Rick Rubin. The vocal is further forward, less processed. The old man’s voice shakes, cracks, falls away — more natural. No, that’s not quite it. The mix pushes the song into the body, into the decaying materiality of Johnny Cash’s corrupt seventy-year old flesh. And it’s then we hear that Trent’s original was all idea. To hear this is to hear everything. We needn’t doubt the sincerity of Trent’s misery to understand, in a sudden and profane illumination, that it is conjured, amplified, a concept. He could change, that’s the thing. And that was always the thing with goth miserablism, even at its limit — not that it is in any way false, but that it’s all idea, agonistics of the Beautiful Soul, an idealist rejection of the world and the way we have to be in it.

Not Cash. He’s dead in six months. When he says “I am still right here” we know here not the throne, it’s the grave. There will be no turnaround, no acceleration, no guitar solo, no redemption. “Hurt” begins its history as an idealist song of death-in-life. The cover discloses its materialist core — makes the death-in-life true. But we have one last reversal. If Cash is a dead man singing, the cover makes the song finally live — for it is idealism that is itself a kind of death-in-life. To set idealism on its feet, to make it matter, is always the form and the promise of change, not of resurrection but of revolution.


Song #1: Dirty Projectors: Climax

Written by Summer Kim Lee

With the two songs I have chosen – best and worst – I’m thinking about (and perhaps too invested in) R&B love songs. Here, with Dirty Projectors’ cover of Usher’s 2012 single “Climax” recorded live in a studio, I’m thinking about Shana Redmond’s presentation “Extramarital in Outer Space: Marvin Gaye’s Interkinesis” on Marvin Gaye’s album Here, My Dear and her citation of Usher’s Confessions as within the particular subgenre of a kind of R&B performance of heterosexual black masculinity as exposure in vulnerability, anger, and regret. It seems like Looking 4 Myself, the album on which “Climax” is released, is another confession, but to himself rather than another lover. To listen to “Climax” performed by Usher, the song is not only a slow burn, but also a confession that a relationship is over, has already burnt down. This kind of R&B confessional space is breached in the cover, it is sung without the scandal and thrill of exposure.

With the Dirty Projectors cover, we are given the kinds of intricate harmonies they are known for, accompanied by a tinny drum loop. Their vocal acrobatics and the dryness of the drum machine track give the kinds of dimension and movement to a failing relationship that the song itself does not perform. Their vocal arrangements are about layering on and over flat surfaces, of thickening and reaching for the vocal horizon, whereas the song itself, with the sparse and spacious Diplo track and the release of Usher’s soft falsetto voice is about falling from the climax, and then dwelling where he has fallen in its after-shock.

The original song’s drama comes from the arrangement and collaboration between Diplo’s production and Usher’s voice that gives us the sense of the climax as that which has already happened before the song even began, so that now we are left with the devastation and exhaustion that comes after great (break-up?) sex that might never happen again. Meanwhile Dirty Projectors’ vocals, in their thickness foreclose even the possibility of reaching the climax. They reach for the after-shock (that vocal horizon), but instead we are stuck listening to a prelude that does not lead anywhere. The cover song becomes the awkward moment of “now what” with the realization that the climax will never arrive, or the moment after sex when the climax had not been reached. In other words, this is the worst cover song ever.

Song #2: Jessie Ware and Benzel: If You Love Me

I want to start talking about Jessie Ware’s cover of Brownstone’s 1994 single “If You Love Me” by reading out loud the only available biography of the cover’s producers, who go by the name BenZel:

“BenZel is Umi Takahashi (15) and Yoko Watanabe (16). Originally from Osaka; Umi and Yoko both travelled to New York through their local foreign exchange program. They met in early 2012 through an online message board about ankle socks and quickly discovered they each had a profound appreciation for 90’s R&B and J. Dilla. After many failed attempts to create a hypoallergenic ankle sock, they decided to put their efforts toward other creative ventures. Following hours of soul searching; they decided to start BenZel…they’ve been working on it since yesterday.” (

In reading this biography after being totally seduced by the best cover song ever, it all becomes a mystery and a tease of and through collaboration between Ware, BenZel, and Brownstone. BenZel’s beautiful and brimming track includes Brownstone’s original back-up vocals that are sampled and re-used in the chorus as the punch line, or the push to Ware’s pleads, “If you love me (say it), If you trust me (do it), If you want me (show it), If you need me (prove it).” Brownstone’s vocals back up Ware’s claims, in a disapproving, scolding tone matched with Ware’s softer requests and demands.

The two songs I’ve chosen to present are both “indie” covers of R&B love songs (or heart break, but then every love song to a certain extent is always already about heart break). This particular formulation of the cover song is of interest to me because it opens up certain kinds of relations, romantic and otherwise that inform, limit, and/or expand the conditions of possibility for what Karen Tongson called in her presentation, “‘In the Style Of…’: On Karaoke and Crossing Over,” “the crisis of the copy.”

This crisis is two-fold: The crisis of how race and gender are made knowable or unknowable sonically, how the ability to hear race and gender and the ways it aligns with or strays from genre becomes an integral part of the aesthetic judgment of the best or worst cover song.

In addition, the cover of a love song is itself a crisis, insofar as the one or ones covering the song are performing a desire for closeness, but the cover song itself inevitably is about distance, about marking and measuring one’s distance from the original. This is not to say that this crisis is necessarily a bad or sad thing. Here I’m thinking about the work of Jean-Luc Nancy on listening and the idea that Being is figured by listening, and not about being alone in singularity, but about being-with as the singularly plural. For Nancy, this being-with is not about closeness and proximity, but rather about an intimacy in spacing out and luxuriating in the distances between, say, a song’s original and its cover. So the cover of a love song, then, is like the ultimate love song: it is the practice of listening, of inhabiting the spaces between the original song and the cover, and the original artist and the artists doing the covering. A cover song then does not cover by stifling, but rather by holding from afar, of feeling presence in distance.


Song #1: Aztec Camera “Jump”

Written by Pam Thurschwell

I want to talk about ironic and non-ironic covers, and how you can tell the difference, and if it’s possible that not being sure whether or not a cover is ironic or not-ironic might be one way in which a cover becomes great, or maybe terrible.

When I first heard Aztec Camera’s wistful version of this, at least in my hazy memory, Van Halen’s 1983 song had not yet released its ceaseless hold on MTV and Philadelphia “classic rock” radio Classic rock was the “always already” of my adolescence. It was 1985, I had just finished high school, and was attempting to assert some kind of incoherent habitus of my own, by listening to Madonna and The Jam and Bob Dylan. It was a confusing time in pop music (as all times are.) But I knew that I didn’t like Van Halen in twelfth grade. Nobody I knew liked Van Halen in twelfth grade.

This was the first cover version that showed me that an original that I had openly disdained was actually great. Aztec Camera’s cover is superb for many reasons—it brings out the double-edged nature of the categorical imperative masquerading as a nonchalant “might as well” jump. Are we picking up someone at a club? For a dance? (So that we can give in to the abandoned joy of jumping, as in the Pointer Sisters “Jump (for my love)” which also came out in 1983?) Or is this nonchalantly threatened jump a sinister one; will rejection lead to suicide? A jump off a roof? Roddy Frame’s slowed down, mournful, wasted take, brings out the melancholic desperation of the original. “Can’t you see me standing here, I’ve got my back against the record machine. I ain’t the worst that you’ve seen.” That’s beautiful. Roddy Frame’s back against the record machine was not the same as David Lee Roth’s back, and yet Roddy Frame’s back helped me appreciate the subtleties of David Lee Roth’s back. Aztec Camera’s version is pliant, gentle, fed-up perhaps, but I think finally, not parodic. This song brings out the poignancy of the original, by de-snottifying it.

One version of what a great cover song does then, is to make you finally appreciate a debased original, turn back to it with a newfound, if potentially still grudging, respect. Van Halen, it turns out, could write a great song. Was Roddy Frame thinking “this is actually a great mournful twee-80’s band kind of song?” or was he thinking “this is a song I could milk a hit out of?” Does it matter?

Aztec Camera’s “Jump” singlehandedly acted out an MTV battle of the mid ‘80s—those of us (and at that point it seemed we were legion) who were yelling “More Human League! Less Van Halen!”, were momentarily silenced when this song forced us to admit that we were all part of the same project. The record machine was big enough for Eddie Van Halen and Roddy Frame.

Song #2: David Bowie “Let’s Spend the Night Together”

What we have here is a great artist on a great album, covering a great song by a great band. So why does it suck so much? This should have been fantastic; instead this is a cover that manages to make it sound like spending the night with David Bowie would be awkward and embarrassing, maybe even kind of dull. (Um that was very nice, can you take the screechy synths and just leave now please?)

One generous way of reading this would be to see Bowie attempting to ironically queer the boys’ club that is the Stones—deconstructing their hetero-come-on with a combination robotic and camp intervention, but something goes horribly wrong. (Devo would do the mechanical bit perfectly a few years later with “Satisfaction”—another best cover, in some world historical sense.) There’s a grim, grinding determination to Bowie’s “Let’s Spend the Night Together”; he’s just trying too hard in too many different directions. What happens to desire in this song? David doesn’t seem to have any desire in this song, except maybe his desire for Mick, or at least Mick’s chart presence. However, that’s not necessarily a problem—a lot of Bowie’s ostensible love songs are pretty desireless; he traffics in wasted decadent narcissism; come-ons are spent before they even start. My favourite Aladdin Sane song, “Drive-In Saturday”, begins “Let me put my arms around your head/Gee it’s hot, let’s go to bed.” It sounds already pre-exhausted. But this is exhaustion on speed. Bowie attempts to sound eager but it’s an eagerness cut through with irony. He’s trying to be eager but in a really sucky way. I’m still not sure where all the multitudinous failures of this song are located. The piano plinks along nicely with that great Aladdin Sane dissonance; the band sounds fine—there is no one to blame but Bowie: Ziggy Stardust just can’t make a dent in this one.

The best bad covers are generative; making you turn back to the original’s brilliance to figure out where the cover tripped up. Rolling Stone’s contemporary 1973 review of Aladdin Sane verged on the homophobic, calling Bowie’s version, “campy, butch, brittle and unsatisfying”, suggesting that Bowie was trying to queer the song. It makes me squirm a little to think I may be buying into some similar rhetoric in my own reaction. But I don’t think that Bowie here fails to queer a thrusting hetero anthem. I think the problem is that the original is already pre-queered—his reading seems to slide right off it.

The Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together” is obviously just barely interested in the girl it’s ostensibly sung to. Any desire in that song rushes toward the doo-doo-doo moment of terrible parody Beach Boys harmony, when the Stones show us that they are far more interested in their homo-social thing with each other than they are in any girls. It’s a song that is already taking the piss, and I think, doing so rather brilliantly. Can you have a good cover of a song that’s already taking the piss? If the original is already queer, is it somehow painful, or slightly embarrassing to re-queer it? Listen to the cringe-worthy verse that Bowie added (“They said we were too young/Our kind of love was no fun/But our love comes from above? Let’s make love”) “Let’s make love”. Really? This is the song that makes me just say no to David Bowie.


Screen Shot 2014 10 28 at 8 27 36 AM 1

Song #1: Limp Bizkit: “Faith”

Written by Emily Lordi.

< guitar intro >

Perhaps it’s obvious to say that a band whose name makes you feel like an asshole for saying it also makes music that you feel dumb talking about. This is Limp Bizkit.

< I know not everybody has a body like me… >

That word isn’t supposed to be “me,” it’s “you”: “I know not everybody has a body like you.” But the mistake does set us up for the mistake that is this song, a shameless if not exactly narcissistic version of George Michael’s “Faith,” recorded in 1998.

I don’t want to push my aesthetics on anyone but like Carl Wilson I do wonder why the people who like this have such bad taste. Who are the people commenting on Youtube that this is “the best song ever”? Are they here? If so, let’s talk after. Maybe someone can explain this. But for now, I have the mic so I’ll just say, I’m sorry, this is the worst cover ever! Listen to this:

< gotta have faaaaith… >

Is all of Limp Bizkit’s music like this? I admit that this recording didn’t inspire me to look into it. Even before the chorus ripped voice and song apart to spew its vile faith out, there was Fred Durst’s too-drunk-to-care pronunciation and his trying-but-failing approach to intonation. But I guess that’s their aesthetic. And it’s aggressively not for me. Here’s Fred Durst from Wikipedia: “A lot of people [see our name] and go, ‘Limp Bizkit. Oh, they must suck.’ Those are the people that we don’t even want listening to our music.” Got it.

So let’s talk about the video. “Before this river becomes an ocean.” Fred Durst is standing in front of the Golden Gate Bridge. That makes sense—the Pacific Ocean! What happens next? “Before you pick my heart up off the floor.” Fred Durst is riding a scooter… he’s on stage; he’s backstage; he has a bulldog; he has a concert. Wow, there are a lot of people who like Limp Bizkit! They are really into it. The fans do all look white—but look: Fred has his arm around a black guy. Their close friendship must explain where these white guys learned to scratch records and why one of them can breakdance.

< Get the fuck up! >

Okay so that “get the fuck up” is sort of cool but whatever, let’s talk about George Michael. Did he let them do this? This cover does arouse my fidelity (dare I say faithfulness) to the original. The best-selling U.S. single in 1988. The song that showed us that the word “faith” could and should have two syllables. Listen to that Bo Diddley beat, how Michael’s vocals caress against the twang of the guitar—just enough friction. And then there’s his video: those tight blue jeans, leather jacket with the pearls, and his bouncy little “Footloose” dance with the guitar. He disavowed that straight-ish bad boy image when his video for “Freedom” set these objects on fire: there goes the jacket, there goes the jukebox. But little did he know his song itself would meet a similar fate.

Song #2: Mariah Carey: “Without You”

< piano intro >

Mariah Carey released her third studio album, Music Box, the August before I started high school. In 1993, in my white New England town whose kids were slouching into the grunge era, Mariah was not considered cool. And neither was I. That fall I never wanted to get out of bed and go to school but I would lie in the morning darkness listening to this song on my Discman. Mariah hardly ever covered other people’s songs and I’m not sure why she covered this Harry Nielson folk version of a rock song first released by Badfinger in 1970, the alleged year of her own birth. But it is the perfect cover, because it is a performance about doubling and departure.

The doubling starts with that saccharine two-fingered piano, an introduction preceded in its doubling only by the two-word song title itself: “Without You.” When she sings the second “Well I,” her voice will harmonize to give that lonely “I” company. Likewise, the lyrics keep splitting and restoring the rhymes. “Evening” rhymes with “leaving” but “the story goes” doesn’t rhyme… until the next line hastens meet it, to ensure that “story goes” won’t go without its “sorrow shows.” In the next verse, “tomorrow” and “sorrow” open out onto “let you go”—but that “go” gets bound up into “let you know what you should know.” Release, contract. Can’t let go. The same few words over and over:

< I can’t live, if living is without you, I can’t live, I can’t give anymore. >

The third verse will be the same as the first.

The synthesized production gives us a sound and its reverb snug within the chamber of a music box. But we watch Mariah take the song—as beautifully as she ever did—out of the box. From her throaty burrowing through the first word to her cries in all the right places, this vocal performance is everything that is great about Mariah. All that passion in her “bruise-tender” voice. All that ability, but not in your face. So you wouldn’t necessarily hear that she sings half of each verse without pausing for breath. But listen:

< Well I can’t forget this evening or your face as you were leaving but I guess that’s just the way the story goes… >

She doesn’t rush the end of that line, even though she’s at her limit. The song is about those limits—about how far you can go and where you end and the other begins. Is it possible to let go? To release that rhyme? I don’t think the song decides whether you can recover an “I” without the “you.” But Mariah’s performance dramatizes how you can outdo or exceed yourself, even when you think you’re spent.

Hence the octave jump. As soon as she starts that first chorus, so beautifully, profoundly low, we know that Mariah the whistle-range queen is going to take it higher. As in so many of Whitney Houston’s pop masterpieces, the pleasure comes in waiting for her to take it to a place where can’t sing along. And she does, so that the lyrics express a lack that the performance begins to defy. Just when it seems you can’t give anymore, what Nathaniel Mackey would call a “fugitive voice” comes in and gives you a voice—except in this case it’s a host of voices, what James Baldwin would call a “cloud of witnesses.”

< No, I can’t live... No, I can’t live… >

We expect the octave jump, but how many people hear that gospel choir coming? To me, anyway, it arrives as a gift, to blow up the song’s careful doubling. Bringing a sound much too large for the music box, the choir just blasts us with the sound of encouragement.

I was going to say that this song marked a career high for Mariah after which she couldn’t give much more. What if that’s what she was telling us? Those album covers were closing in on her face, making her look lighter, shutting out even her hair as if covertly preparing the new body that would never again be covered up from the mid-1990s on. Soon I would see more pictures of Mariah’s new cleavage than I would ever see of my own mother. And yet she still gives, whether we like what she’s giving or not. Refusing the fade-out, singing “no no no no” so that it becomes its mirror image: on and on and on.


The Song: Jimi Hendrix’s cover of The Troggs’ “Wild Thing”

Written by Eric Weisbard

So, what exactly am I supposed to do at this point—something with my arms and fingers? I don’t play any damn instrument and when I worked at EMP I hated the idea that Jimi Hendrix was the patron saint of the place: I curated a disco exhibit here and Paul Allen kind of yawned and declined to take a tour. But here’s the thing: Robert Palmer, the great rock critic whose vision still shapes everything in this hollow body edifice, had one hope for what you could do, especially in the instruments interactive space SoundLab upstairs: teach a visitor in 30 minutes to play a power chord. Give them the chance to feel like Hendrix just before he burned his guitar. To rock the fuck out. All these years in the building later, I’ve never made it to the end of the tutorial.

But I can relate to some of what I think was behind this moment, at the Monterey, yes, Pop Festival in 1967, when Hendrix covered the Troggs for an audience of hippies covering hipsters, then set the night on fire. I can empathize with Mailer’s version of the white Negro, the psychopathic hipster looking for kicks, not with that stupid jazz as orgasm trope but with the spirit that co-founded the Village Voice and put David Johanssen in drag on the stage of a crumbling building I never made it to singing about trash, gonna pick it up. In other words, still with Mailer’s “art of the primitive.” Or Lester Bangs, in his manifesto “James Taylor Marked for Death,” using those Troggs, troglodytes, lowlifes of teenage kicks all through the night, to talk about the communal politics of “groin thunder” and “caressing Math Class Judy in his highschool “pube punk fantasy,” helped by the copy of Dharma Bums in his backpack. That was all a big cliché when I came of Bangs and Mailer reading age, or maybe it wasn’t: now the band X, John Doe and Exene Cervenka, remade “Wild Thing” one more time, looking to dumb down their never commercially viable Beat Generation punk rock cabaret act with the one thing that surely heavy metal America on the Sunset Strip and KROQ could agree on: BUM diddy BUM BUM BUM. Somewhere in this room, the Pop Conference spirit of Ned Sublette still resides, explaining how the song is a Cuban cha-cha-cha. Wild Thing, I can’t stop loving you, though that’s Ray Charles covering Don Gibson. I get my references mixed up.

But here’s the coda. When I teach music, and music writing, my students don’t get “Wild Thing,” at least not in the way that ran Mailer to Bangs to indie punk. They struggle with a horny-brainy teen boy, white Negro fantasy of cultural release. They know hipster is a term of insult. They really don’t see what James Taylor ever did to anybody, especially now that it’s Taylor Swift who’s 22, like Bangs when he wrote his opus, and it’s she, Math Class Judy, who packs the arenas, not Grand Funk Railroad. To them, “Wild Thing” is Freddie Wong on YouTube rocking Guitar Hero. It’s karaoke, not counterculture. To them, Susan Sontag makes far more sense than Norman Mailer. In my Cultural Criticism course this semester, the student who’s going on to MA work hated the hipster article and wanted to write about camp, specifically Rocky Horror Picture Show. The A-plus student who’s going on to PhD work wanted to write about Kanye West’s Yeezus as what he called “racial camp.”

Only the student who never spoke up, who broke two ribs in a car accident toward the end of the semester, wanted to write about Jim Morrison’s poetry and excess. So so long “Wild Thing,” it’s been good to know you, you been a good American Studies myth and symbol but you done broke down.


Jose and Nao

The Song: Nao Bustamante’s cover of Radiohead’s “Creep”

Written by Karen Tongson

{Guitar Intro}

When is karaoke a cover, and when is a cover merely—as Simon Cowell likes to complain—karaoke?

“That’s how it starts?” – she murmurs into the mic, unaware she’s being recorded by our jolly KJ.

Karaoke crosses into covering—into the best cover ever, as we are tasked to argue here—when the legendary performance artist, Nao Bustamante Creeps-out as Crystal Törly, her karaoke alter-ego, christened after the cheap bottle of bubbly we downed earlier that day on the banks of the Hudson in Troy, NY. June, 2011.

{When you were here before}

We were never there before: me, Lynne Chan, Josh Thorson, John Andrews, and our resident karaoke voyeur, and ringleader in the consumption of vodka and chicken tenders, José Esteban Muñoz. We squeezed ourselves around an indoor picnic table for 4, most likely hand-carved by one of the woodsmen hanging out, waiting for his turn at a Billy Joel tune from the bottom of his heart, or a Creed anthem from the bottom of his girded loins.

{ …in a beautiful world… }

Floating like feathers in a beautiful world, escaping the city heat on our weirdo’s retreat in Watervliet, NY, we found ourselves in a beautiful world that wasn’t meant to be ours: Muddy’s Too, a sports tavern dubbed T-O-O, because the first Muddy’s burned down a number of years back.

{You’re so very special}

We felt pretty damn special…so we attacked the stage. I pandered to the crowd with a Kings of Leon hit (well before their Seattle bed bug scandal), while John covered Carly Simon, Lynne, aka “JJ Chinois” crooned Paula Abdul’s “Rush, Rush” and Josh (who, following Nao’s lead, dubbed himself “Bill” for the evening), wowed the crowd with the retro-est of jams, “King of the Road.”

{What the hell am I doing here?}

José, as usual, didn’t sign up for anything and elected to sway, gigglesnort and clap along, as he obsessively texted freshly downloaded Emojis to all of his friends.

{I don’t belong here..}

We really didn’t belong there… and someone—a friendly, plump, pretty girl actually asked if “we were part of some kind of show or something.”

We ran with that idea and tried to convince our interlocutor that we were all part of the “gender neutral regional touring production of Guys and Dolls.” Our repertoire that evening—mostly gender dysphoric, or at least deeply confused—corroborated these bold claims. Then Nao—nay, Crystal—ratcheted things up to another level when she dove into Radiohead’s “Creep,” her and Jose’s self-appointed “theme song.”

{I want you to notice}
Everyone noticed.

{When I’m not around}
Especially José, who finally looked up from his phone.

{You’re so bloody special}
She was that bloody special.

{I wish I was special…}
It was all, really fucking special.

{But I’m a Creep…}

Each of us may have felt like precious, pretentious little weirdos that night, but the two of them—muse and scholar, inspiration and intellectual; queer, brown badass soul mates—they were a special species of creep together.

And it is no wonder that in a world they dreamed into being through disidentifications sometimes deliberate, at others arbitrary, that this pasty, anemic British rock tune became their anthem…

{Nao screams}

In Jose’s presence, Nao felt free to unleash her upper register, laying bare the Wagnerian drama always rumbling beneath the surface of her cheeky, yet also vulnerable performances. She was emboldened whenever her co-conspirator in crimes against normativity watched her improvise. They egged each other on.

It broke me when I heard her sing this song again without him there, with just her ukulele for accompaniment at his memorial in L.A. this January. Every lyric, every tortuous screech felt retrospectively prescient. Freighted with meaning. Soaked in pathos. Readymade for reminiscence.

We didn’t know then that we’d be so fucking glad the KJ, a bit of a creep himself, recorded all of our performances without permission. He burned a disc for all of us to share, with the words, “The Gang” scrawled in sharpie across its shiny surface.

{Whatever makes you happy…}

Crystal, nay Nao’s, cover of “Creep” is an interpretation, not simply a copy; and as such it happens to be karaoke and not just a cover: karaoke as the infusion of one’s outsized soul into someone else’s music; karaoke as your own voice, no matter how strange or strained, guiding the empty orchestra in a dirge for a lost love, our lost leader.

{But I’m a creep….}
This song became a memento of an evening we never expected to remember so fondly and poignantly. Just another night of song with fully loaded potato skins, and fistfulls of emojis. A queer utopia evaporating into the horizon as Jose—our angel, our creep—left this world.

You were too fucking special, my friend.

You didn’t belong here.