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.

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