Play it Again: Cover Songs in Popular Music

August 26, 2010

These numbers describe the respective cover versions I own of the Arctic Monkeys' I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor, Blue Oyster Cult's Don't Fear the Reaper, Ian and Sylvia's Four Strong Winds and Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart. While writing, I play these covers in a looped playlist, inspired by a creativity that juts from homage and derivation.

It is timely that cover songs should be treated with scholarly respect. As part of Ashgate's Popular and Folk Music Series, George Plasketes has edited a collection of 15 provocative and diverse essays. One of the challenges of edited collections is that multiple authors block the development of a coherent argument, but in this case it suits the agitated reorganisation of cover songs.

Play it Again: Cover Songs in Popular Music deserves a strong readership from undergraduate and postgraduate courses in popular music and popular cultural studies. Topics range from Stuart Lenig's investigation of David Bowie's Pin Ups album through to Greg Metcalf's and Russell Reising's distinct projects on Bob Dylan, and from Christine Yano's examination of Japanese popular music to Erik Steinskog's investigation of Leonard Cohen songs.

Plasketes explains that "the arts have always borrowed from, commented on, and been judged by their past". There is honesty in covering songs from pop music history. For scholars in this collection, these tracks trigger discussions of ownership, originality, authenticity and - perhaps most powerfully - the social function of repetition. Certainly the cover has a commercial role. It introduces new performers or - in the case of Bowie's Pin Ups - triggers a career change by reinscribing the familiar. It is a way to value interpretation and adaptation.

Three outstanding chapters in this book are relevant far beyond popular music studies. David Tough's "The mashup mindset" asks if pop will "eat itself". He explores how content aggregation is operating in popular music. The mashup demonstrates how cover songs become found sounds for new modes of sonic media. This is sonic evolution rather than technological revolution.

A fascinating chapter by Sheldon Schiffer probes "The cover song as historiography". He sees the cover as "revealing cultural artefacts" important not only in popular music history, but in providing information about context and audience reception, and describes "the cover song as meta-history" and "the cover singer as historiographer". For Schiffer, these tracks are a method to interpret history.

An under-recognised area of popular music studies is addressed by Lee Barron in his contribution "Camp transitions: genre adaptations and the Hi-NRG/dance cover version". Although he does not mention the Almighty label's handbag house disco stompers built around vocalist Belle Lawrence, he does consider DJ Sammy's cover of Don Henley's The Boys of Summer and the Scissor Sisters' version of Pink Floyd's Comfortably Numb. Taking rock classics on to the dance floor may preserve the lyric and melody but it can still, as Barron notes, "change everything".

Popular culture is demeaned or ignored as trashy, trivial nonsense. Cover versions are doubly marginalised, framed as derivative and inferior copies of the original. They are rarely granted space in scholarship. As Deena Weinstein argues in the conclusion to this collection, "rock and roll criticism emerged under the sign of high modernism, wildly waving a revivalist Romantic flag that valorizes creative artists expressing their unique selves in innovative ways. Romanticism dismisses cover songs as inauthentic ugly ducklings."

Occasionally the ugly duckling becomes not a swan, but a completely different animal in a new story. For every tortured Dan Fogelberg version of the Cascades' Rhythm of the Rain, there is Jimi Hendrix squealing and soaring through Dylan's All Along the Watchtower. In this case, the cover - to cover Bono - is Even Better Than the Real Thing.

Play it Again: Cover Songs in Popular Music

Edited by George Plasketes Ashgate, 280pp, £50.00. ISBN 9780754668091 and 699910 (e-book). Published 28 April 2010. 6 7 9 12

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