Go your own way: the one about playing another artist's song well


Performing covers of another artist’s song, like making a playlist or choosing what Taylor Swift lyric to put as your Facebook status, is a delicate task that should not be approached lightly. You are essentially taking someone else’s work to express yourself.

Many times, perhaps more often than not, covers either fall completely flat and fail to live up to the original at all. However, every once and awhile, an artist takes someone else’s song and creates something better, or at least a new version that can stand on its own. There are some steps one can take to make a cover stand out.

Expand on the Theme of the Original

Who got it right: Gary Jules, Johnny Cash

An easy way to create a great cover is to either expand on, or in some cases better capture what the original is all about. Case in point: “Mad World,” originally by Tears for Fears and famously covered for Donnie Darko by Gary Jules.

While those in my parents’ generation might argue that both can hold their own against each other, Gary Jules’ version better captures the stress, confusion and desperation of youth in trying to comprehend life’s complexities. The sparser production and slower pace more strongly convey the desperation Tears for Fears was going for but got lost amidst the synthesizers and drum kits. Even the original artists prefer the cover to their version, which says quite a bit about the talents of Gary Jules.

Another instance where the cover artist expanded on the original is Johnny Cash’s rendition of “Hurt.” Both tackle the always bright and cheerful topics of addiction and depression effectively. However, Mr. Cash’s takes those themes and turns the intensity up to eleven, and he does it with a simple word change.

In the original Nine Inch Nails rendition, Trent Reznor sings about wearing “a crown of s— upon my liar’s chair.” Clearly, there is quite a bit of self-loathing going on there. Johnny Cash makes this even more powerful by changing his crown to one made out of thorns. Though this might initially seem overly blunt and patronizing, when taken in context with the “liar’s chair” it becomes very poignant. He portrays himself as a false martyr — a hero to many who does not deserve to be held in such esteem. Combine that with the stripped down, intentionally minimal production and Johnny Cash’s lifetime of drug abuse, relationship troubles and overall self-destructive behavior and you get one of the most haunting and powerful songs ever recorded. As Trent Reznor said himself, “Tears welling, silence, goosebumps…[I feel like] I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore.”

Who did it wrong: Hilary Duff

Now this is not to knock the pop star in general, but more her choice in what song to cover. Perhaps she is actually a big fan of The Who and just wanted to pay tribute to the band. However, by altering the lyrics ever so slightly, either her or the record executives completely missed the point of “My Generation.” Specifically, “I hope I die before I get old” becomes “I hope I don’t die before I get old.” What was once a giant metaphorical middle finger to conformity and a safe lifestyle becomes something else entirely. It is corporate and Disney-fied to the point of nausea. Add in overproduced, generic and instantly forgettable instrumentals and you have a pretty terrible cover on your hands.

Turn the Original on Its Head

Who got it right: Aretha Franklin, Franky Perez & The Forest Rangers, Sid Vicious

Sometimes, rather than trying to match or enhance the themes of the original, it’s best to use the same music and to say something completely different. This is an incredibly difficult route to take, but when done correctly, the result is astounding.

Some may not realize that Aretha Franklin was the second singer to perform “Respect,” with Otis Redding providing the original version. In Redding’s take, the “respect” is a very thinly veiled euphemism for something else, whereas Franklin added the now famous bridge, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” and turned a song about a man’s self-worth into an empowering anthem that resonated with both the Civil Rights and feminist movements in the late ’60s, and is still seen as such today. Even Otis admits that Franklin’s version is better (noticing a trend here?).

The most-underrated TV show on the air today, “Sons of Anarchy,” has arguably the best soundtrack for a television program in the last few years at least, helped in large part by the in-house band The Forest Rangers that have performed a number of high-quality covers, but none come close to their rendition of Stevie Wonder’s, “Higher Ground.” The upbeat and funky sounds of the original give the listener a sense of hope for the future— that it “won’t be too long” before we are saved from the warmongers and oppressors.

This is not so with Franky Perez and company’s version. The song is stripped to the basic components (a few guitars, bass and drums), and takes on a more apocalyptic tone. The world isn’t going to be saved: We are headed down a fiery path to an early grave and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. It is the antithesis of Stevie Wonder’s vision and works just as well as the original.

Lastly, while it will never fully surpass Frank Sinatra’s, the Sid Vicious cover of “My Way” is brilliant for entirely different reasons. The former’s voice is not proud of its past but finds a way to stay strong in the face of adversity, a classy and refined number from a talented vocalist.

In the hands of the former Sex Pistol, it becomes a sneering ethos — the ultimate “live fast, die young” manifesto. It is deliberately sloppy and repulsive and as fatalistic as it is defiant, a combination more intriguing on some levels than the original. If you’re going to go in a drastically different direction than the original, you might as well go all out.

Who did it wrong: The Animals

Yes, The Animals’ version of “House of the Rising Sun” is probably the most well-known and well-liked take on the folk classic. Notably, when performed by artists such as Bob Dylan, Woodie Guthrie, Joan Baez, and Nina Simone, the song is sung from a female perspective. The original version, derived from multiple traditional folk songs, is a gut-wrenching narrative about a woman who turned to prostitution because of her neglectful lover and misfortune, warning her sister to avoid living the same life but feeling trapped all the same.

By switching the gender perspective, “House of the Rising Sun” is about a boy who had a father with a gambling addiction. While technically and musically on point, The Animals’ cover is not as lyrically prolific or flat-out interesting as the traditional (to that point) versions.

Have Fun

Who got it right: Bruce Springsteen, Playing for Change, and Miley Cyrus

Sometimes, an artist does not have to complicate a cover to make it stand out or work well. Sometimes, you just need to take what made the original great and play it your own way.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are the undisputed world champions of this form of covers. From playing rock ‘n’ roll staples such as, “You Never Can Tell,” to renditions of Van Halen tracks — synthesizers and all — they are, at their core, simply one great artists performing songs from other great artists. The differences are significant enough to differentiate the tracks, but not oppressively so.

Similarly, the Playing for Change “band” (a project that includes street performers from around the world, only a small number of which actually play shows together) is effective because it is primarily a chance for artists to showcase their talents playing beloved songs very well. Not much is changed from the core message or music, just each performer’s own little flourishes and some extra instruments. Nothing too complicated, just an incredibly talented group of musicians from across the globe playing together.

The last example might come as a bit of a surprise. It certainly was for me the first time I heard it. After hearing tracks from “Can’t Be Tamed” and “Bangerz,” a stripped-down acoustic Bob Dylan cover was the last thing I expected from the “Hannah Montana” star. Yet, that might be why the cover is so effective. By taking away the usual flair and excess, the more straightforward approach is refreshing and enjoyable and does a much better job of showcasing Miley’s vocal talents. She is fully committing to the opportunity to perform something out of her usual standards, and it is clear in her recording of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” done for an album of Bob Dylan covers by contemporary acts.

Who did it wrong: Madonna

Sometimes, its best to leave the classics to the original performers, especially when your version comes across as poorly performed and uninspired. There is really not much else to be said about the queen of pop’s cover of “American Pie” by Don McLean. What could have been a fun and unique take turned into a lifeless mess of a song, omitting most of the song’s expertly crafted lyrics and trading the rocker tone of the original and replacing it with dull, generic synthesizers and bored vocals.

Not all of these methods are guaranteed to make a cover great, nor is this a comprehensive list of the ways to craft a great cover. However, it can serve as guide for aspiring Youtube stars and bar bands across the world.

Until next time: No retreat, no surrender.


Jack Butcher is a senior history major. He can be reached at butcher@oxy.edu or on Twitter @WklyJButcher.


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