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Tune In: Feb 13, 2014

Covers and Mashups

One of the great things about music is that it builds off of itself. As artists come and go, musicians’ influence upon each other occurs naturally. There is no question that modern music would be entirely different had it not been for classics from the ’90s, ’80s, ’70s and ’60s; even 18th-century classical music played a crucial part in paving the way for modern music’s growth.

Sometimes this influence is very indirect and hard to trace; for example, the Beatles’ influence on a band like Nirvana. The two may not sound anything alike, but I am willing to bet that among the large variety of bands directly influenced by the Beatles, at least a few found their way into a young Kurt Cobain’s headphones. From that point on, I could imagine how his understanding of music might have been slightly altered; enlightened, you could say.

Don’t get me wrong, though. Kurt Cobain is a musical genius with many, many independent ideas. I am just saying that influence is unavoidable among musical artists and listeners. What we hear develops our understanding of how music works, and then we build off of that understanding.

Sometimes, however, this influence is much more noticeable and direct. Case in point: musical artists covering or sampling each other’s songs. Sometimes the cover of a song is better than the original, according to some, and sometimes it murders the original, according to others. Often, we go long periods of time without even realizing that a song is a cover. Sometimes artists (especially rappers) sample parts of other songs, allowing a type of music to appeal to a whole new audience.

Every cover serves a different function. And with every cover or mashup comes debate. Here is my one-sided debate on a few covers:

1. “Landslide” (Original by Fleetwood Mac; covers by Smashing Pumpkins and Dixie Chicks)

One of the reasons that the original Fleetwood version of this song is so good is its simplicity. It features nothing but Stevie Nicks’ voice and an acoustic guitar. I find it perfectly made the way it is. I suppose Smashing Pumpkins and The Dixie Chicks felt so too, because both of their covers retain the simplicity by excluding bass, electric guitar, drums or any other yip yap, just like Fleetwood Mac did.
The Dixie Chicks added their country twang by using a banjo, and Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan’s rough, whiny voice gives their version its own unique spin. These covers exemplify a case in which the coverers leave the song pretty much untouched, only altering it slightly. Paying homage to the artistic style of the original is certainly a respectable way to go about covering a song.

2. “Hallelujah” (Original by Leonard Cohen; covers by Rufus Wainwright, Jeff Buckley and others)

When Leonard Cohen originally wrote this song, it was not set to music — it was spoken poetry. In his recorded version, you can tell that his singing skills are lacking, but the lyrics and melody he creates are beautiful. Jeff Buckley decided to create his own rendition featuring his awesome electric guitar. He keeps the lyrics and melody, but his guitar tone and style are amazing, and in my opinion, create a better sound than the original.

Then Rufus Wainwright took the song into his hands, creating what is possibly the most famous version of the three (you may have heard it in Shrek). He plays it on piano, accompanied by his strong voice. It sounds the cleanest and purest of the three, but I would still say that Jeff Buckley’s version is my favorite due to the flawless guitar playing.

These three versions demonstrate how a single set of lyrics and melody can shine through in many different musical styles, while retaining the spirit of the original.

3. “Thank You” (Original by Dido; sampled in “Stan” by Eminem)

The original version of this song is relaxing, and Dido’s voice is very peaceful. It has a ’90s pop beat and a totally light-rock feel. When Eminem made “Stan,” he kept the baseline and chorus of the original, slapped on a rap drum kit, and delivered a dark, distorted and lyrical rap. He twists Dido’s relaxing version into something much more ominous and disturbing. However, by doing so, he creates a song that appeals to an entirely new audience: rap fans. It’s amazing, and in my opinion Eminem’s song does complete justice to the original.

Covers exemplify how much artists are truly influenced by each other. Artists can pay homage to the brilliance and creativity of others, while displaying their own. The variety offered in covers, like the ones above, also allow songs the opportunity to reach a wider audience. Next time you listen to a great song, consider how it could be “enlightening” your overall understanding of music.

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