Light Topics, Real Philosophy: Some Lessons from Writing about the Philosophy of Cover Songs (guest post)
“Aristotle or Kant simply could not have thought about music this way.”
The following is a guest post* by P.D. Magnus, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Albany, State University of New York. It is the third in a series of weekly guest posts by different authors at Daily Nous this summer.
Light Topics, Real Philosophy:
Some Lessons from Writing about the Philosophy of Cover Songs
by P.D. Magnus
When I announced the release of my book on Twitter, lots of people expressed interest and congratulations. One person commented, “I thought this was a parody … apparently not.” I’m honestly surprised there wasn’t more of that.
The book, A Philosophy of Cover Songs, applies the resources of philosophy to thinking about cover songs. It is, as Justin delicately put it in his invitation to write a guest post, “what some might consider a ‘light’ topic.”
One nice thing about cover versions, as a target for philosophical reflection, is that the concept is only about 75 years old. We consume music mostly through recordings. More than that, we associate songs with particular performers and recordings. Later versions count as covers, and we think of them differently than we think of originals. Aristotle or Kant simply could not have thought about music this way. The ontology of music was different for them, because recording was literally not a thing yet.
Although my own way into this topic is idiosyncratic, I think it offers a couple of lessons for other philosophers thinking about light topics. I didn’t start out to write a book about cover songs. I had written a bit about the ontology of musical works. (“Historical individuals like Anas platyrhynchos and ‘Classical Gas'” was published in 2012.) A bit later, I coauthored a paper on cover songs. (“Judging Covers” appeared in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism in Fall 2013.) I thought more about covers, and in the course of another collaborative paper realized that it I could write something longer. I did not have a bookful of things to say about covers when I first thought about them.
Lesson #1: Philosophical insight about a topic, even a light one, takes time.
I also didn’t do it alone. Although it’s a single-author book, many of the ideas were developed as part of a collaboration. The 2013 paper was written with Christy Mag Uidhir and Cristyn Magnus. When responding to that paper, Andrew Kania refers to us as “the Mags.” (He says, “to save some space!”) A more recent paper was with them plus Ron McClamrock. Although it is changing for the better, there is still sometimes an unreasonable stigma against co-authored work in philosophy.
Lesson #2: Not only does philosophical insight take time, it is best developed cooperatively.
When people learn that I write about cover songs, there are two questions they tend to ask: How do you define “cover”? What are some of your favorite covers?
Regarding definitions: It can be a fun parlor game to consider a boundary case and ask whether it is or is not a cover. Any would-be definition faces legions of counterexamples. One then sets off on rounds of what Imre Lakatos called monster-barring, revising and refining the definition to resolve wave after wave of counterexample. This strategy can always generate philosophical discourse, but it only yields real insight when there is a core category robust enough to survive the process. Lakatos defends monster-barring in mathematics, where the goal is to arrive at a theorem that is actually true. In other cases, precise definitions matter for scientific or legal reasons.
With covers, however, nothing much ultimately depends on whether a particular version is or is not a cover. To take one example that I discuss in the book: Patsy Cline sang the first released recording of “Crazy” after having heard Willie Nelson’s demo record. Her version is usually not considered a cover, although a case could be made for it. Nelson, who wrote the song, later included it on an album of his own. Is Nelson’s version a cover? People I’ve asked are split on the question. Although I can explain the ambivalence, I think it would be a mistake to insist that the category of covers is precise enough—or should be made precise enough—to settle the question.
Covers are a known phenomenon in popular music, so we do not need a definition in order to think more about them. There are valuable distinctions to be made between different kinds of covers, but we don’t need a definition of “cover” in order to make those distinctions. A key distinction is between mimic covers (ones meant to sound just like the original) and rendition covers (ones meant to sound different). A mimic cover is in a way essentially unoriginal. It will not sound exactly like the original, of course, but every divergence is a defect. A rendition cover may be original or unoriginal, depending on the details. It may preserve central features of the original or change them. Where it changes them, the difference can be in the sound, the meaning, or both. When someone says that they hate cover versions, they probably mean mimic covers. And when someone says they love cover versions, they probably mean rendition covers.
Lesson #3: Employ rigor and make distinctions where they are valuable, and not just because you can.
Regarding favorite covers: I’ve listened to a lot of covers in thinking about these issues and in writing this book. Appreciating rendition covers is complicated, because they can be good in different ways. In terms of overall impact and importance, I’d have to say Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” Rather than just echo internet lists of The Best Covers Ever, though, I will mention three that stick in my head.
These are catchy, wonderful tracks. I went back and listened to them again when writing this post, and I was happy to hear them again.
R.E.M. recorded “First we take Manhattan” for a Leonard Cohen tribute album. Although it’s a nice bit of songwriting, Cohen’s own version is forgettable. The cover combines Cohen’s lyrics with R.E.M.’s signature sound in a way that is haunting and brilliant.
The Polyphonic Spree performed “Heart of Gold” (originally by Neil Young) for the Onion’s AV Club Undercover. The orchestration replaces Young’s harmonica with a brass section. It’s impressive enough that there’s now a spectral absence of horns in every other version I hear.
They Might Be Giants performed “Tubthumping” (originally by Chumba Wumba) for the AV Club. The cover brings in the whole Onion office staff to sing the chorus. The result is pure chaotic joy.
Lesson #4: A bonus of writing on the topic is that listening to music counts as research time.
A Philosophy of Cover Songs is out now from Open Book Publishers. The book is open access, so you can read it on-line or download a PDF for free.
Discussion welcome—and feel free to share your favorite covers in the comments.
For some reason I want to try to tie this to the question of whether Beckett translated his plays into English from French (as we might think), or wrote new plays in English that just had extremely strong similarities with the French ones, as he insisted, but I’m not quite sure how to do it.
As for the examples, I’m not a huge Cohen fan, and like REM fairly well, but I thought that version was just boring. For an REM cover, I might like this one more: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UuMWS3LsOos
(It leads me then to the question of when, say, Richard Thompson plays a Fairport Convention song that he didn’t originally sing on, is he doing a cover? Does it matter if he wrote or helped write the song or not?)Report
Presenting a similar puzzle, we have Bob Mould covering Sugar: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DKMYV9luj1AReport
I spent an hour arguing with someone about whether it made sense to cover a more or less perfect song like Billie Jean (I thought not). Then I listened to the cover and my mind was blown: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R0uWF-37DAMReport
For some other “punk” covers, you can listen to this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGrujEfhBjI or this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2MQHGR38lpM (Very different covers by the same band, but both with the punk virtue, as set out the by the Ramones, of no songs over 2:30.)Report
May not be to many’s taste, but this is my favorite ‘cover’ of the song, though it definitely pushes the boundaries of what counts as a cover: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z9cd7fKm1q0Report
Adam Lambert’s cover of Cher’s “Believe” is amazing. Just by changing the phrasing and tempo, he changes the meaning of the song. Cher’s version is a song of triumph after a breakup, but Lambert’s version leaves the question open as to whether there can be life after love. If two versions of a song have completely different meanings does one still count as a cover?
I love cover songs. Here is a YouTube playlist I put together of 400+ cover songs. Some of you might find some covers you like!
As a statement of a regularity, this might be right: “ When someone says that they hate cover versions, they probably mean mimic covers. And when someone says they love cover versions, they probably mean rendition covers.” But I think that lots of people who hate covers don’t necessarily hate mimic covers in particular. I think they often just place some kind of premium on being the original (an attitude that I think misses much of what’s interesting about musical interpretation). That said, while I generally prefer rendition covers, I would highly recommend Train’s cover of the entirety of Led Zeppelin II, which definitely fits more in the mimic cover category (and side note: I don’t think I agree that changes made in mimic covers are necessarily defects).
In the rendition cover category, while it’s a bit more cliche, Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” seems to me clearly the best Leonard Cohen cover. (I’ll also note that covers of Leonard Cohen songs are nearly always better than the original because Cohen himself doesn’t have a lot of talent as a performer. Come at me.)
JDRox links to Chris Cornell’s cover of “Billie Jean,” which is great. Chris Cornell has a lot of really excellent covers. “Nothing Compares 2 U” (and the Sinead O’Connor version is, of course, itself a cover of a Prince song) is another excellent one.
There’s a genre of cover song exemplified by Wes McMichael’s example (and the Chris Cornell version of “Billie Jean”) that basically takes an upbeat song and does a slower, usually more mournful (or contemplative or haunting…) version. Another good one in this category is Gary Jules’s cover of “Mad World” originally by Tears for Fears.Report
I’m not sure who sang the original version of Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets,” but I’ll take Ella Fitzgerald’s version (as found, e.g., on the CD The Best of the Song Books).Report
I would be surprised by someone who says “I hate covers” in the case of Great American Songbook songs. Can anyone cite such a statement?Report
The website Second Hand Songs lists all or at least most of the covers of pretty much any song you can think of, e.g. 1077 versions of Yesterday, with links so you can listen to them (Sinatra doing Yesterday? or Tammy Wynette? or Mona Lisa Twins?) It also has the editors’ recommendations of the one or few best covers of a given song, plus readers’ ratings. An artist whose covers often come at or near the top is Eva Cassidy.Report
Eva Cassidy is the Willie Mays of cover artists. Jimmy Lafave is great also.Report
This isn’t my favorite cover, but it’s a paradigmatic case of a rendition cover:
It’s Tori Amos, covering “Smells Like Teen Spirit”Report
My vote for best cover goes to Jimi Hendrix’s version of Bob Dylan’s “All along the watchtower” (which has been covered by many many others).
I am a fan the Bad Plus cover songs (perhaps their version of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man”) is my favorite. They are a jazz trio updating the concept of a “standard” familiar in jazz.Report
Trying to control myself since I have work to do, but couldn’t resist these oldies-but-goodies.
Oh, and also a nod to Angelique Kidjo’s version of “Gimme Shelter” (with Joss Stone)
I love Prince, but I never could say that I enjoy his semi-falsetto “Kiss”. I first heard Tom Jones’ 1987 cover over the sound system of a noisy casino (double !! for the singer and the situation) some 30+ years after it was recorded, and I simply fell in love with it and I-tuned it immediately. Definitely not a mimic cover! Here’s the song, but I implore you to ignore the execrable video:
Others things being equal, the more drastic a rendition cover is, the better it is. For example, covering the song in an entirely different genre (as opposed to say taking a song in one sub-genre of rock and covering it in another sub-genre) is impressive. Likewise, for fundamentally changing the rhythmic or harmonic structure. A great example of a drastic rendition cover is Herbie Hancock’s cover of Nirvana’s “All Apologies” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sKUaZgcZp-0&ab_channel=Sity
Not only is the genre very different, but we have an instrumental rendition of the vocal, which usually sounds kitschy (think of the mass produced sheet music with piano instrumental covers of pop songs for enthusiasts to play at home) and yet in this case sounds fresh and innovative.Report
I am very glad to learn of this work by P.D. Magnus. Evan Eisenberg’s The Recording Angel is by now a classic reference point for the way composition, performance, recording, and quotation have such different significance across musical genres, but the cover song in particular has needed more consideration.
To the growing thread of notable entries in this delicate art, I will add
Sebadoh’s version of Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon”
Ciccone Youth’s version of Madonna’s “Get into the Groove”
Pere Ubu’s version of the Seeds’ “Pushin too Hard”
Sturgill Simpson’s version of Nirvana’s “In Bloom”
The entire Killdozer For Ladies Only album
and the granddaddy of them all
The Raincoats’ version of the Kinks’ “Lola”
Also, fans of Jason Isbell’s recent covers (“Sad but True,” “Nightswimming,” etc) ought to watch out for what he and Amanda Shires are contributing to the rerecording of Sleater Kinney’s Dig Me Out album. Could it be “One More Hour?”Report
Also trying to control myself, but since we’ve largely (and rightly, by my lights) focused on rendition covers, I just thought I’d share this excellent mimic cover: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9_torOTK5qcReport
My favorite cover: Seu Jorge doing Bowie. “Rebel rebel” is even better in Portuguese. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Usm3UWPjDQEReport
I first saw/heard those Bowie covers in _The Life Aquatic_. Just watched the amazing _City of God_, in which I didn’t recognize Seu Jorge from the other film. Quite an impressive actor!Report
Is this an example of a self-cover, or is it also “the original” song: David Bowie singing “Heroes” in German?
Interestingly, when creating the song back in the 1970s, Bowie recorded alternative tracks in French and German to be played with the same instrumental tracks. It was apparently a (successful) gimmick to help record sales in other countries, but it later took on a special significance when Bowie sang the song at a concert at the Berlin Wall very soon before it was torn down.
I just discovered something interesting: Seu Jorge wasn’t, as I had thought, brought in to _The Life Aquatic_ because of his wonderful David Bowie covers in Portuguese. He didn’t know Bowie’s music at all until Wes Anderson asked him to join the film and sing acoustic covers of Bowie tracks: Anderson had already somehow had a vision of how great they would be. But apparently, agreeing to perform the songs and appear in the film won Jorge a significant number of fans who might otherwise have never heard of him.Report
I can’t believe I’ve forgotten to mention the brilliant work of Matthew Mulholland, who is able to make very different, but equally brilliant, covers of popular songs. (I mean this without any irony at all.) See here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1CXuwuWsxew
and here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X2WH8mHJnhM
(I guess there might be some slight doubt that the second counts as a cover, in case we need some philosophical debate here.)Report
Since we’re sharing favorite covers… (I hope it’s ok that it’s devolved into this!)
Postmodern Jukebox and Puddles Pity Party covering Lorde’s Royals: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VBmCJEehYtU
Camper van Beethoven covered the entirety of Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk. Here’s the first disc: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_eUh7aUsun8Report
I posted a playlist of 400+ cover songs that I put together earlier in the thread. But here are covers by the pianist Maxence Cyrin of The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” and Joy Division’s “Disorder.” They are two of my very favorite cover songs. Simply sublime…
Not that I have any expertise in aesthetics, but contra lesson #3, I think you still need a definition of “cover”, or at least of “original”, or the analysis may be aimed at the wrong thing:
For instance, what makes it an original? Is it the first published (and mixed) version? If the artist who published it then performs that song slightly differently, is the artist covering themselves, or are they both originals? Or is the artist’s final version of the song the original, and how do you know when it’s final? If a band gets a new member and plays a song that had previously recorded, is that still an original? Can a song exist before it’s published or even sung, e.g., it exists as a musical score? Etc.
This line of questioning might suggest employing the type-token distinction here from the philosophy of art. For instance, every copy of Shakespeare’s Hamlet you’ve ever seen is only a token of the work of art/literature known as Hamlet (i.e., the type, something like a Platonic form, which is not the first published copy of the play; it has no physicality). Tokens come in all shapes, sizes, languages, media (e.g., film, play, animation), etc., and that’s fine—we can all recognize that they’re instances or representations of the type Hamlet.
Is there an analogue here with songs? Are they all tokens; if so, what does it mean to be a cover song? For instance, we don’t really think of a theater production of Hamlet as a “cover” of the original play, unless it’s explicitly and substantially modified (e.g., imagine a film called Quentin Tarantino’s Hamlet).
Just talking out loud and would be curious what aesthetics scholars think about this…Report
Since you asked: Platonism is the dominant view of musical ontology, although (1) there are a few different kinds of Platonism floating around, and (2) the literature has mostly focused on instrumental pure music.
But FWIW, Magnus’s first chapter is devoted to the question of what constitutes a cover. Talk of the ‘original’ seems covered in a section of Ch. 2 on what it is that gets covered in the first place. (Since the answer seems to be ‘a recording’ rather than the more general ‘sound structure’, that may well suggest a significant ontological difference between songs/pop music and instrumental pure music–which is perfectly plausible, given the different roles that scores and recordings play in each tradition.)Report
Thanks for this insight, Michel!Report
“If the artist who published it then performs that song slightly differently, is the artist covering themselves, or are they both originals?”
Also interesting: what if the writer of the song, who sang on the original, then records a very different version? Here are two instances of this:
1. Neil Young and some electronic instruments and devices doing a version of Mr. Soul, which he originally recorded with Buffalo Springfield: (56) Mr. Soul – YouTube
2. Hugh Cornwell (and a mariachi band) doing a version of ‘Golden Brown’, which he originally performed with The Stranglers: (56) “Golden Brown” – Mariachi Mexteca (now known as The Mariachis) feat. Hugh Cornwell – YouTube
If Heraclitus is right, perhaps there are no covers. True, the performer is different with each performance, but is it really the same song?Report
Another example is Bob Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower, which was famously covered by Jimi Hendrix. Seemingly, Dylan’s subsequent renditions of his original song are covers of Hendrix’s cover. In a booklet accompanying Dylan’s Biograph album, he writes: “I liked Jimi Hendrix’s record of this and ever since he died I’ve been doing it that way … Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it’s a tribute to him in some kind of way.”Report
It was a tradition in blues, jazz, gospel, and folk genres for many artists to do their own version of a song, either an old “standard” or even ones recently done by contemporaries. This continued for a while into recordings. It was also common early on in recorded reggae where many artists would do their own versions or variations on songs that were quickly becoming “standards”. Interestingly, it was also quite common to “cover” American soul and R&B, and there are many really great “rendition” covers that tend to get ignored in online lists and discussions.
None of the above are “monsters”. How do they fit into the story of “covers” and the general sense of what they are supposed to be?Report
Something similar was true of our storytelling practices–until the development of intellectual property laws in the seventeenth century.
I imagine that the answer is probably that the practice of recording music is what makes the difference. Jazz, gospel, folk, etc. were/are primarily performance traditions (some of which weren’t at all characterized by a norm of compliance to a score), so there was/is an expectation of that sort of thing, and the works are much less closely associated with an index case. But when you’ve got recorded music and intellectual property laws, all of a sudden those index cases matter a whole lot more.Report
I wrote something recently about how bands no longer seem to cover their contemporaries even though that used to be common. I wonder if there was any research on the timing of cover versions and how that affects things like acceptance and popularity.Report
There’s only one serious answer to the question of best ever cover:
To link this up w/ Alex’s post from last week, so far our lists have been deeply “Anglo-centric”. To counter that a bit, here’s a favorite cover: the great Moldovan band Zdob si zdub covering the song “videli noch” (“We saw the night”) by the great Soviet band Kino – a real favorite: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vZSoF_BL-agReport
I cannot rest until I’ve read Magnus’s book. Until then, I pass the time noting that the best cover ever is of course The Fall’s cover of Sister Sledge’s ‘Lost in Music’. I would like to alert the world to The Regrettes cover of ‘Fox on the Run’. For sustained brilliance, nothing in my experience approaches The Langley Schools Project’s Innocence and Despair album: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=59sfUa4HI3E&list=OLAK5uy_np3o7Q4gPuKKR2oaEocFtSzQKheFdjUdk&index=2Report
I can’t believe you think Cohen’s “first we take Manhattan ” is forgettable (one of my favorite cohen songs!). REM cover is really good (I agree), but no match for the original.Report
How about the cover by Jennifer Warnes? Better in my view than either REM (which is okay) or the original. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W0rZ2CPCYBQReport
Also about as good as the original maybe slightly better, Miley Cyrus ‘Joelene’Report
Two covers immediately spring to my mind that are so good they are now the definitive version, to mind: Jeff Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.” Indeed, I kind of took the Buckley example to be so obvious, I was shocked when it wasn’t the Leonard Cohen example!Report
Stop the presses! Here’s a two-way tie for the best cover song possible:
Some contenders, in no particular order:
Some bands seem to be uncoverable, e.g., The Smiths, Primus, Rush, Tool, etc., because they’re so unique. And maybe other bands/singers are so iconic they shouldn’t be debased with a cover at all…Report
I forgot about Nouvelle Vague’s existence! Thank you.
For what it’s worth, I’m not sure about your last paragraph. For example, Mindless Self Induldgence has a good cover of Tom Sawyer, it’s just nothing like the original (but that’s fine!). But maybe unique/iconic bands can’t be imitated is the lesson here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RsdPbZfg6qEReport
That cover of Rush was…interesting. But I think it’s safe to say that it’s not a counterexample to the claim that some bands are uncoverable. 😉Report
Following up on my earlier recommendation of Bad Plus covers, here is their cover of Rush’s “Tom Sawyer”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gGR-lbiFQkReport
Not bad, but I wouldn’t call this a cover but an jazz-instrumental version (better than muzak). Or maybe it is a cover? Still unclear what the requirements are…
This also reminds me of the lounge-lizard versions of pop songs by Richard (Dick) Cheese, e.g., Sir Mix-a-Lot‘s “Baby Got Back”:
Ooh, just remembered another favorite, Walk off the Earth’s cover of Thunderstruck: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AB7MwqjnsSwReport
Well, perhaps Cohen own song is forgettable but what I hear is just another REM song. They shooted out what they had by losing their religion or so.. I’m aware of the love bonding REM and an intellectuals, but I would forget about this tune fast if it weren’t the Cohen but REM only.
Far from that that the cover music is less worthy or anything like that, actually I didn’t liked many songs for as long as I didn’t hear the right cover to open my ears. Cohen hallelujah have gotten old but the Sistine Chapel is old too. Perhaps it’s forgettable but it’s for sure irreplaceable. I do definitely agree that the covers are worth the attention, and thanks for reminding me on this fact of life.Report
On a related note, some readers/listeners of Daily Nous who have been following this thread might be interested in the Dialogues on Disability interview that I posted to BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY today. In the interview, Stephanie Jenkins (Oregon State) talks about (among other things) her innovative and acclaimed work in public philosophy that uses the music of Phish. You can find my interview with Stephanie Jenkins here: Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Stephanie Jenkins – BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY. Stephanie’s use of Phish’s music for philosophy courses, conferences, art installments, and so on, has been featured in Rolling Stone, Billboard, etc.Report
Fascinating topic! Quick question: How does covering songs compare to interpreting or orchestrating piano pieces? For example, both can result in rather diverse end-products.Report