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|Written by Christine Seabrook|
|Wednesday, 30 April 2008 19:00|
The launch of something new is always refreshing. In terms of music, a great new song defies norms and breaks barriers for pop culture. Before long, however, even the most original of tunes will get overplayed on multiple radio stations and iPods around the world, until, eventually, it too becomes just another piece of the pop culture cannon. Every once in a while though, after enough time has passed, an artist will attempt to reincarnate one of those long dead songs by re-releasing it as a fresh, new entity, in an effort to re-achieve the success it once had.
But what makes a song successful in the first place? Is it the lyrics? The melodies? Usually, it’s a unique combination of the two, combined with the ever changing cultural milieu into which the song is released. Unfortunately, remakes are rarely ever able to recreate the strange recipes that accounted for the song’s success in the first place. Some argue that covers are musically unethical, and suggest that certain songs should remain suspended in the continuum of time and never be adjusted to refit current trends. For some restorations, the desperate desire to reshape past cultural artefacts to fit current times is the specific reason for the remake’s failure. Of course, sometimes covers don’t achieve the same success as the original for an obvious reason that is immediately noticeable the first time it is heard: the cover is just not as good as the original.
For musicians, there are obvious advantages to re-releasing a song that was once popular. It has already been written, so most of the hard work is already done. The tune and lyrics are usually already recognizable to listeners, which should give the song a higher probability for success provided that listeners still have a favourable opinion of it.
There are also difficulties with producing a cover. If the exact words and melodies are being used, legalities come into the picture, so artists have to make sure they obtain the rights to the song. Many remakes are of songs from previous generations that are so tied to a specific era that, when released in modern times, they just seem... silly. In addition, that high probability for success is only applicable if the artist covering the song has the talent to make changes that are for the betterment of the song. Too many times, I (and I’m sure many others out there) have turned on the radio to hear a favourite track remade into something incomprehensible and totally un-enjoyable. Remaking a song is usually intended as a sign of appreciation and adoration, but releasing a horrid rendition only diminishes the original’s value. When one of my favourite oldies becomes born-again and appears on the radio as a torn apart and disjunctive “song,” I can’t help but think of that cover version every time the titleis mentioned from then on. (The only solution is to run home to my record player and wear down the vinyl, until I have once again re-instilled my good feelings for the tune.)
Regardless of whether the majority of covers have been successful or not, it hasn’t stopped countless artists from continuing to produce remakes. Thousands of songs have been covered over the years, and there are no signs of the trend stopping anytime soon. In fact, there are entire databases on the internet dedicated specifically to tracking and recording how many times, and by which artists, songs have been covered since the original release.
One recent testament to the enduring popularity of cover songs is Julie Taymor’s 2007 musical film, Across the Universe. The movie’s entire soundtrack is comprised of popular Beatles covers, which should come as no surprise, given that the Beatles are at the top the lists for most the covered artists, the most covered song writers, and the most covered songs. Appropriately enough, the members of the Beatles have themselves produced a number of covers over the years: John Lennon remade Simon and Garfunkel’s 1970 number “Bridge over Troubled Water”, and the Beatles remade countless Motown hits, including “Hippy Hippy Shake” (originally recorded by Chan Romero) and “Please Mr.Postman” (a popular song by The Marvelettes).
Other chart-topping covers include “Over the Rainbow”, originally recorded by Judy Garland for the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz; “Light My Fire” by the Doors (covered over 50 times), and “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks (covered over 45 times). One of my personal favourites, and in my mind the most successful cover ever created, is the Beatles song, “Help from My Friends”, which has been remade countless times, but most successfully by Joe Cocker in 1969 (Cocker’s version was used as the theme song for hit television series, The Wonder Years).
One never knows what will happen, or what future iterations of current songs will sound like. Maybe years from now a remake will provide us with new appreciation for today’s artists in a way that was never there before. Whatever happens, and whichever songs are covered of the future, the continuum of time will never stay undisturbed, making music an everlasting, and preservative, component of pop culture.
© 2008 Christine Seabrook; licensee (Cult)ure Magazine.