Is There A Wrong Way to Cover a Song?

Musical covers have become immensely popular due to the advent of YouTube. It used to be that you would primarily hear covers by unsigned bands doing small shows or bar gigs. Between the lowered bar of accessibility for production software and the connectivity of the internet, it seems that everybody is doing a cover and uploading it for the world to consume. A simple search on YouTube for covers of a popular song will yield hundreds upon hundreds of results, but not every cover is the same. There are attempts at a direct one to one reproduction, genre switched versions, altered lyrics, different instruments, and even entirely new songs with very little resemblance to the original. Is there a right or a wrong way to cover a song? How can we tell all of these apart when they all fall under the same blanket term?

For an example, I am going to look at two different covers of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” If you somehow haven’t heard the original yet, take a few minutes to find it on YouTube and give it a listen.

Now I think we can agree that these are two very different takes on the original song. The first cover (performed by Lissie) is pretty close to the original while the second one (performed by 30 Seconds to Mars) almost feels like a different song entirely. So let’s look at each of these individually to see what was altered and what was left untouched.

The original Lady Gaga version is written in the key of A minor and played at a tempo of 119 beats per minute with a time signature of 4/4. Instrumentally, it is composed primarily of synths with a strong bass drum on each beat. The Lissie version is also played in the key of A minor and with a 4/4 time signature but starts out at 108bpm for the intro before transitioning to 116bpm at 1:21. The instrumental composition is standard fare for rock music and this version definitely reflects that genre tonally. The main difference here is a change from synths to live guitars but most of the written music has stayed the same. The 30 Seconds to Mars version is also written in the key of A minor and with a time signature of 4/4 but is played at only 105bpm. While it is only 14bpm slower than the original, that tempo reduction is enough to have a profound impact on the feel of the song. Also to note is that while the chord progression from the original has been retained, Jared plays it on the piano, the rest of the song uses new music written by the band. There are also a few lines changed in the lyrics.

Having listened to both of these variants, can we honestly use the word “cover” to describe both of them? Technically yes, since both are based on another work. However, we do have terminology that can be applied to differentiate the two methods. In classical music, whenever a piece is rewritten for a different set of instruments it is called transcription. Transcripted pieces might feature some variation, to better suit the new instruments for example, but overall the attempt is to stay true to the original composition. The term we use when the new song retains some, but not all, of the features of the original is recomposition. Going back to the Lissie cover, this would be an example of transcription. The music, lyrics, and tempo are all pretty close to the original with just a few changes made so as to give the song more of a rock feel as opposed to the original synth-pop. The 30 Seconds to Mars cover is a recomposition of Bad Romance. The original music can still be heard in the keyboard but extra music was written to be played with it. The slower tempo also gives the song an eeriness to it that allows the lyrics to be read in a different way.

There is a third type of cover though it is so rarely used within popular culture and, when it actually is employed, is usually greeted with negativity. This is the re-imagining. There is actually quite a bit of this in the classical and jazz genres of music but I had a difficult time finding any examples based on well known songs. Then I remembered A Perfect Circle’s “Emotive” album which features ten covers of popular songs that are all loosely tied together to form a political message for the album. For this topic I have chosen the song “People Are People,” originally sung by Depeche Mode.

Right from the start it’s apparent that these songs are only similar due to the lyrics. A Perfect Circle’s version features original music written in a time signature that is constantly changing. Even the lyrics are sung using different notes and rhythmic inflections than the original. Looking at the raw data, Depeche Mode played at 120bpm in the key of A minor using the stand 4/4 time signature. A Perfect Circle played at 136bpm and used a fluctuating time signature. (For those interested, the majority of the piece is played in 7/4 where every fourth bar is 8/4. There are a couple of 4/4 bars throughout though, usually used between a verse and the chorus). I couldn’t find any information about the key signature but after looking at the sheet music I would wager the song is in the chromatic key — basically means that every note is used in the song.

As one would imagine, re-imaginings tend to be a pretty divisive topic. In my experience, fans of the original rarely enjoy the re-imagined version. The inverse is true also where people who didn’t enjoy the original love the re-imagined version. Common arguments against re-imaginings tend to fall into the ideas that the cover doesn’t respect the original song and/or composer. On the other hand, re-imagined songs are also praised as a high form of flattery and for their ability to introduce songs and artists to people who would otherwise have passed them up due.

You may have noticed that the technical differences between each of these three types of covers are pretty vague and that is true. While the Lissie cover of Bad Romance would rarely be considered a re-imagining, there could definitely be a case to say the 30 Seconds to Mars one is. To that end, don’t get hung up on the details. Music is different things to different people and the boundaries that separate these three types of covers are no different. The same can be said about the validity of each of these approaches to a cover. I’m not here to say one is the wrong way or that one is better than the other. I simply wish that we could expand our vocabulary and create new conversations about the music we listen to.

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One response to “Is There A Wrong Way to Cover a Song?

  1. Pingback: Musical Series Introduction | Bryan Rumsey

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