“Music’s weird,” Cristyn commented over breakfast.
We’d been talking about the YouTube show Blind Covers. They give a band the lyrics of a song they’ve never heard, the band has an hour to work out some music, and then the band performs a song with those lyrics. The show ends with the band listening to the original version.
The experience of watching the show depends on whether or not I’m familiar with the original. In the most recent episode, Triangle Fire (a band I hadn’t heard of) performed their version of American Girls (a song I’d never heard). After watching it, I found a video of Counting Crows’ original version of the song. Having heard Triangle Fire first, the latter was kind of disappointing.
The question at breakfast was whether this was really a cover. It would be one thing if Triangle Fire had listened to the Counting Crows song and decided to make changes to the instrumental lines and phrasing, but all they had to go on were the words. Cristyn commented that composers doing similar things would call them different settings of the same lyrics or text. But this isn’t composed music, and the versioning practices of rock mostly revolve around covering.
When people hear that we wrote a paper about cover songs, they usually ask how we define “cover”. Often they have some particular problem case in mind, and they want to know how we’d classify it. In our paper, however, we take as a cover whatever audiences and critics are willing to count. It would be a fool’s errand to try to provide a precise analysis.
Nevertheless, the categories of our paper can be applied here. Triangle Fire is clearly playing a different song than Counting Crows. If we still want to call it a cover, it’s what we call a transformative cover. A feature of transformative covers is that they can be evaluated either on their own or in relation to the original. (On its own: pretty good. In relation to the original: better, I think.)
Here’s another odd case: Weezer recently released a collection of covers called the Teal Album. One of the tracks is a cover of Tears For Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World. In an appearance on the Jimmy Kimmel show promoting the album, Weezer performed the song along with the members of Tears for Fears. Kimmel introduces it as “their cover” and the video title lists it as “Weezer ft. Tears for Fears”— but is it really a cover?