Same words, different meaning

I’ve been thinking a lot about cover versions lately. A cover is typically the same song as the original version. Even if the words are changed a little, the broader meaning is the same. An example I’ve used before is Willie Nelson’s cover of Paul Simon’s “Graceland.” Where Simon sings about “a girl from New York City”, Nelson makes it “a girl from Austin Texas.”

Yet there are also cases in which the very same lyrics can mean something different, because of a change in who sings them. Consider some examples.

(I’ve included YouTube links to the original and to the cover I’m talking about the most.)1

🎤 Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” is a meditation about progress and loss, until the last verse. Then it becomes personal with the lines “Late last night, I heard the screen door slam / And a big yellow taxi took away my old man.” Note that the phrase ‘my old man’ could either mean her boyfriend or her dad, but I’ve always taken it to mean her boyfriend. Harry Styles does a cover and sings the same words. From a male singer, I hear it as being his father.2 It’s a subtle difference, but the change results from Styles singing the same words.

Other covers opt for different words. Counting Crows substitute “took my girl away”; this isn’t the worst thing about their cover, but it replaces Mitchell’s almost-rhyme with a line that does nothing like rhyming. Keb’ Mo’ changes the lyrics to “Late last night, she heard the screen door slam / And a big yellow taxi took away her old man”; this puts it at a distance, so the signer isn’t singing about his own loss but instead about hers (Mitchell’s?). Bob Dylan changes the line to “A big yellow bulldozer took away the house and land”; it’s odd that his cover is still titled “Big Yellow Taxi.”

🎤 In the Leonard Cohen song “First We Take Manhattan“, the main part is the ravings of a madman— or perhaps ravings as metaphor for artistic aspirations. The chorus has the lines “I’d really like to live beside you, baby / I love your body and your spirit and your clothes.” It’s a funny expression of superficial infatuation with pretensions of depth. In Cohen’s version and some covers, this is sung by the female backup singers. In covers by R.E.M., Jennifer Warnes, and Joe Cocker, these lines are sung by the lead singer. In the former cases, the infatuation is expressed by a groupie. In the latter, by the madman/artist themself. The force of the lines are different depending on who’s infatuated.

🎤 The Pogue’s “Fairytale of New York” is a Christmas classic. It has a derogatory term in the middle of it that’s a landmine for anyone doing a cover version. Some sing it straight, while others make changes or skip a verse. Last month, Jon Bon Jovi released a terrible cover. There were lots of complaints about the lyric changes to avoid the offensive bit, but the bigger problem is the lyrics that Bon Jovi didn’t change. The original is a duet. She sings “You were handsome”, and he replies “You were pretty, Queen of New York City.” Bon Jovi sings all the parts himself, and the two lines don’t make sense sung by the same person. Later bits about wanting to be someone and sharing dreams are similarly nonsense when sung as if they were one part.

  1. Mitchell’s original “Big Yellow Taxi” is classic, and Styles is clearly having fun performing his rendition. The R.E.M. cover of “First We Take Manhattan” is fabulous, but— unless you’re especially into Cohen— you can give the Cohen original a pass. It’s the wrong season for “Fairytale of New York”, so don’t feel any pressure to click. The Pogues’ version is classic; Bon Jovi’s is a train wreck.
  2. This isn’t about Styles’ orientation. I hear “my old man” sung by a man— even a gay man— as defaulting to father rather than boyfriend.

3 thoughts on “Same words, different meaning”

  1. “Counting Crows substitute “took my girl away”; this isn’t the worst thing about their cover,”

    Boy howdy. I love Counting Crows but I have no idea why they recorded this song and no idea why they gave it such an annoyingly peppy arrangement. The Keb’ Mo’ version is really good. And I think Dylan is just being Dylan and showing off at how effortlessly this stuff comes to him.

    Speaking of weird covers, maybe the weirdest I’ve ever heard was Aretha Franklin doing a soul version of Eleanor Rigby. I can’t imagine who thought this would be a good idea or why. It’s not really worth seeking it out if you’ve not heard it, but if you ever happen to hear it you’ll see what I mean.

    (And, yes, surely in the original BYT it’s referring to her boyfriend; see also “My Old Man” from Blue).

  2. Thanks for commenting, Jeff.

    I had to listen, and you’re right— Franklin’s cover of “Eleanor Rigby” is weird. Her cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” is also kind of strange.

    On the other side of it: Paul McCartney sent her a demo “Let It Be”, hoping she’d record it, which she did. Her recording was actually released before the Beatles’, so it’s not even a cover.

  3. Ah, did not know she recorded Let It Be, will have to check that out.

    Speaking of gender-change covers, my parents used to have an old record by a group called “Brooklyn Bridge” (whose singer was male), and they did a cover of Piece of My Heart but changed the line to “I’m gonna show you baby that a man can be tough”, which seemed…well, it didn’t really seem to make sense, at least according to the internal logic of the song as originally sung by a woman.

    On the flip side, in Dylan’s cover of House of the Rising Sun, the protagonist is female, and in Amy Helm’s recording of The Band’s Long Black Vale, the protagonist is male. Basically, the narrator preserves their original gender, and we accept that the singer and the narrator are not the same person. This isn’t an example of what your post is talking about, of course, just a random tangent.

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