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.
- 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.
- 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.