The final draft of my book A Philosophy of Cover Songs has been sent off to the publisher, so I’m waiting on feedback from the proofreader. Over on Twitter, Pete Vickers asks for the take-home message of the book in one sentence. The one-sentence version would be a grammatically dubious monstrosity, so here instead is the epilogue in which I try to sum it all up:
Many’s the time I’ve been mistakenWillie Nelson, covering Paul Simon’s ‘American Tune’ (1993)
And many times confused.
So where does this wide-ranging discussion of covers leave us?
In discussions about music, there are plenty of tracks and performances that we readily identify as cover versions. I have suggested that we should not try to refine the concept much further than that. Any would-be definition is subject to counterexamples, and it would be pointless logic chopping to insist that versions must be sorted decisively into covers and non-covers.
Some people disdain covers, but that dim view is usually the result of thinking that all covers are attempts at slavish imitation. That is, it is the result of failing to distinguish between mimic covers and rendition covers.
At best, a mimic cover can be a superfluous duplicate. At worst, it can be a terrible mess. A rendition cover, however, can succeed or fail in a variety of ways. A straight rendition cover might be bad for being too much like the original, or it might reflect the canny choice to keep elements that work well. A wildly transformative rendition cover might be bad or good, depending on how the changes play out.
A rendition cover can differ from the original in musical elements, in words, or in meaning. Some covers use the difference to refer to other versions, like answer songs that are in dialogue with the lyrics of the original. It is plausible to think that these changes are enough to make them different songs. Ultimately, though, I recommended pragmatic pluralism: In judging versions to be the same or different songs, we can evaluate similarity in different degrees and respects. Regardless of whether we call them the same song or not, the original and the cover stand in a relation of inspiration. They are part of the same historical individual, a trajectory of music making.
A rendition cover can be appreciated with that trajectory in mind, in relation to the original, or just as its own thing. I have resisted the suggestion that there is some general rule which can tell us which way of appreciating a cover is proper or best. There is no substitute for listening and responding to the versions in question.
We are left, in the end, listening to music.