The Art of the Cover Song

Bowie infuses his own style into everything he does

Bowie infuses his own style into everything he does

I would venture to say that almost all artists start out playing other people’s songs. After all, the feelings we get when listening to our favorite artists is what inspired most of us to pick up our instruments in the first place. Even when that passion develops into writing our own songs, the fun of covering songs never leaves us.

But what makes a great cover song? It never quite makes sense to me when bands do a faithful cover, releasing a song that sounds just like the original. It is great when bands take a song and make it their own, oftentimes becoming more famous than the original. Whitney Houston doing Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” for instance, or Manfred Mann singing Springsteen’s “Blinded By The Light”. Sometimes artists own it so well that the cover becomes the definitive version and people don’t even realize it is a cover song. Think Kris Kristofferson’s “Me & Bobby McGee” as done by Janis Joplin or “Black Magic Woman” as done by Santana- many people have no idea this is a Fleetwood Mac song! What I really love is when a huge star does a cover of something less known, and makes it their own while nodding to the original.  Bowie’s version of “Cactus” originally by The Pixies comes to mind.

The key seems to be making substantial changes, whether it be the tempo, style of genre, instrumentation, or any combination of tweaking musical elements that shed a new light on the song, allowing the listener to hear it from a fresh perspective. Then the artist must infuse it with their own talents to convince you that they belong within the song and the song belongs to them. A great song is a great song, whatever shape it takes, and an artist that can not only do a great song justice, but can take it to a new place, is a talent all its own.

Whitney doing Dolly

Whitney doing Dolly

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