What follows is a guest post by P.D. Magnus.
The advent of sound recording has made audiences experience music differently than audiences did for all of history before that. This may sound like a grandiose overstatement, but it’s true. For the last 75 years, popular music listeners have tended to think of songs as belonging to particular recording artists and represented canonically by a particular recording. We think of that as the original recording, and every version after that by anyone else is a cover.
The difference can matter. For example, when the song “Superman” was used in a television commercial for Lotus Notes in 1999, some R.E.M. fans were distraught. Fans who knew the song from the 1986 R.E.M. album Lifes Rich Pageant complained that the band had sold out. But R.E.M.’s version was a cover. “Superman” was originally the B-side of a 1969 single by a band called The Clique. Lead singer Michael Stipe had been sufficiently unenthusiastic about recording the cover that bassist Mike Mills sang the lead vocal. Since they didn’t write it, R.E.M. had no control over another version of the song being used to sell forgettable software.
That’s fine as far as it goes, but the concept of a cover can fray at the edges. Consider the 2007 split single which has (as the A side) the band Limozeen playing “We Don’t Really Even Care About You,” a song first recorded by the band sloshy, and (as the B side) sloshy playing Limozeen’s “Because, It’s Midnite.” It is described as a pair of covers, which seems like a natural enough thing to say.
Except that Limozeen is only a fictional band, invented by brothers Mike Chapman and Matt Chapman to be a fictional character’s favorite band. (Their website Homestar Runner was big in the early 2000s and still gets occasional updates.) Sloshy? Also a fictional band. Also Mike and Matt Chapman.
Importantly, even though Limozeen and sloshy are fictional bands, the recordings of “Because, It’s Midnite” and “We Don’t Really Even Care About You” are not fictional records. They are recorded tracks which you can stream, download, or buy on physical media. Limozeen’s “Because, It’s Midnite” was included in the ‘80s-themed edition of the video game Guitar Hero. So both of the originals and both of the so-called covers exist as things we can listen to.
A typical definition of “cover” has it that a cover is a recording of a song that was first recorded by someone else. With Limozeen and sloshy, the same guys recorded both the originals and the so-called covers. Since the versions are not by someone besides the people who recorded the original, the typical definition looks like it excludes them from being covers. Certainly, this smooths out the legal complications. Sloshy would not get a royalty if Limozeen’s “We Don’t Really Even Care About You” were played on the radio, because sloshy is not a legally distinct entity entitled to compensation. However, thinking about covers and originals matters for our appreciation in a way that goes beyond the legal niceties.
Knowing that a track is a cover can change how we hear it. Limozeen’s so-called cover of “We Don’t Really Even Care About You” takes disaffected, lo-fi ‘90s indie rock and belts it out in the style of an ‘80s hair metal band—as if Poison were to cover Pavement. One can listen to it for the differences but also for the elements which it preserves from the sloshy version. Since we listen to it like it’s a cover, maybe it can count as a cover after all?
Stepping back from problem cases, one might try to come up with a definition of “cover” which captures all the cases which we agree are cover versions. The best definition could then be applied to the problem cases. However, a new definition will give rise to new problem cases—examples that the definition just seems to get wrong.
A more rewarding approach is instead to take covers as given. There are lots of recordings which we all agree are cover versions. There are others, like the Limozeen and sloshy tracks, which are at least cover adjacent. These versions provide insight into how we relate to music as listeners and fans.
In lots of cases, the song that counts as the “original” and the target of later covers is not actually the first recorded version of the song. Lots of versions are considered to be covers of Elvis Presley even when Elvis didn’t have the true original. For example, the Pet Shop Boys have a well-known cover of Elvis’ “Always On My Mind.” Even though Brenda Lee had released a recording of the song before Elvis, the Pet Shop Boys weren’t thinking of her version when they recorded their cover, and audiences don’t think of Lee’s version when hearing it. The Elvis version is canonical, even if not strictly speaking original.
A song might be played in different ways, on different instruments, by different musicians. When we think of a song through a canonical recording, though, we expect specific details. The recorded track encodes the way that things should sound. Our expectations, formed by our experience of the canonical recording, can shape our experience of the cover.
To an extent, this is possible even without recording. After hearing a band performing a song in concert numerous times, I may be disappointed by someone else’s version. When those concerts were years ago, though, the comparison is subject to the vagaries of memory and nostalgia. With recording, I can preserve, reinforce, and cultivate my expectations. When I encounter a new version of a song that I know from the original recording, I do not have to rely just on my memory of the earlier version. I can typically go and listen to the original recording again, too.
Regardless of whether the tracks attributed to Limozeen and sloshy are covers or not, I can listen to them in the same way. As a fan of Homestar Runner, I had already heard the original version of “Because, It’s Midnite” before the release of the sloshy version. I was apt to hear it differently than someone who hears the sloshy version without that prior experience and pattern of expectations.
Moreover, this kind of listening—although highlighted by thinking about covers—can occur when listening to recordings which definitely are not covers. For example, the Clique’s version of “Superman” is definitely not a cover of R.E.M. It was recorded years before. However, I was familiar with the R.E.M. version long before I knew that anyone else had recorded the song. For me, the R.E.M. version set the standard of what “Superman” is supposed to sound like. As a result, when I later heard the Clique’s version it was more like listening to a cover than like listening to an original. I hear, in the Clique’s version, the hollowness of the production and nasal quality of the lead vocals as the absence of the full and rich sound that I know from the R.E.M. version. If I had encountered the Clique’s version first, I would not experience those features in the same way. Maybe I would not even experience them as defects.
Usually, a new version counts as a cover when an earlier version counts as canonical in this way. Since we will not all have the same experiences and expectations, however, our listening will be shaped by the canon in different ways and to different extents. For some purposes, it is not a version’s status for the community that matters but instead the way your personal history shapes your musical experience.
P.D. Magnus is a Professor of Philosophy at the University at Albany, State University of New York. His recent book, A Philosophy of Cover Songs, is open access. You can read it on-line or download a PDF for free.