What Makes A Good Cover Song?

April 23, 2013  |  

I am a huge Amy Winehouse fan. I don’t care about her complexion or her personal demons, that girl could sang!

So when I first heard (like last week) reports that Beyonce would be remaking Winehouse’s “Back to Black,” for the Great Gatsby as a tribute to the late UK blue-eyed soul singer, I was not impressed with the idea. In fact, I’m pretty sure I sucked my teeth and rolled my eyes. Beyonce is always trying it – it being my last nerve. You know, it hasn’t even been two years since her passing, do we already need a remake? Personally, I feel that there should at least be a five year moratorium on song covers so that we can prevent people like Beyonce and Jay-Z from reaching through the Poltergeist and snatching wigs from afterlife. And that’s why people think they are the Illuminati.

But I got to admit that the little pieces I heard are alright. But just alright. Like how the Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Pink and Mya cover of Lady Marmalade by the LaBelle is just alright. Sort of a campy GLEE-worthy version of the original but yet catchy and entertaining. Plus I’m kind of intrigued by dark, emo-Beyonce and anything with an Andre 3000 on it, is an instant win. Hopefully they got that clearance issue straight so we don’t have a repeat performance of Party.

Anyway, there is an art to making a good cover (not a popular cover. Glee-covers are popular but necessarily because they are good). I narrowed the key elements to a good cover, down to three:

 1- Respect for the original: Would you want to hear Mindless Behavior cover Luther Vandross “A House is Not a Home”? Nobody does – not even their mommas. And it has nothing to do with the group being different musically or having little sappy, bubbly-gum pop voices – although some folks could make reasonable arguments that those two reasons are blasphemy enough. But I always felt that what made a good song was a singer’s ability to make you believe the words that they sing. A good cover should maintain that same level of emotional credibility. And I don’t think that four teenagers still working their ways through puberty have lived enough life to understand the grown folks business Vandross sings about, to be believable. Ultimately it would end up sounding like one of those God-awful Kidz Bop songs.

2-Yet Be Original: A great cover song should be a good song in its own right. Meaning that a cover song can completely switch genres, play with the musical arrangement, even the gender of who sings it and it stand alone as their own song. Whitney Houston is a great example of a singer, who took previously-worn song and made them her own. Just a few to note: Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You;” “Saving All My Love for You” by Marilyn McCoo and Linda Clifford’s “All the Man that I Need” (yup, that was a remake too). Of course you could argue that Houston was just a powerhouse singer and would always wreck any song she was on. But it’s pointless covering a song if you can’t bring anything new to the table – even if it is just a powerhouse voice. That brings me to my last point…

3- Aim to be equally yolked and/or better than the original: Listen most purists will say that nothing can compare to the original version. In most cases, there is some truth to that. However, it is not always true. I can point out many examples of the remake that was better than the original. For instance, New Edition classic, “Mr. Telephone Man,” is actually a cover of a really painfully off-key version done by Jr. Tucker. Michael Jackson’s Butterflies is another example of a cover that I like more than the original – but only slightly because Floetry killed it. But even if a singer can’t make it his own, he/she/them should at least be able to match the same level of intensity as the original. Case in point: many people have been booed off stages attempting Jennifer Holiday’s “And I am Telling You.” But like King Arthur and the Excalibur sword, only Jennifer Hudson has been able to sang that song to the vocal levels it calls for – which makes this performance of both Jennifers trying to out-riff and run each other, so entertaining.

I guess we will have to wait until King Bey releases the full track to find out where it stand in terms of remakes. So far, I can say honestly that I think I would like this same Beyonce/Andre 3000 version but with two other voices on it, like Bilal and Chrisette Michele. But that’s just me. Hopefully they won’t mess it up. You never know, we get the full release of the song and it has bells, lasers and Autotune all over it. On a side note: Amy Winehouse’s version of Valerie is far superior than the original.

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