Can a cover version be better than the original?


Like Feeling Good, a song from a Broadway musical, or Killing Me Softly, a song by Lori Lieberman, some songs are so popular that their origins dissipate like sound in the air. Early recordings confirm that the songs have been passed down through generations and that they have evolved with culture and over time. This is the case of the first recorded jazz pieces, which are in fact “covers” of work songs… And the many examples that followed prove that one can wonder if this is only a modern phenomenon.

In the early days of the music industry, it was common to record and release several versions of a song by different artists at the same time. However, trends in record buying began to change after World War II. Teens were the catalyst, buying records based on the artist and not the song itself.

Unlike cover versions, sampling is at the origin of contemporary remixes.
The songs we love since childhood are sometimes covers of old songs, even traditional ones, updated to contemporary tastes. This practice is probably as old as music itself.

The concept is reshaped

Many hit songs by early rock ‘n’ roll performers were covered, such as Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti by Pat Boone (then Elvis). As a result, cover songs lost some of their value to teenagers, who supported original songs and artists with their increased purchasing power in the 1950s. A wave of innovations then arrived, and new technologies soon began to be used for music broadcasting: Video killed the radio star…

Despite changing trends, covers made up a considerable portion of most artists’ recordings in the 1950s and 1960s. Covers of standards and older popular songs filled many albums during this period to show the versatility of the artists. Even the first Beatles album, Please Please Me includes eight original songs written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, but also six covers.

The Beatles' first album Please, Please Me features 6 covers out of 14 songs.
The first Beatles album Please, Please Me includes 6 covers and 8 original songs.

Famous covers

Cover versions remain an essential part of most artists’ catalogs. Sometimes these reinterpretations are more famous or successful than the original version. Examples include Santana‘s 1970 cover of Fleetwood Mac‘s 1968 single “Black Magic Woman”, Gary Jules’ 2003 version of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World”, Janis Joplin’s 1971 posthumous version of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee”. The 1990s saw the release of Lenny Kravitz’s 1999 cover of the Guess Who’s 1970 single “American Woman” and Nirvana’s live version of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” one of three covers featured on their classic 1994 live album, MTV Unplugged in New York.

The cult album of the 90s generation covers a David Bowie hit, "The Man Who Sold the World".
For many, “The Man Who Sold the World” is a David Bowie song. For those under 40, it’s a Nirvana song. Tracks are passed down through the generations and are reinterpreted in a contemporary musical style.

From cover to remix

Since the advent of the sample, made by the first DJs on turntables, “covers” have gradually become “remixes” or “samples” reassembled with a beat on top. Often, the remix differs from the cover version by a different tempo, a modified structure or the deletion of certain lyrics. The remix transforms the original into a new piece whose authorship is undoubtedly recognizable, as much as its transformation. Even if sampling is still practiced today, it has evolved with the democratization of low-cost, high-performance digital machines such as DJ controllers and other sequencers/samplers, which have contributed to the evolution of the cover version towards the remix.

DJ controllers redefine the boundaries of remixing every day.
Pioneer’s DJ controllers are used daily by many artists and DJs to turn original music into remixes.

Remixes in the 21st century

Music is a perfect representation of human culture and how it spreads through sharing. The information age means that any video or music recorded and broadcast can be covered or remixed. Like the artist Kutiman who represents the perfect example of the XXIst century musician: he proposes original music built from a multitude of cut and reassembled videos. It is possible to go even further by doing your own editing from pre-mounted video samples.

Cover, remix, original – subjectivity will always prevail

Who hasn’t fallen under the spell of a song that wasn’t actually composed by the author? Who hasn’t enjoyed Richard Cheese’s sometimes hilarious covers? Finally, who can boast of only appreciating the originals in a world where the original version has already been remixed dozens of times and whose remixes have made more sales and more views on social media?

What do you think?

It’s easy to find lists on the Internet of music whose remixes or covers have outperformed the original, either in terms of views or sales. Whether the “remixers” saw that the song was not great a moneymaker, a harmony or a gimmick to be taken and made better (or not), are they not equally creative and deserving? Do you think they are worthy of their success? Or, on the contrary, do you think that it is neither more nor less than plagiarism and that all royalties should go to the original author?

A conductor can freely interpret a score, like a DJ with a remix.
The job of a conductor is to implement a score, sometimes written centuries ago. Its interpretation, the colors and instruments of the orchestra can also considerably modify an original work.

We can immediately imagine purists crying, “The original or nothing!” But who cried wolf when they heard Nina Simone’s covers of Ellington and Billie Holiday? What is sure is that covers have been around for a long time and as Run DMC said, It’s like that and that’s the way it is.

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