Under the covers

Nice to meet you, where you been?

For anyone that has been living under a rock, lets get you up to speed. In 2014, Taylor Swift completed her transition from country bumpkin to pop phenomenon with the release of her fifth album ‘1989’. It was the biggest selling album of 2014, and its impact on the charts and popular culture is still felt one year later.

Fast forward to August of this year – T Swizzle super fan Ryan Adams confirmed on Twitter that he was releasing a ‘1989’ cover album. Cue squealing from Swift, and head scratching from everyone else.

While Swift’s ‘1989’ was glitzy neon pop, Adams offered a boozy, brooding indie spin on the now well-established cult classic.

But what was Adams’ reasoning for covering ‘1989’? In fact, why do artists generally love other artists’ classic hits and turning them on their heads? It can’t always be out of admiration, can it?

For others it’s about exploring their wildest interpretations of music, be it their own or someone else’s.

Recently, Bleachers’ frontman Jack Antonoff  better known as the other guy from Fun re-released his debut album ‘Strange Desires’ for free, under the title ‘Terrible Thrills Vol. 2’. The catch? All the songs were covered by female artists, including Sia and Charli XCX.

I love female voices. I wish I had one,” Antonoff said on his Facebook page. “I hear my music as my interpretation of a song I’m writing as a female in my head, so I wanted to make that a reality with the artists who inspire me to write in the first place.”

When Swift dropped ‘1989’ Adams was full of admiration, hailing her as, One of the most amazing writers I’ve ever seen. It’s not impossible to believe that Adams sincerely wanted to pay homage to the album that was kicking his heart down the street like a tin can”.

Often though, these sincere sentiments can be lost amongst the chatter of critics and fans. In the case of Adams and Swift, ‘1989’  and Swift herself  have been the subject of serious ‘mansplaining’. Publications such as The New Yorker reviewed Adams’ ‘1989’, but not Swift’s. Others seemed to insinuate that ‘1989’ was incomprehensible outside of its genre, before Adams’ got his hands on it. When announcing the news of Adams rework, Billboard said that his retake wouldhopefully convince the rock crowd when it came to Swift’s credentials as a writer.

Can people only take pop seriously when it has been covered and reworked to fit a more authentic, credible mould?

BBC Radio 1 is still holding up this debate. Consider the institution that is the Live Lounge, running since 1999, involving various artists ironically covering songs that are often a million miles outside of their own genre. Some would argue that the Live Lounge is a great platform, which combats the snobbery which music breeds, opening up avenues for interpretations. Others find themselves bemused watching Guy Garvey and co. cover Independent Women, (yes, by Destiny’s Child), or Alesha Dixon bopping along to Sex On Fire.

It has been argued as well that a lot of these weren’t of the artists choosing. Jo Wiley or Fearne Cotton often coaxed performers into covering something current that was often suffering from sluggish sales, see John Newman’s recent gospel cover of Carly Rae Jepsen’s Run Away With Me.

The Live Lounge compilation albums, all ten of them have experienced great success commercially. Perhaps suggesting money is the motivator behind your favourite bands covers.

Prior to Uptown Funk, Ronson’s biggest success story was his second album ‘Version’, an album of covers given a ‘Motown sax’ makeover and an album which Ryan Adams’ also features on.

Amy Winehouse’s cover of Valerie completely overshadowed the original rendition by The Zutons in terms of both critical and commercial success. It was the ninth biggest selling single that year, selling over 300,000 copies. The album itself went triple platinum, which is good, considering the album cost £870,000 to launch.

So, maybe cover albums aren’t the musician’s cash cow after all. Maybe it is ‘all about the art’ and ‘exploring yourself as a musician’ when it comes to adding cowbells to the latest top 40 smash.

It seems appropriate to end on the sentiments of Popjustice’s acerbic head journalist Peter Robinson:I think I’ll wait for Grizzly Bear’s Carly Rae Jepsen album.”


Fionnuala Jones

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