Why are some rock artists known for sticking with their own songs suddenly covering songs that you wouldn’t expect them to sing? When it comes to cover songs, we all know how bad or good it can be, especially when doing covers used to be relegated to Karaoke or contestants on “American Idol.” But there’s been a vast improvement in doing cover songs in the last few years, especially in a new knack for reinvention of songs. Whether that’s a new form of retread like Hollywood trying to disguise an obvious remake is up for debate. There isn’t a doubt, though, that some big names are starting to do cover albums and surprising one-shot covers at concerts to make music more interesting.
A few months ago, it was Bruce Springsteen who surprised everybody when he did an unexpected cover of Lorde’s “Royals” when on tour in New Zealand. The cover went viral and ended up surprising everyone when nobody would have expected Springsteen to cover Lorde. Then again, the lyrics of “Royals” fit Springsteen’s social astuteness to a tee. It’s too bad he didn’t go in the recording studio and release the song as a single, as if he needs another million seller. Perhaps he’ll include it on a future album based on the response and being able to reinvent the song to suit his own voice.
Then you have Pearl Jam most recently doing a cover of “Let it Go” while on tour in Europe. It was another example of a surprising one-shot cover done out of the blue while out on the road. While Pearl Jam is known for some surprising covers, why did they choose “Let it Go”, the last song you’d expect Pearl Jam to sing? The answer is probably one huge “Why not?” in the case of Pearl Jam, a band that never bores.
Yes, that’s the beauty of the best cover songs: The ones you’d least expect from an artist, and also reinvented in a compelling way. That isn’t to say there aren’t some legendary artists out there taking on covers of older songs in overly safe arrangements. There seems to be a divide of popularity between those cashing in on recording standards and those out to reinvent the cover song.
The Popularity of Standards Cover Albums
You’ve obviously noticed all of the once legendary music stars putting out standards albums by the ten tons. While neo crooners such as Harry Connick, Jr. perhaps reignited the renaissance in recording standards 25 years ago, Michael Buble took it through the roof in the last decade. However, when Rod Stewart had millions in sales for his Great American Songbook CD series, we’ve since seen a tidal wave of other music legends putting out similar albums, including covers of classic Motown or other songs of the past.
Some look at those albums as watered down versions of those artists who we always counted on to put out original material. It’s also a sign that songwriting isn’t in a good place right now as it was up until the 1980s. These artists may not be able to pen anything as memorable as the material they once wrote, plus knowing that familiarity is already a sure thing in marketing an album.
If many of the covers on these albums sound overly safe with bland arrangements, some younger pop stars at places like “Idol” managed to find some new energy in turning old song inside out. Recently, “Idol” runner-up Jena Irene displayed an uncanny ability to take any existing song from the past and turn it into something brand new. Some of the covers she did of unexpected songs stunned everybody, especially in the emotional investment she placed into each one.
In that regard, Jena Irene may be the best cover artist working today, which could be a benefit in creating an album rather than working on all-new material. She’s not alone, though, and other contestants seen on “Idol” in recent years are doing a better job of taking old songs and reinventing them.
Covering songs has finally found a new groove recently, perhaps thanks to some songs being around long enough where we have no choice but to reinvent them after hearing their original arrangements once a little too often. Pearl Jam’s “Let it Go” cover might have been done for that very reason, even if Idina Menzel will own the song for the rest of her life.