A Paean to the Much-maligned Cover Song

Our books May 2, 2022

By P.D. Magnus

In October of last year, Paul McCartney referred to the Rolling Stones as a “cover band.” The Rolling Stones have plenty of original songs, so of course they aren’t really a cover band. What McCartney meant was that the Stones’ songs were uncreative— at least in contrast to the songs he was co-writing with the Beatles in the 1960s, when the Stones and the Beatles were rivals. His quip only works against a background conception of musical creativity according to which real musicians ought to write and record their own songs. A cover version, a recording of somebody else's song, could only be a pale imitation of the original.

Despite that common conception of covers as bad things, most musicians record or perform covers. The last time the Beatles played to a paying audience, their set ended with a cover of Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally.” And lots of great tracks turn out to have been covers. Aretha Franklin covered Otis Redding’s “Respect”, and what she did with it made the song more strongly associated with her than with him. Redding’s original lyrics give his woman permission to cuckold him when he is out of town but demand fidelity when he is around. As we might say now, it’s negotiating an open relationship. In Franklin's version, she demands respect as a person. A female singer performing “Respect” on The Voice is covering Franklin's version and might never have even heard Redding's.

One key to understanding this love-hate relationship with cover versions is that there are different kinds of covers. There are mimic covers, meant to sound exactly like the original track. A mimic cover is just a demonstration of skill, not of artistic insight or originality. The best mimic cover perfectly echoes the original. But there are also rendition covers, meant to sound different than the original. A good rendition cover reflects the musician's skill but also their artistic choices: what to change about the original and how, as well as what to keep the same.

Unlike classic philosophical subjects like truth and goodness, the concept of a cover version only goes back about 75 years. It reflects a change in the way that people thought about music, after recording became the primary way of transmitting and experiencing it. So I begin the book with a history of covers. Existing definitions of “cover” turn out to be inadequate. Although a typical cover is a recording or performance of a song which was previously recorded by someone else, there are puzzles and counterexamples which show that this is neither necessary nor sufficient. I do not attempt to offer a better definition, but instead accept how audiences categorize versions as covers. Those versions pose philosophical puzzles more interesting than wrestling over definitions.

The distinction between mimic and rendition covers is one step in understanding how we appreciate covers. A related puzzle: Does the audience need to know about the earlier version in order to properly appreciate the cover? Sometimes, but not always. Appreciating Franklin’s “Respect” as an anthem of equality does not require listening to it alongside Redding's version. In the book, I argue that it is typically possible to appreciate a cover either in relation to the original or as its own thing. The two modes of appreciation allow listening to the cover version in different ways, and each offers its own rewards.

Covers also pose puzzles about what makes two recordings count as versions of the same song. When a rendition cover changes the original, how much change can there be before it is not the same song anymore? This question naturally arises for “Respect”, because if I asked you to sing a bit of the song you would probably spell out the word “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” and possibly add “find out what it means to me!” These are Franklin's additions, though, absent from Redding’s original.

The philosophizing is informed by musical practice— both how artists play and record covers, and also by how we audiences listen to and appreciate them. So there are numerous examples throughout the book. Almost a hundred different songs are listed in the index, and you will no doubt think of your own examples. The philosophical enquiry can inform our listening, too, giving a new appreciation for the oft-maligned cover version.

P.D. Magnus is the author of A Philosophy of Cover Songs, a new Open Access title available to read and download for free on the link below.

A Philosophy of Cover Songs
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