Last month, Weezer bowed to the pressure of one very determined 14-year-old Clevelander with a Twitter account and released, of all things, a cover of Toto’s “Africa.” The original song, released in 1982, has earned the kind of appreciation that nostalgia sometimes affords cheesy artifacts of the recent past. Thankfully, Weezer did the song justice by sticking faithfully to its essence while adding a rocking twist. In other words, it was authentic, which is more than can be said about Taylor Swift covering Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September.”
For this feat, Weezer was rewarded with a shocking prize: the band's highest Billboard charting in years: number 81 on the Hot 100. The surprising success of the song begs the question: Why don’t more artists do covers?
In today’s music climate, when any cute white girl with a ukulele can upload a terrible acoustic take on a contemporary hit, cover versions are a cheap novelty. Professional musicians rarely release them commercially (which is to say they’re released on a monetized platform like Spotify and not promoted like a regular single) and they’re usually relegated to specialty radio shows such as Sirius XMU Sessions or the Australian station Triple J’s “Like a Version,” which gave us a lovely cover of the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" by BadBadNotGood.
Occasionally, you’ll see a band do a one-off cover in concert — for example, Car Seat Headrest rocking out to “Paranoid Android.” Sometimes an artist will put something online for the hell of it: James Blake covered Don McLean’s “Vincent” as a Christmas gift last year, and Frank Ocean did a take on “At Your Best (You Are Love)” that ended up opening his Endless project. (In that case, he was covering Aaliyah, who was covering the Isley Brothers, who originally wrote the song. Keeping up?)
Originally, most popular music was nothing but covers. Because music recording was still a novelty in the early 20th Century, songs were distributed as sheet music and had to be played by live bands. As recording technology improved and the century progressed, musicians began recording their versions of certain songs. This practice was quite prevalent in jazz, for instance: Charles Mingus re-recorded Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo,” and Bill Evans offered his own take on Miles Davis’ “Blue in Green.” Davis himself was a prolific cover artist, having re-recorded everything from “On Green Dolphin Street” to “Concerto de Aranjuez.”
In the '50s and '60s, however, a backlash against cover versions began. Record companies would often pay white musicians to re-record songs originally written or performed by black artists in order to pander to the segregated music market. Rock 'n' roll pioneers such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Fats Domino would see their songs redone by the likes of Elvis Presley and the Beatles, just so record companies and publishers could get the songs played in Alabama and South Carolina and collect the royalties. In essence, white musicians profited nakedly off the exploitation of the black artists who had actually innovated. Don McLean, who would be covered by James Blake, called the practice a “racist tool.”
Then something happened that more or less killed the cover as a standard industry practice. By the '80s, the industry became saturated with new technology. Synthesizers allowed musicians to explore timbres and sounds, sequencers and drum machines gave rise to new ways of constructing music, and samplers allowed artists — especially black artists — to simply extract the parts they needed from existing recordings. Musicians had reached such high levels of sophistication in production and instrumentation that simply re-recording another artist’s work lost its appeal. To put it more simply: Why would you re-record “Purple Rain”" Isn’t it already perfect, the definitive version of that song? Just as well, is there a point to covering Tupac’s “Keep Ya Head Up” when you could just remix it or sample it?
There are also legal reasons preventing artists from doing covers. Usually, if a song is not in the public domain or open source, one must acquire a mechanical license from the rights-holders in order to produce a cover. They would also have to specify whether they’re licensing the composition — the written music and lyrics — or a specific recording of that composition (incidentally, this is why the Grammys have separate categories for Song of the Year and Record of the Year: Song is for the composition; record is for the recording). When you hear about producers catching heat for using “uncleared samples,” for instance, it’s usually because they didn’t obtain a license.
In the end, the question remains: Why cover at all? Ultimately, if an artist is willing to either go through the trouble of licensing a song or risk infringing on copyright, it must be due to a genuine love of the work. Let's hope we’ll see more of them in the wake of Weezer’s moment.
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Then again, perhaps the cover can be applied for an unprecedented situation: justice. Let’s say your favorite musician has recently been accused of a horrible crime, and though you love that artist's music, you feel dirty listening to it after what you’ve learned and no longer want to spend your streaming dollars on that person. Well, what if someone covered it? What if a new vocalist or band, working in the same idiom, singing over the same production, could make a replica that we could all listen to guilt-free?
An example: Many listeners would love to hear a version of “I Believe I Can Fly” that doesn’t have R. Kelly anywhere on it. It's a great song — wonderful production, beautiful lyrics, inspiring message — but the singer is an alleged serial sex abuser with a supposed sex cult. Rather than write off the cultural presence of this gem from the Space Jam soundtrack, why don’t we just ask a new, similar-sounding vocalist, maybe Frank Ocean or John Legend, to sing over the original beat?
We have the power, people. We can make this happen. It’s just a Twitter account away. #FrankOceanCoverIBelieveICanFly #JohnLegendCoverIBelieveICanFly
Weezer and the Pixies. With the Wombats. 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 22, at Coral Sky Amphitheatre, 601-7 Sansburys Way, West Palm Beach; 561-795-8883; westpalmbeachamphitheatre.com. Tickets cost $17 to $71.50 via livenation.com.