HI DAMES NATION!
Want to know what made us cry this week?*
YOU'RE IN LUCK! Because I (Dame Margaret) just spontaneously decided to open this week's email with Sarah Gailey's incredibly astute ode to Molly Weasley, part of a continuing series examining the women of Harry Potter. A series we will be consuming AVIDLY, and bet you'll like, too. Come. Weep with us. And then! To the rest of the newsletter!
*lololollol isn't it cute how we're pretending only ONLY ONE THING made us cry instead of 87?Hamilpins Giveaway Reminder!
In case you missed it: Casey Barber, one of our favorite artists, has teamed up up with Us Your Dames to give away a FULL SET of her AGGRESSIVELY ADORABLE #Hamilpins: Hamilton, Burr, Lafayette, Jefferson, Angelica, Eliza, AND PEGGY! If you are interested in winning them, you can fill out an entry form RIGHT HERE through this Sunday, December 4th. AND if you're too impatient to wait for winning, and you opt to buy these terrific pins instead, you can get the gift box (featuring a watercolor drawing of the Hamilton set, pictured above) completely free with the coupon code DAMES. SHOP HAPPY and may the odds be ever in your favor!
Bossy Take: Cover Songs
The beauty of Lisa Bonet: Just one of many ways you can, reluctantly, be made to love Peter Frampton
In honor of this week's release of The Hamilton Mixtape, we your Dames are sharing a Bossy Take on cover songs that we wrote for our $10 Patron email last month. We're still digesting the mixtape and we'd LOVE to hear what you all think of it, and what you think of it within the larger framework of cover that we've laid out here. Holler at us!
The Spotify playlist of cover songs both Sophie and I could enjoy.
The Spotify playlist of the original versions of all the cover songs, save for one or two that were not available. Because half the fun of a cover is seeing how it's changed.
The Discussion Itself:
Margaret: Has anything done more damage to the notion of a cover song than earnest white men with acoustic guitars?
Sophie: Probably not! I used to be wild about covers, but I have REALLY soured on them in the last couple of years. I think unless the covering artist is doing something very interesting stylistically, they should keep covers to their live shows, where they’re a celebratory treat, and rarely, if ever, record them for release.
M: What constitutes “very interesting” for you?
S: This is so idiosyncratic, and probably unfair in many instances, BUT, very broadly speaking: recording the song in a totally different style is something I strongly prefer to a technically perfect cover. Use your range as an artist to show me something new about the original. The Charles Bradley cover of “Heart of Gold” that you put in the mix for this issue, for example, is GREAT. (Ugh, and I just found out he has cancer. Let’s all keep this brilliant man, recently featured in Luke Cage, in our thoughts!)
M: The soul cover of a non-soul song is my ABSOLUTE FAVORITE GENRE of cover song. See our mix’s opening song, “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” by J.C. Brooks and the Uptown Sound.
S: I have, many times! By contrast, all those covers of “Last Christmas”, by Death Cab for Cutie and even by our beloved Carly Rae Jepsen, should never have happened. They are such pale, ineffectual imitations of the original, which is full of perfect heartbreak, and is an ideal product of its time.
M: AGREED. Christmas albums are the worst offenders, in re: purely mercenary covers. IF I WANTED A MIX TAPE, I COULD MAKE ONE MYSELF, and Mariah is the only person I’m ever going to want to hear singing “All I Want For Christmas.” The music industry needs to accept that.
Please, REMOVE Justin Bieber from Christmas.
S: Word, bird. On the other hand, if you’re doing a note-for-note cover whose sole purpose is to loudly proclaim your full-hearted love of a song, go for it. That’s pretty ok to me because it’s highlighting influences & announcing one’s fandom, not an attempt to horn in on the original artist’s territory. My favorite example of this is “Feel A Whole Lot Better”, originally recorded by the Byrds & re-recorded by Tom Petty for his Full Moon Fever album. It’s almost indistinguishable from the original and it’s a little sonic Valentine. Tom just loves that song so much, he needed to share that with listeners.
M: Yes! I feel the same way about Laura Marling’s cover of “Blues Run the Game,” likewise featured in our mix. Does it do…. anything, really, to distinguish itself from Jackson Frank’s original? Nope. But does it need to? Not at all! It’s such a wonderful song, and she sings it with such feeling.
S: Yeah, I think often the feeling matters most, if the artist isn’t going for a wholesale reinterpretation. And I don’t even know the original, in this case, so it’s not like Marling’s version is bumping up against my expectations in a way that is jarring.
M: I think it’s also clutch when an artist is bringing forward a song that might otherwise languish unknown. To me, that’s always welcome.
S: That was my experience with Red, Hot & Blue, an album that was recorded as a fundraiser for HIV/AIDS research in the late 80s. I wasn’t at all familiar with Cole Porter’s work in my early teens and U2’s bonkers cover of “Night & Day” & kd lang’s wrenching version of “So In Love” both blew my tiny teen mind & made me seek out original broadway cast recordings, along with Porter interpretations by Ella Fitzgerald, Blossom Dearie, Carmen McRae and more. For me, those covers turned into a way into the American Songbook and jazz, generally.
M: THIS IS A REALLY INTERESTING ANGLE! And it reminds me of one of my very favorite things, an interview of Jon Brion (my eternal beloved) from Chicago Public Radio’s Sound Opinions podcast, an excerpt of which subsequently became the core of a 99% Invisible episode entitled “Frozen Music.” In this, Brion makes a really trenchant point about how our cultural understanding of music shifted as recorded music became more common. Brion argues, persuasively, that recordings diminished the importance of songwriting, which gave songs themselves tenacity, and popularized what Brion calls “frozen music” like Led Zeppelin, where what brings people back again and again isn’t the songs, but the specific way that they are performed. WHICH is a distinction I think you can see SO CLEARLY in the Christmas albums we mentioned earlier. When you think of songs we came to love as songs, like “Silver Bells,” I have a very open heart to new interpretations. But when you think of songs you came to love as performances, like “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” or “Blue Christmas,” the hurdle for reinterpretation is so much higher. Most of the time, I just want to hear the version I already know.
S: Same. I think part of what makes so many covers unsuccessful for me is that I have become very attached to the “frozen music” iteration of a song, and any attempt to replace that version with a new “frozen music” version is just...ugh, no thank you! (That’s a big problem for me at live shows, too. I get mad when artists deviate from their original interpretation of a song in a way that feels self-indulgent. Don’t noodle, guitarists!)
M: Exactly! Which means that a great cover ought to showcase the tenacity and brilliance of the original by bending it, taking it into a new AND DISTINCTIVE register, and making it do something exciting.
S: Yes, please don’t just record a boring version of “Boys of Summer” and throw a Black Flag sticker on a Cadillac in there. That’s cute the first time & thereafter, NO.
M: AND DON’T ACT LIKE SIMPLY BY MAKING A SONG DULL AND ACOUSTIC, you’ve somehow made a “soulless” pop song deep. 1989 WAS DEEP TO BEGIN WITH, BROS WHO ONLY LIKE IT BECAUSE RYAN ADAMS SAID YOU SHOULD. If you couldn’t hear that through the synths, that’s on you, not Taylor.
S: Fully agreed, but I am very on record as saying that’s not the fault of Ryan Adams.
Just two songwriters (about whom we both feel some ambivalence) mutually respecting one another.
M: No, you and I both agree-- Ryan Adams gets it. He was doing something profoundly respectful when he made 1989, and he IS showing the tenacity of the original songwriting. But does Ben Folds “get” it when he covers "Bitches Ain’t Shit"?
S: I don’t know? I don’t think he would bother to cover a song he didn’t like, but what’s the underlying message of that cover? Is he highlighting the ridiculousness & toxicity of its misogyny? (Maybe.) Is he also perpetuating that misogyny? (I think so.) Does he even like hip-hop? (Probably?) But, considered altogether, it mostly seems like a nasty joke on Dr. Dre to me.
M: To me, too. Particularly when I have heard him do it live, the way the audience response feels like “WHAT A GREAT JOKE! To say rap lyrics like they’re words that matter!!!! LOLOLOLOLOLOL!” Which is NOT MY FAVORITE, you know? But, while this Ben Folds cover reaaaaaally bugs me, Jonathan Coulton’s arguably similar cover of "Baby Got Back" actually works for me.
S: I think the tone is what matters, because I get a real Shitty Fratboy vibe from Ben’s cover, while I am warmly disposed towards Luka Bloom’s cover of LL Cool J’s “I Need Love” - which on reflection makes sense because “I Need Love” is basically a very open-hearted singer-songwritery sort of rap single. You can tell Bloom wishes HE’D written it.
M: RIGHT! Like, “Baby Got Back” earnestly works GREAT as like a soft-rock jam. Lyrically, it has a lot more in common with “Your Body Is A Wonderland” than “Your Body Is A Wonderland” would want you to think. I guess it works because the original song is silly, and Jonathan Coulton seems to be doing something equally silly, but impressively different with his version. Whereas that Ben Folds cover-- it seems like the joke is taking something “silly” (a rap song) and treating it “seriously” by making it sound like Folds’ other music.
S: Yeah, the tune Folds chooses just sounds like a solid Ben Folds melody he had lying around somewhere and there’s no THERE there in the vocal? Unlike a lot of his other songs, where there’s an emotional investment in what he’s singing.
As Marnie Michaels taught us, a minor key acoustic arrangement does not automatically create profundity.
M: All of which brings me to my fucking cover song nemesis-- Obadiah Parker’s cover of "Hey Ya".
S: No. No. No. Imagine my face right now. No. I have never heard this song. I’m going to click that link & be mad, aren’t I?
M: SO MAD. I mean, it’s as repellent as the sequence in Dreamgirls, where they take the black, R&B version of “Cadillac Car” and have it covered by a souless, sweater vest-wearing crooner. He is doing N O T H I N G original or interesting. He is just COLUMBUSING that song’s emotional depth.
S: I clicked. It’s so BORING. STRUMMY GUITARS + MINOR KEY doesn’t equal INTERESTING. What’s interesting about the original is the peppy soul groove contrasting with the deep, emotionally reflective lyrics! This is just as bad as when Eric Clapton recorded that dishwater-dull acoustic version of “Layla”.
M: THE CONTRAST IS THE WHOLE POINT! Which, incidentally, is why soul covers are so revelatory-- it’s a reminder of just how much depth of feeling Motown, Atlantic, and Stax could actually build a pop song to hold. The closest I come to this kind of Columbusing on our mix is Laura Nyro’s “Jimmy Mack.” It’s one song off a whole album of Motown covers she released and I really adore it. I feel like she’s doing the very loving cover style we spoke of earlier, but combining her affection with the production values of her time period, and the result is really appealing. I also give her snaps because she used it as an opportunity to collaborate with Labelle-- she’s not taking the blackness out of black music. She’s collaborating with black artists to shift the music into a slightly different vernacular. UNLIKE MY OTHER COVER NEMESIS, Phil Collins’s version of “You Can’t Hurry Love.”
S: I agree with you about Nyro’s collaboration with Labelle, but I have to admit, these arrangements of the songs just don’t do anything for me. To my ear, it falls into roughly the same category as David Bowie's PinUps, which is that it is a vanity project that is fine & was likely very fun for the artist to record, but probably didn't need to exist.
M: That’s totally fair. I’d never pick her version of “Dancing in the Street” over the Vandellas', that’s for sure. But it’s fun to hear my “sing into a hairbrush” music transformed into my “drink wine on a Sunday night music.” That harmonic mix of two different familiars can be lovely, when you find the type that suits you. But it’s definitely a place where your mileage may vary.
S: Shall we talk about another favorite cover angle? I was re-listening to the playlist we’ve been working on and was struck by the similarity between my responses to the Indigo Girls’ “Romeo & Juliet” and the Beatles’ “Baby, It’s You”. I think what I love so much about them both is the combination of raw emotion with the unexpectedness of it - both upend the listener’s gender expectations & it’s thrilling.
M: Particularly with “Romeo & Juliet”-- MAN does queering that song deepen its impact! In Dire Straits’s hands, it’s just a typical “Boy, bet Romeo and Juliet would play out differently if it happened today, huh?” But when you queer it, when you use it to suggest a different, modern type of star-crossed lovers-- an openly queer girl in love with an arguably closeted one-- you give an old story NEW LEGS.
S: INDEED. See also: Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie”, Meshell Ndegeocello’s “Who Is He And What Is He To You?”, and Lin-Manuel Miranda & Raul Esparza’s version of “A Boy Like That.”
I know. Shocking. We were moved by a thing involving Lin-Manuel Miranda.
M: See Rufus Wainwright’s cover of his own dad’s song “One Man Guy,” which is a masterpiece of layered meanings. QUEER UP STRAIGHT MUSIC. There is so much power in flipping “universal” white, straight, male narratives and using them to tell specific stories about populations pop culture previously erased. But maayyyyyybe don’t make queer songs straight, I’m looking at you PEOPLE WHO COVER THE MAGNETIC FIELDS.
S: That’s really tricky for me - I think anyone should be able to see their own experiences validated in a song that’s meaningful to them, even if the thing they’re seeing is a zillion degrees away from what the songwriter intended. And what is Stephin Merritt, if not a songwriter who wants to be the Tin Pan Alley man of his generation? His entire project with The 6ths is based on the idea of writing songs for others to sing (side note: the first 6ths album is my favorite Stephin Merritt project of all time, if you haven’t listened to it, friends, GET IT.)
M: I do not mean to say that Stephin Merritt is incapable of writing songs that are universal-- I, too, think he’s our closest modern equivalent to Gershwin or Cole Porter. But I would say that there is a queer sensibility to some of his songs-- like “The Book of Love”-- that can get erased in schmaltz factory covers like that made famous by dumdum Peter Gabriel. I am maybe labeling the ironical tone and distance in Merritt’s vocals as “queer” in a casual way that actually requires a LOT MORE EVIDENCE but…
S: No, I think it’s there, though I read it as completely earnest. When Merritt wrote & recorded “I love it when you give me things / And you oughta give me wedding rings” in 1999, that was not a federally recognized possibility for queer folks in the U.S. And Peter Gabriel is a chief offender in the category of Musicians Draining The Life From Their Peers’ Beautiful Work. Let us not even speak of his terrible cover of “‘Heroes’”, used to such dull effect in Stranger Things, when the original would have perpetrated a deeply satisfying emotional murder for this viewer.
M: Peter Gabriel and the TV producers who prefer him, y’all have a LOT TO ANSWER FOR. And speaking of “covers made famous by television,” let’s touch on the value of covers like Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” (not included on our list ONLY because it is a horse that has been truly beaten dead) and the blessed category of cover it represents: songs written and originated by, um, “vocal stylists” like Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan subsequently covered by traditionally gifted vocalists. Do you have a favorite example of that?
S: Sorry, I was having a giggle fit over your categorization of Dylan & Cohen as “vocal stylists”! Let me have a think.
M: Please never apologize for having a giggle fit at one of my jokes.
S: There are so many women who’ve brought out the proper beauty of Dylan’s lyrics: Nanci Griffith, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris. The clarity of their voices on songs like “Boots of Spanish Leather” and “Don’t Think Twice” actually led me back to the originals, but they miss the target for me overall.
M: Whereas, for me, there’s nothing better in the world than taking the Dylan out of Dylan. WELL, we have now talked about this for a solid thousand words more than we expected to, and could probably continue doing so until the end of time. BUT WE WON’T!
We would, however, love love love to hear your thoughts on this issue! Do you have favorite cover, readers? Have we criticized one of your darlings? TWEET AT US, please!!
Bonus Dames: Margaret on Pop Culture Happy Hour!
The most Margaret thing Emily Gilmore has ever, or will ever, do.
If her half of these thousand words were not enough for you, be aware! Dame Margaret is also on Pop Culture Happy Hour this week to discuss two HIGHLY #Damesbaity things: Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life and Moana. Listen! Enjoy! Or ignore! Whichever feels right to you.