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The Good Listener: Can You Build The Perfect Cover Song?

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the CDs in which the Vitamin String Quartet plays the songs of 30 Seconds to Mars is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, the dos and don'ts of covering other artists' music.

Melissa Claire writes: "What defines a good cover song? And, more importantly, a bad one?"

To me, good cover songs are about necessity — something about the source material that needed to be revisited, revised, redone or otherwise rescued from the original production. You don't have to improve on it, exactly, but if the original is perfect the way it is, then there's not a whole lot of sense in either reinventing it or re-creating it note for note. For musicians, it must be great to pay tribute to a beloved song, and nice for your fans to hear how your favorite music would sound if you sang it, but the appeal is naturally limited by the presence of a superior original. There's a reason certain singer-songwriters — Tom Waits, Daniel Johnston, Vic Chesnutt — get covered a lot: They've written a ton of incredible songs, and their own recordings are rightfully celebrated, but their own voices are polarizing in ways that, for some, can disguise the genius of the songcraft.

As for what makes a bad cover song, it's totally fair to pick on milquetoast arrangements that anesthetize an original's heart, soul and guts. But I'm even wearier of sarcastic piss-take goof-offs — punk covers of "Feelings" and whatnot — that are all about positioning bands as cooler than the material they've deigned to mock. Maybe it's my own exhaustion with eye-rolling as a form of expression, but if a song already evokes knee-jerk negativity, then why not challenge that instead of merely reinforcing it?

Great covers abound, and my favorite of the moment has Shearwater and Sharon Van Etten tackling Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty's 1981 smash "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around." Van Etten and Shearwater's Jonathan Meiburg clearly remain faithful to the original — they find the exact midpoint between their own voices and the singers they're covering — but they still sound like themselves in the process.

Part of the fun of cover songs lies in dreaming up pairings that haven't yet been recorded. About a decade ago, when I was editing The A.V. Club, I tried and ultimately failed to launch an album of covers called The Reclamation Project, in which great artists would take lightly regarded pop songs and make them great. The concept was based on that idea of necessity, but also a (since more widely accepted) belief that it's silly to look down on pop music; that production and interpretation are often all that separate pop from more critically appreciated genres.

Two of my dream covers — songs I'd planned to commission using a budget that never materialized — have existed in my brain, fully formed, for roughly 10 years. For starters, it is some sort of crime against humanity that The New Pornographers' members have never gathered to record a cover of Enrique Iglesias' "Escape," with Neko Case singing the hook: "You can run, you can hide, but you can't escape my love." The whole song has a skeleton made of pure, unalloyed power-pop sunshine, and The New Pornographers would prove it.

The other is a version of "The Power of Love (I Am Your Lady)," popularized by Celine Dion but also recorded by Air Supply and many others, performed as an acoustic dirge by Iron and Wine's Sam Beam. Beam has given this treatment to other songs, including The Postal Service's "Such Great Heights" and The Flaming Lips' "Waitin' for a Superman," but what kills me about "The Power of Love" — as it's always been performed — is that it's not a song about the fine art of bellowing a chorus. There's a gorgeous melody in there, and in the lyric is an intimate, vulnerable expression of devotion that borders on desperation. It's a song versatile enough for subtlety, and I've never heard it receive that treatment.

Got a music-related question you want answered? Leave it in the comments, drop us an email at allsongs@npr.org or tweet @allsongs.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)