I’m inclined to believe that imitation is another name for laziness. There was this kid who copied something from me in third grade, some in-class thing, I don’t even remember the details. But I remember being angry about it, because I was very proud of my own creativity and my own ideas and how dare anyone else try to pass them off as theirs. As I got older, that and other experiences … like students trying to convince me to do their work for them, or asking me to cheat with/for them … led me to a conclusion which was pretty hard to shake: if you don’t have what it takes to do what I’m doing, you don’t deserve to get what I’m getting.
Yikes! Those are the kinds of words spoken by people who don’t have many friends, eh? I’ve already blogged on how I felt about collaborative work as a student, and when it comes right down to it, I still believe that everyone needs to pull their own weight.
So the years went on and I grew more entrenched in my do-it-yourself-like-I-did posture, and that (combined with my dad’s disappointment in any artist who performed a cover of someone else’s song and didn’t “do something different” with it) led me to three conclusions.
- Singing other people’s songs is the lazy way up for new performers.
- Singing songs you didn’t write yourself is subpar artistry.
- I, as a proud and determined singer/songwriter (emphasis on the SONGWRITER), was going to forge my way nobly up the steep hill of success by singing my own material, only occasionally throwing in a cover song to appease the masses who just didn’t know any better.
Well, if you can’t guess how that turned out, I’ve been pursuing my career for 17.5 years now and I still have a long, LONG way to go. And as I gear up to spend many, many nights singing songs that have been made famous by other people, I’ve come to a few new conclusions about cover songs and cover bands and cover singers.
- Singing other people’s songs is how every one of us started, unless someone can find me a singer who was creating original lyrics and melodies from the time he or she learned to sing.
- Singing songs you didn’t write yourself can help you become a better writer, much like reading books you didn’t write yourself can sharpen your skills as an author.
- I, with full firsthand knowledge of how difficult it can be to get a crowd to warm up to a person they don’t know singing songs they’ve never heard before, really enjoy singing lots of songs I didn’t write, whether I end up modifying them or singing them exactly the way they were first performed (not all songs; there are some “classics” which crowds love and which I despise thoroughly, but those are the exception and not the rule).
- Some songs I’ve always loved listening to are, lo and behold, covers! “Taking a Chance on Love” has been recorded by 70 different artists and bands according to Wikipedia; it’s one of my favourite old songs and I thought the version I heard first, from 1943, was the original but it turns out it’s from Cabin in the Sky which was released in 1940. The late great Luther Vandross was a genius at breathing new life into old songs (I didn’t find that out until recently that lost of the Luther tracks I grew up listening to, like “Since I Lost My Baby” and “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now,” were covers). And, it takes a special kind of insight and artistry to take a previously existing song and turn it into a message for a new generation, or a response to the original track, or a challenge or tribute to the earlier creator(s). Yes, this means I don’t have a problem with most remixes and most examples of sampling. Which is funny, because the nine-year-old me would be rolling her eyes right now at all these copycats out there …
- Performing is not always about what the performer wants to do. It’s usually more about what the audience wants to hear. And they tend to want something familiar more than something brand new. I’m glad bands like Boyce Avenue picked up on this, because I probably wouldn’t know who they were if they had considered themselves too good to do cover songs; and now I see them as a personal musical inspiration.
Don’t get me wrong — I still feel icky about the possibility of monetary gain at someone else’s expense because I relied on their pre-existing work instead of creating anything new, so I doubt I’ll be content to only sing covers for the duration of my career. But I promise I don’t hate them any more. And yes, you’re welcome to cover one of my songs — just make sure you do a better job of it than I did.