When do covers of a song work? (Op-Ed)

“Anything old can be made new again”.

Well, not exactly.

Sometimes artists will decide to do a cover of a song, their version of an older, well-received, piece of music. Doing this, however, is always risky. While a successful cover can have fans of the original song celebrating, a failed one can start pure chaos.

To make a successful cover song, the artist has to find the right combination of sticking to the source material and adding some of their energy to the recording. One perfect example is the late Whitney Houston’s cover of Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love”.

Both versions are amazing, albeit different. Steven has incredible vocal talent and the way he matches his song’s slow tempo perfectly proves this. Meanwhile, Whitney sped up the melody just enough, added riffs, and used her powerful vocal range to take a beloved song and make it her own. Considering how much her version is played, I’d call it a success.

A cover that didn’t work as well was Fall Out Boy’s version of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel. No disrespect to Fall Out Boy, they are extremely talented, but “We Didn’t Start the Fire” falls under that category of “songs that can’t be redone”.

Originally, Billy Joel’s song was summing up the 1950s-1980s, and talking about how difficult the 80s were in comparison to the 50s, according to Study.com. While I understand that Fall Out Boy was trying to bring the song back with 2000s-events-centric lyrics, it just fell flat. Voice of America claims that the events in Fall Out Boy’s version the lyrics summarizing events are not in chronological order. Compared to Joel’s version, which is chronological, it didn’t sit well with listeners.

There’s a big difference between switching lyrics and making a song your own. Fall Out Boy’s cover of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” felt like they were trying to imitate Billy Joel. Meanwhile Whitney Houston’s cover of “Higher Love” was able to honor Steve Winwood’s original song while simultaneously making it her own.

When listening to a cover of a song, it’s always clear whether the new artists are trying to imitate the original performers or honor them. Based on what the listeners determine, the cover will get the appropriate amount of love, or hate. It all depends on what the artist did with the song.

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