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> 'Ironic' Acoustic Covers: Mansplaining?
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Cucumberella
post Jul 10 2017, 11:12 PM
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https://www.nylon.com/articles/rip-ironic-a..._campaign=nylon



QUOTE
In 1999, Scottish indie band Travis included a cover of Britney Spears’ ”...Baby One More Time” on the single release of their song “Turn.” With this cover, Travis did what you’d expect an earnest indie rock band at the time to do: They slowed it down, stripped it back, and placed tongues firmly in cheeks. Now in 2017, it’s fair to say Travis don’t have the cultural capital they once did, but back in those heady post-Britpop, pre-indie-revival days, rightly or wrongly, they had more critical credibility than Spears, and the reception to their version of her song made that clear—it was embraced by music snobs who wouldn’t have been caught dead listening to the pop star. It was also a sign of a trend that would soon become ubiquitous, one in which indie bands would cover pop song, as if to say, “The music we make is serious and important, and even though this song isn’t, we’re making it so by covering it.” This became a template that was to be replicated countless times for years to come—until now.

Flash-forward 18 years and the musical landscape is much different. Pop music has enjoyed a critical resurgence, with artists who would once have been marginalized as mere pop stars—like Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Lorde, and Beyoncé—putting out records that are fastidiously analyzed and dissected by the music press—and rightly so. Meanwhile, purely guitar-driven indie music is far less celebrated, and far less culturally significant. As a result, the ironic guitar cover has less space to thrive. But why was something so implicitly condescending allowed to thrive for so long in the first place? And will it ever make a comeback?

One of the biggest contributors to the life cycle of the ironic cover is BBC Radio One’s Live Lounge, a segment of midmorning radio in which acts promoting their new single would also be invited to do a cover of a song not usually in their genre. Over the years this has given us Elbow’s take on “Independent Woman,” Foals’ “Hollaback Girl” (this one’s really bad guys), The Automatic’s (who?) “Gold Digger,” and all manner of other songs that, in a more utopian society, wouldn’t exist. The success of the Live Lounge format led to the release of 12 compilation CDs, all save three of which have reached number one in the album charts, with every song recorded as part of it made available on iTunes immediately after.

If Live Lounge is the cream of covers rising to the top (it’s not, but go with the analogy), then YouTube is sour milk. YouTube is the student open mic night of the internet, a long, never-ending street of buskers all hoping you’ll throw down some change and stick around long enough to listen to their own music. When Beyoncé released her groundbreaking “Formation,” the white guy covers dropped almost as fast, each of them clumsily mangling the song into four guitar chords, whilst not shirking away from using the word “negro;” easily one of the worst things about this kind of cover is that it often feels like certain songs are selected as an excuse for white people to justify using racial epithets. (Incidentally, the #TrapCover trend that sprang up in opposition to this was really, truly excellent.)

Far from just being a fixture of the internet, the trend of these covers has been mined for commercial ends. U.K. department store John Lewis has made their Christmas advert a huge part of the holiday season, hinging its ads upon slow, twinkly covers of well-known songs; Oasis, Elton John, and The Smiths have all had the John Lewis ad treatment. However, unlike Live Lounge, whose covers rely on knowledge of both the song and the band stepping out of their genre, here the singer is almost incidental. In fact, of the nine ads that have included a cover, the only household names to have sung them have been Ellie Goulding and Lily Allen, maybe Tom Odell at a push, the formula for the cover so perfected that it literally doesn’t matter who the singer is.

If John Lewis provided the commercial apotheosis of the genre, then the critical one surely came in 2015, in the form of Ryan Adams’ take on Taylor Swift’s 1989, at the time maybe the biggest pop album in the world, both critically and commercially. The response fell into two camps, those who felt Adams had unearthed some previously hidden depth to the record, and those who felt he’d done, well, the opposite. Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson called it “a lot of fun to think about and talk about, not much fun to listen to.” But again, the praise for Adams’ record was based on the idea that pop music cannot claim to have the emotional depth that a serious, world-weary singer-songwriter has. Anna Leszkiewicz of the New Statesman put it best in the aftermath: “Pop songs are not inherently devoid of meaning, and alternative genres are not deep by default,” going on to say, “even with the intention of celebrating her, Ryan Adams has made it possible for dozens of music journalists to mansplain Swift’s own album to her.”

The recent history of the pop cover is interesting to consider with regard to how the music industry itself played out at the start of the 21st century. That first decade saw huge changes in how people consume music—the iPod was launched in 2001, YouTube in 2005, Spotify came on the scene in 2008. All of these things challenged the traditional distribution model and provided new outlets for people to listen to music for free, or, in the case of the iPod and iTunes, at a much lower cost than physical records. In the midst of an industry in flux, covers were a safe bet.

The irony is, covering songs shouldn’t be a safe thing to do; covering songs should be a risk, to take something beloved and well-known and try to interpret it in a new way, to make it a new song. All the best cover versions have elements of risk to them—Jeff Buckley stripping down the lush bombast of “Hallelujah” to his haunting, reverb-laden guitar and vocal; Johnny Cash channeling the lyrics to “Hurt” to sum up his entire life; Whitney Houston turning Dolly Parton’s gentle, poignant “I Will Always Love You,” making it a soulful torch song, and a showcase for her breathtaking vocal ability. Where these songs take risks and ask you to measure them against the originals, acoustic pop covers play safe, ask you not to really worry about the original, just have a laugh, don’t sweat it. The other irony is, when talking about musical depth, sincerity, rawness, emotion—all the things that these covers are often applauded for—it is mainstream pop artists who are the ones writing music that speaks to relevant, often heavily politicized issues, whether that be Beyoncé supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, U.K.’s grime scene coming out in support of Jeremy Corbyn, or even people like Harry Styles or The 1975 defending the intelligence of the teenage girls who make up their audience. If alternative or indie musicians want to try and achieve a similar level of emotional depth, maybe it’s time they began looking at their own music and their own scene, rather than taking ironic jabs at what’s in the charts.

Absolutely 100000% agree with this

Covering a pop song with guitars and with affected vocals with the pretence of making it more 'respected' and to expose more meaning than originally intended is so gross. It's also EXTREMELY lazy IMO, a lot of people think they're being much more forward thinking but are actually putting LESS thought in - there's only been a handful of times where someone has stripped a song back to give it a new perspective for it to work (i.e. Johnny Cash 'Hurt' etc.)
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Andrew.
post Jul 10 2017, 11:16 PM
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Ugh music snobbery and the thought that sticking an acoustic guitar and some whiny man with his eyes shut over a pop song somehow makes it 'credible' has always been something I've loathed, get over yourselves drama.gif I agree with you Lew, 90% of the time it's just lazy and reductive.
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Brett-Butler
post Jul 10 2017, 11:20 PM
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Interesting points. I'd still fight to the death to defend King Creosote's acoustic cover of Cher's "Believe" though.
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SouthsideSpinner
post Jul 10 2017, 11:24 PM
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For me personally it could be either one. While pop or dance is usually my preferred, I could easily fall in love with an acoustic version. But the original artist still gets most of the credit tongue.gif

"More meaning" huh idgi laugh.gif I don't think it makes it more credible either lmao
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post Jul 10 2017, 11:27 PM
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Especially when on Radio 1's Live Lounge.

In what universe would you see Paramore covering a song from Drake for example? huh.gif

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HarryEzra
post Jul 10 2017, 11:34 PM
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QUOTE(awardinary @ Jul 11 2017, 12:27 AM) *
Especially when on Radio 1's Live Lounge.

In what universe would you see Paramore covering a song from Drake for example? huh.gif


I don't see the problem at all wtih Paramore covering drake isnt the point of Live Lounge to take songs that you wouldn't normally sing and make them into your own? they did just that.
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#CodyDecides
post Jul 10 2017, 11:47 PM
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In this case, this is more the fault of music critics trying to implement a form of sophistication and credibility to acoustic pop/rock as a whole, rather than the artist who may have had a different reason for the shift in genre. Taylor has actively praised Ryan Adams for his idea to cover 1989 (albeit in her own extra way) and has listed him as one of her songwriting inspirations, and all he wanted to do was return the favor and weaken genre barriers. There shouldn't be a shift in credibility between the two because they're two different artists, and their portrayal of the same work shouldn't detract from each other.

The choice of covering something shouldn't be something that increases credibility but rather to paint a song in a different light, expose themes that were otherwise hidden in the original work, highlight different aspects of an artist's range, or simply add a new aesthetic to the sound. There are other artists who cover songs through an acoustic filter just for fun, but it shouldn't detract from the song's original credibility. If it does the song Justice, then good on them. It doesn't make them automatically better than the original artist; it just gives the fans to examine the artistry through another lens.
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Chez Wombat
post Jul 10 2017, 11:48 PM
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All this just goes back to general views of music, a group with guitars will generally be seen as more credible than a pop singer that doesn't play any instruments due to the fact it's been around for much longer and I guess cos it represents a more authentically 'British' sound cos it's in the spirit of the Beatles etc. (at least that's a reason for music press over here). It's obvs a completely outdated view, but it's one that hasn't really gone away yet.

As for covers, I agree with most of that article, generally, stripped down covers are generally the WORST, it started out alright for John Lewis but every song since like 2009 has been purely played for money and void of emotion or making it their own, and it's not just them, just look at Calum Scott's Dancing On My Own for an example of a wonderful, unique song watered down to fit current sounds and losing any sense of individual artistic, emotional or musical integrity, it's awful. X Factor are the same, not really tailored to fit current sounds but they all follow a certain formula that makes me cynical to any cover released, even the charity ones.

I get that covering a song can be used for commercial purposes, but it shouldn't be too much to ask for the artist to genuinely make it their own or personal to them, or identify a genuine reason for a change of pace to explore deeper meanings. Asides from the aforementioned Johnny Cash's Hurt which is a masterclass in covering a song, I'd also say Michael Andrews' Mad World and James Vincent McMorrow's Higher Love are two that do this very well.

(Live Lounge is just kinda fun and there is an element of knowing the artist and genre so I actually don't have much of a problem with that, some are dire granted but some have been genuinely good (30 Seconds to Mars' Stronger <3))


This post has been edited by Chez Wombat: Jul 10 2017, 11:51 PM
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Liаm
post Jul 10 2017, 11:54 PM
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Yes I hate this! Calum Scott - Dancing On My Own teas. There are cases where I really like it (like Kiesza's cover of What Is Love for example), but in others it's just a lazy acoustic cover of something to make it "credible". It's case by case really but "more meaning" sounds so snobby, loads of pop songs have so many layers beneath seeming bubbly and superficial on the surface, how does just focusing on a forced strained voice trying too hard to sound unique make it have "more meaning"?! Dancing On My Own is the perfect example, the production and vocals bring out the feel of it perfectly, a perfect cry on the dancefloor song. And Calum Scott strips all that away so the only emotion is the pain you feel listening to it.
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#CodyDecides
post Jul 11 2017, 12:02 AM
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Calum Scott's DOMO is one of those rare instances where an acoustic cover does not do the song justice and ends up being a snoozefest. And this is kind of a mixture of the original already packing so much energy into the song and his voice contrasting so much with the cover that it ends up being grating.
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Iz~
post Jul 11 2017, 12:52 AM
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Completely lazy and awful yes, but I feel like I'd only say that because acoustic guitar is one of the worst and most basic forms of music in existence, so there's so little you can do with it when covering a song - as that article says, covering a song should indeed be a risk and you're not doing that by whipping a guitar out and doing a slow 'heartfelt' rendition of Chained To The Rhythm.

If I were to compare this to something like Punk does Pop, which I enjoy but also isn't that varied of an idea and seems to serve to diss pop on at least one level... then I can see what acoustic fans might think about these, it's not that inspired, but for them it's fun to hear songs in the way they'd like to. For professional acoustic works that is, no condoning Youtube stars or Calum Scott because some things can have no defenders.

Though I'd also like people of all persuasions to stop with the hang ups about pop and enjoy it melding into their genres because that's where the magic often happens.
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Liаm
post Jul 11 2017, 01:06 AM
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Yeah Pop Goes Punk is a great example, they do something with it that makes it their own and changes it up but not in a way that sucks everything out of the original, it just adds something different. I find that by and large the Live Lounge is quite good too, it's more like Youtubers and the dullards on talent shows attached to their guitars for me! It can do so much for an artist and the song they're covering to be switch it up like that if they just use their brains a little bit and do something more than the lazy acoustic version with no feeling. In terms of X Factor I'd rather someone performed the hell out of a song in the same style than do one of the awful slowed down covers. Look at X Factor last year, Saara sang Donna Summer, Mariah and Abba the way they're meant to be sang and it was all totally flawless, then there was Emily who sucked the life out of absolutely anything she got her claws on by """"making it her own""""".
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liamk97
post Jul 11 2017, 08:41 AM
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Really great article; thanks so much for sharing!

I have to admit that when I was reading about the Live Lounge, the song that popped into my head, although not acoustic, was Arctic Monkeys' take on 'Love Machine', which I don't think was meant to be anything other than a bit of silly fun although I could still imagine music snobs praising it from the hills.

I do agree with Cody's points and that covers should paint a song in a differently light opposed to increasing credibility and there are times when doing a pop-to-acoustic cover does do this. A lot of pop songs are designed to make you want to get up and dance so it's hard to pick up on the lyrics sometimes; stripping the song back and letting the lyrics and vocal do the talking can really make you re-imagine the song. Other times, it just doesn't work and wasn't even necessary in the first place - like Calum Scott's 'Dancing On My Own' as you guys have so keenly pointed out! Robyn's version may have been a bit more uptempo but it was clearly a deeply emotional song with heartfelt vocals and the lyrics are not at all disguised or overlooked. Calum's version of the song may put extra emphasis on the song and I suppose his sexuality and not altering the pronouns from the original sheds a slightly new light on the lyrics, but fundamentally it's a snoozefest of a song that has had all the energy and artistic individuality sucked out of it. I'd say X Factor/BGT was particularly notorious for thinking stripping back a song with an acoustic guitar made it seem like said coverer was a musical genius, although thankfully the latest winner's singles and the cancelling of the group charity singles has shown the public are becoming less and less invested in these sort of covers.

A lot of my friends are into variations of rock music and I really hate hearing these Pop Goes Punk covers. Perhaps they're just not playing me the best ones, but they all get the same makeover of a load of electric guitars and whiny angsty teen vocals and hey presto, it's 'credible'. They don't even serve the purpose of making the lyrics get a different focus, it's literally just a pop song in pop punk armor, which is why I don't understand these same people's criticisms of hearing pop music and dismissing it for only being designed to make you dance and not having any lyrical substance.

Fundamentally though, people should just enjoy what they want to enjoy and not give an F whether the lyrics being sung or the instruments being played gives a song a so-called 'credible' status. So long as you get something from it, it's all good, I guess.
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Doctor Blind
post Jul 11 2017, 10:45 AM
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Some good points however I do feel like guitar rock is a bit of an easy target these days, having suffered from near enough a decade of critical indifference after the so-called ‘landfill indie’ of 2005/06. I personally hate the live lounge albums for this very reason, it seems to as the article argues celebrate apparently giving credibility to throwaway pop songs so that they can be enjoyed by the discerning music listener - I don't want to hear covers unless they take the original and completely change it up and make it something entirely different to listen to. A good example is Saint Etienne's 1991 cover of Neil Young's “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” which changes it from a melancholic rock ballad into a upbeat club anthem. That's kind of the opposite of what Calum Scott did with “Dancing On My Own” which already juxtaposed the melancholic, downbeat lyrics that portray overcoming life's lowest lows against a thumping and pulsating beat with colourful synths - sucked the life out of it to create a dull and lifeless pop ballad that completely diminished the meaning of the lyrics. Of course as we know from Ed Sheeran's unfathomable popularity, there is a very large market for unchallenging, emotional, easy listening pop music that spans the generations and so too for these dull lifeless guitar covers of pop songs that it would otherwise be too ‘uncool’ to like or listen to.

It works both ways however, I was equally annoyed by the lifeless and interminable covers that Birdy released in 2011 of alternative songs such as Phoenix's “1901”, The Naked & Famous' “Young Blood” and the xx's “Shelter”. Just because you've got an amazing voice doesn't mean you can just slow down every song every released add a bit of echo to your voice and some light piano melody and expect to make a masterpiece.
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Regina
post Jul 11 2017, 07:06 PM
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Ryan Adams' 1989 was better than Taylor's tbh.
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