The Big Cover-Up

March 7, 2019


When you think about it, almost any symphony orchestra is a cover band. Its repertoire consists typically of works by long-gone composers, with the occasional contemporary composition. The fact that members of the orchestra do not write new musical material for a long time accounted for one of the biggest difference between “classical” and pop-music. The age of DJs and their ghost-producers, rappers referencing through the use of sampling, and even the ringtone craze of the early 2000s have showed us that authenticity in pop-music production is far from a static concept. The concept of the "cover" is a common phenomenon in the music business, but is it really any good?


 [ I Follow Rivers (Lykke Li cover) - Triggerfinger, 2012 ]


In 2012, Belgian band Triggerfinger scored an immense hit with I Follow Rivers. This rendition had been recorded live on the radio and peaked the Dutch charts for six weeks. The peculiarity here, however, lies in de fact that the song’s original version — co-written and performed by Lykke Li — had not even topped these charts. Even though the cover was a watered-down, instrumentally sober variant of its original, it made Triggerfinger far more successful than Lykke Li. Ever since, the trio has not had any significant hits and will for always be associated with that one radio-recording.


A similar story we find with CUT_. Although the Amsterdam-based electro-pop powerduo just released an impressive new album, much of their fame came through a (translated) cover of Stromae’s Papaoutai (2013). Cut_'s rendition spread their name like wildfire while at the same time forever linking their name to that of another artist. To becoming popular with someone else’s material seems paradoxical in a music industry that largely revolves around authenticity. Nevertheless, it allows for an act to spread “their sound” among an audience already familiar with the core of the song. It is a case of form over content.


 [ Papaoutai (Stromae cover) - Cut_, 2014)


The underlying mechanism is — of course — that of familiarity. In fact, this is what underlies most of pop music’s success, which in itself is highly repetitive. It is easy on the ear to hear a song that you have already heard before while hearing something new requires effort and attention. Since hearing takes place in time and sound is ephemeral (i.e. it is gone once you hear it) it takes a lot of effort to keep up your attention span and follow to wherever the song is heading. This is the exact opposite of watching a movie of which the narrative unfolds before our eyes and we are being pulled into it. Moreover, movies tend to become less exciting the more you watch them precisely because of the fact that we know where it heads.


But what does the unfolding narrative of a song then have to do with Cut_? The answer is that we should not only watch remakes of blockbusters we have seen before, but we should also dare to flip on an arthouse film every now and then. One directed by an artist unknown for the sake of renewal. Only if we can find the time and energy to invest in hearing something new we can push the music industry forward. So dare to explore!


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