Monitor Down

The music blog that doesn’t want to hear itself

Apparently, Commercial Covers Don’t Always Have to Suck

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acdcOn occasion, I will be in some department store or other where I am exposed to the business side of pop culture. This basically means music that serves as background fill, creating a comfortable, mindless soundtrack that makes people more inclined to shop. And usually, what I hear irritates me beyond words (though I tried to express it once, here).

However, a recent event managed to re-open my judgment on commercial pop covers, and I’ve realized something rather interesting: The commercialization of music doesn’t always have to involve the dumbing down of obscure, artistically challenging songs. It can go both ways.

This occurred to me in the sale section of a slightly upscale clothing store, where my discerning eardrums were introduced to a vaguely funky, jazz-style version of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” Sounds awful, I know. But hold on.

It was performed by a female vocalist, with some combination of keyboards and horns fleshing out the main chord progression, and a broken-down beat that almost entirely avoided the main beat of the song. The whole thing barely resembled the original at all. In fact, it took a few bars for me to positively identify it. And I would even say … I wasn’t pissed off about it. (Side note: I tried to find it on YouTube to no avail, but here’s a goofy, lamer jazz version of it by Tom Gaebel and Jazzkantine, to give you some idea.)

I’d like to contrast this experience with an earlier one, the example I hinted at earlier. This was the Killers’ hipster-pop version of Joy Division’s “Shadowplay.” Hearing that cover brought my blood to a boil instantly, and here’s why: The original version of “Shadowplay” isn’t supposed to be perfect. It’s not meant to be readily absorbed by people who don’t “get” music, or serve as the backdrop to a mindless club atmosphere — and it’s certainly not intended to be the soundtrack to a Forever 21. (I realize this might sound elitist and snobby. It is.)

The original “Shadowplay” contains a secret pleasure that you can only enjoy if you have the patience to accept the music’s flaws. The imperfect production, the disgruntled industrial mood and Ian Curtis’ strained vocals are there to dissuade the masses; they can only appeal to the type of listener who is inclined to identify with the song itself. It’s like a hidden oasis only accessible to the musically open-minded. And it’s not even the most extreme example of that idea. (Ever hear of noise music?)

What the killers’ version does is streamline the song, clean it up and give it a pleasant, candy flavor so it can be better absorbed by the absent-minded, musically indifferent masses. Teen girls who only think about sandals are now able to bob their heads to the song, singing along to words they could never identify with, while entirely missing the intended message.

Now, on the other, previously unexplored side of the globe is this new type of commercial cover song. What’s different about this elusive jazz “Highway to Hell” is that it does the exact opposite. Rather than taking something artistic and making it more accessible, it takes something accessible and makes it harder to understand. The lyrics haven’t changed, and the message still exists in whatever context the singer’s interpretation happens to be, but to understand it on the same level as the original, you have to actually pay attention and listen to it. Instead of being passively entertained while you bob your head and think about anklets, you need to actually want to hear the song in order to hear it. Actually, it would be the easiest thing in the world to barely hear it at all, and completely miss out on the satisfaction of knowing you just heard AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” This not only makes it all the more satisfying to realize what you’re hearing, but it actually encourages people to pay attention.

Who knows if the singer even wanted it to work that way. For all I know, she and her band could have been intentionally tailoring the song to an upscale clothing store. But as long as they were keeping it real on some level, that’s what I like to hear.


Written by Peter Kimmich

March 13, 2009 at 1:33 pm

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