They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with other people singing his or her songs. Let others do the work for a while. Happy birthday!
It’s time to make it rain and get our purple on, for today Prince turns 53. After spending a few years preoccupied with the creation of some albums that only he could enjoy, the father of funk recently renewed his interest in all us less funky, esoteric people by going on a cross-continental tour. Once again he is accessible to all those who adore him…so long as they adore him on his own terms. Meaning no YouTube fan videos, no file sharing, no blog posts, and for God’s sakes no cover songs!
As a devout adorer of Prince I could never give up on him, no matter how tough he is to love. His music defied the rock and roll hegemony that dominated the 1980s and brought funk to the masses. Prince laced his sound and sexuality together to create a new, avant-garde kind of rock and roll that enticed crowds and bothered traditionalists. He broke ground and carved out a new sound that was impossible to imitate.
Covering an artist with as much musical possession as Prince is a daunting task. His own style is difficult to nail and without towering guitar skills and a steep falsetto on total lockdown it simply cannot be done. Thus, any artist attempting to cover Prince is best served by transforming the song. Below is a sampling of songs that do just that successfully. So Happy Birthday Prince. As your biggest fan, it is my deepest hope that you will begrudgingly accept this gift that goes against your greatest principle. I’m sorry in advance.
MP3: Cyndi Lauper – When You Were Mine (Prince cover)
Cyndi Lauper and Prince are different sides of the same coin. Both curveball artists of the ’80s who helped make the decade a strange one, these two made gender bending and fashion faux pas seem cool even before Boy George arrived. “When You Were Mine” is easily one of Prince’s most likable songs and Lauper’s version doesn’t strip the song of that characteristic in the slightest. Instead of trying to normalize a song that cries over the break up of an androgynous couple, Lauper wisely chooses to keep it weird. She replaces Prince’s taught instrumentation with her own signature slinky, reverb sound but leaves the gender pronouns as they are. In other words, Lauper sang it as a love song from a girl to a girl as if it was her own “I Kissed a Girl.” In true pop culture style, Lauper’s version became an instant hit, proving that anything that pushes the envelope is bound to get air play.
MP3: Quindon Tarver – When Doves Cry (Prince cover)
Quindon Tarver’s version of “When Doves Cry” has just the right amount of distance between itself and the original. It is an outstanding cover that turns up the volume on “When Doves Cry” and makes it shine as bright as a disco ball in a dance hall. With its story line of lovers torn apart by feuding families the song was a perfect choice for the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack, and Tarver’s version intensifies the pain and strife that comes with the plot. By adding the one element that was missing in the original, a bass line, Tarver makes this version more modern and danceable.
MP3: My Morning Jacket – I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man (Prince cover)
Taste plus talent is what makes My Morning Jacket so cool. They love to surprise their fanatic audiences with an array of strange covers and this version of “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” is as good as it gets. As if there is any song that Jim James’s sincere and endearing voice doesn’t sound stellar on, he wins again with this cover. By adding some falsetto moans My Morning Jacket keeps their version close, at least in style, to the original but makes it their own by indulging in a four minute jam session towards the end of the song.
MP3: Mariachi El Bronx – I Would Die 4 U (Prince cover)
If, like me, you often think that all Prince’s famed, energetic, esoteric upper “I Would Die 4 U” needs is a couple of mariachis then you are finally in luck. L.A. punk band The Bronx, as their surprisingly sincere alter ego Mariachi El Bronx, took a hefty chance when deciding to add a little south-of-the-border flare to “I Would Die 4 U,” but the risk brought infinite dividends. With a sound reminiscent of ska-punk band Reel Big Fish, The Bronx delivers this fired up version that is sure to please those who think that Prince is a bit too precious about both his production and religion. Without the heavy-handed production that is present in the original, The Bronx bring this song back to earth and make it more enjoyable to those who prefer their spiritual odes saturated in mariachi horns.
MP3: Dump – 1999 (Prince cover)
Finally a version of “1999” that doesn’t make me want to write an apology letter to Prince on behalf of the entire music industry! Thank you James McNew, bassist of Yo La Tengo, for creating a version that does something different with your band Dump. The lo-fi, forlorn sound manipulates the tone of the song so that the message changes from “let’s celebrate because it’s 1999” to something more like, “we’re doomed because it’s 1999.” It offers a nice change of pace for a Prince song that tends always to steer away from chill, rainy day-type of sounds at all costs. Bonus: This comes off a full Dump-does-Prince tribute album called, brilliantly, That Skinny Motherfucker with the High Voice.
Check out more in our recent feature “Ten Reasons Prince Is Wrong About Covers”.