Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
Of all the songs inextricably linked to moments in movies, few pairings initially appear more incongruous than the closing minutes of Real Genius that follow Lazlo driving away in his mobile home after a house has exploded due to a space laser and a giant tin of Jiffy Pop. As Roland Orzbal sings about hating “this indecision / married with a lack of vision,” neighborhood children fill wagons with edible detritus and Val Kilmer laughs in slow motion, biting popcorn snowflakes out of the air.
Though illogical, the scene is far more successful than the song’s on-the-face-of-it-more-fitting incarnation as a spooky Lorde cover on the soundtrack for the second installation of The Hunger Games. The reason children playing in popcorn works better than children forced to kill children is simple: the song isn’t about the fact that “everybody wants to rule the world” so much as it is about the more heartening notion that “when they do / I’ll be right behind you” and that we’ll be “holding hands as the walls come tumbling down.”
Because the world of the song isn’t a dystopia any more dystopic than our own world, attempts to make the song creepy end up wearing the affect like an ill-fitting costume. The vibe we’re looking for here is more familiar than all of that. It’s equal parts anger, faith, and arrogance. It’s knowing that one – and one’s friends and drinking buddies – will never actually rule the world while also knowing that it would be better for the world if one did.
Taking the title too seriously is not the only pitfall waiting for artists attempting to cover this song. Orzbal’s vocal part is a trap. It can soar. It can lilt. It can emote. However, it probably should do none those things. More than 100 stilted covers show up in a Spotify search, each of them demonstrating in one way or another that feeling the song’s vocals is maybe not as important as understanding them. Too many versions of this song get lost inside the big, gorgeous melody and end up meaningless.
Here are five (six, if you count one that made our year-end list for 2014) that don’t do that:
Eric Hofbauer – Everybody Wants to Rule the World (Tears for Fears cover)
If the vocals are the biggest challenge to covering this song, perhaps the gifted jazz guitarist’s version takes a shortcut by removing them. Still, the halting and occasionally jagged stutter of Hofbauer’s solo guitar manages the intimate sense of intricacy as the original. Sure, the cover has moments that verge on pretentious. Like most Tears for Fears songs, however, this one is built to survive pretension so long as it is the right kind of pretentious.
The Black Soft – Everybody Wants to Rule the World (Tears for Fears cover)
Speaking of fun pretensions, the techno-gothic duo Black Soft reveal the right way to rethink the song as spooky minimalism: they speed it up, don’t get precious, and bring the carnival. The difference between this cover and ones that fail for their bleakness is that, in this mechanized dystopia, one still gets to dance.
Moreland & Arbuckle – Everybody Wants to Rule the World (Tears for Fears cover)
This cover reminds us that it ain’t just college students and hipsters who can get lost in boozy grandiosity. The Wichita blues duo release any potential angst and turn the whole thing into a honky-tonk kind of reverie, one that leaves plenty of time for a slurred two-step and harmonica solo.
Carebears on Fire – Everybody Wants to Rule the World (Tears for Fears cover)
On the one hand, this oughties pop punk is a bit on the nose, doubling the tempo and shouting the chorus like a bumper sticker slogan. On the other hand, the disjunction between punk impulses and pop execution is very similar to the disjunction that works so well during slow-motion popcorn blizzard of Real Genius.
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists – Everybody Wants to Rule the World (Tears for Fears cover)
This is the gold standard for playing this song straight. Ted Leo’s voice can handle the melody without making it precious. More importantly, the band finds ways of playing it as a rock song without losing any of the pop flourishes that bob and weave throughout the original. What we end up with is a song that sounds like its source in a lot of different ways. These different nods to the original reveal themselves slowly over the course the cover, as the song gets heavier and heavier, adding new kinds of heat and pressure to a melody that remains as sturdy as ever.