“Covering the Hits” looks at covers of a randomly-selected #1 hit from the past sixty years.
The idea behind this new series is that the random-number generator will pull up one random Billboard Hot 100 number-one from 1958 through 2018, the chart’s 60th birthday. For whatever reason, though, so far said generator is only delivering me either super old hits – my last was 1963’s regrettable “Hey Paula” – or very current – a late-period Britney Spears hit. And the trend continues today when we look at covers of one of the most recent hits out there, 2017’s #1 hit “Despacito.”
And not just one of the most recent hits, but one of the biggest. Ever. Last year, “Despacito” last year tied Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day” for the most weeks atop the Hot 100 in history. This wasn’t just a number-one hit. This is objectively one of the biggest hits of all time.
So there must be a million covers, right? Not really. Despite being so massive, “Despacito” never caught that wave of semi-ironic indie rock covers that so many pop smashes do.
To take but one example, the BBC Live Lounge is ground zero for “cool” bands covering current pop hits. Yet no one ever covered “Despacito” there. Compare that to Lorde’s “Green Light,” which got several Live Lounge covers last year – one from Arcade Fire no less – despite not actually ever becoming much of a hit (peak Hot 100 position: #19).
One reason could be the language barrier. With the exception of Justin Bieber’s parts on the remix, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee sing/rap the entire song in Spanish. And even though plenty of artists across genres could certainly manage the language, one wonder a non-Latino/a might be wary of doing anything with a whiff of cultural exploitation. Arcade Fire or someone might think trying to sing in Spanish risks riling up Twitter for no real reward (though, come to think of it, Régine Chassagne’s Haitian roots should give them more credibility than most).
In fact, the only people who have covered “Despacito” are the sort of YouTube personalities that cover every pop hit – often within days or even hours of a song’s release. Luckily, there are a million of them. Unluckily, most are pretty insufferable. Here are the exceptions.
Postmodern Jukebox ft. Mandy Gonzalez & Tony DeSare – Despacito
Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox empire turns around covers of pop hits at a rapid pace. The catch: they’re always redone in some vintage style, old-timey jazz or showtune. It’s a formula, but one typically executed with panache. It also allows him to bring in guest singers, as on here where Mandy Gonzalez and Tony DeSare come in to belt the Spanish lyrics.
Side note: When I was talking about my cover-songs book on NPR a few months ago, the host brought on Bradlee to discuss the cultural exploitation question. It was an interesting conversation, still available to listen to here.
The Holophonics – Despacito
Texas ska band The Holophonics give a horn-punk spin to the song for the most strictly musically impressive cover on this list. With most of the others, part of the fun comes from knowing it’s a cover. This one would work even if you thought it was their own song.
Richard Cheese – Despacito
Richard Cheese has been doing the novelty cross-genre covers thing since before most of these YouTubers were born. In this short snippet, he tries his lounge hands at “Despacito.” And he finds a unique way to handle the lyrics.
Peter Bence – Despacito
One way to avoid dealing with the Spanish lyrics is to skip them entirely. On an inventive instrumental, pianist Peter Bence incorporates a loop pedal to built a super catchy concoction of sounds. And when he plays the piano, he’s not just hitting the keys; he’s opened the whole instrument up, allowing him to pluck strings on the inside and make other rhythmic noises well beyond what you’d see in a symphony hall.
Jon Sudano – Despacito
I was struggling to find a fifth “Despacito” cover I liked until I came across this. Easily the best part of this whole journey was discovering Jon Sudano’s YouTube channel. I won’t give away what happens, but after you watch this video, check out him “singing” (heh) “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Hurt,” “Zombie,” and – best of all – Adele’s “Someone Like You.”
I can’t point you to more “Despacito” covers here because this is the first time we’ve posted any, for the reasons explained above. We have posted plenty of other Bieber covers though.