On the heels of last weekend’s five-woman tribute to ailing Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin at the 53rd Grammy Awards, this clip of Grammy darling Adele singing the hell out of “Natural Woman” has us wondering why she wasn’t there too. The gorgeous, no-frills take on the Carole King-penned ballad that Franklin made a hit in 1967 comes from the 22-year-old Brit’s performance for VH1’s Unplugged, the first in the recently revamped series set to premiere on March 4.
Sara Bareilles is no newcomer to covers. The Grammy-nominated chanteuse got her start in the UCLA acappella group Awaken, and later covered her own ballad “Gravity,” which she wrote for the group, on her debut album Careful Confessions. Late last year Bareilles brilliantly reinvented Beyoncé‘s raucous “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” for Billboard.com’s Mashup Mondays series, giving a jazzy, coffee-house spin to the iconic R&B sizzler.
Of the critically beloved UK female solo acts to impact the American music scene in the latter half of the last decade, Corinne Bailey Rae occupied the middle of the spectrum in nearly every way. While every bit as accomplished as her fellow exports, she was neither as brash as Lily Allen nor as morose as Adele, more earthly than Alison Goldfrapp and less ethereal than Duffy, not a controversial troubled auteur like Amy Winehouse nor pre-packaged pop product like Leona Lewis. Rae might be the most accessible artist of the bunch, particularly on her self-titled 2005 debut album, which earned Grammy nods for the album and singles, “Like a Star” and “Put Your Records On.” Following her husband’s sudden death from accidental overdose in early 2008, though, Rae took an indefinite hiatus from music, finally returning in early 2010 with The Sea, which displayed the singer’s artistic growth without abandoning the singer’s comfortable, if not especially adventurous, brand of mellow neo-soul.
Some cover to pay homage, others to challenge, and still others to mock. Re-interpretations of contemporary Top 40 hits often seem to wind up in the latter category. Hip-hop club jams in particular have been butts of some of the greatest jokes of satirical imitation (e.g. Alanis Morissette finally got the concept of irony with her torch song treatment of the Black Eyed Peas‘ “My Humps”). Perhaps sensing that simply ballad-izing hyperbolic urban odes of braggadocio has become a bit cliche, the new tongue-in-cheek cover band Emmett and the Black Mountain Scorpion Bluegrass Experience Gang debut this week with a decidedly uptempo cover of Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz’ inescapable 2003 crunk rap single “Get Low.”
Next Sunday, the Simon Cowell-helmed UK television singing competition The X Factor (based largely on American Idol, itself a spinoff of his British series Pop Idol, on which Cowell also judged) will crown the winner of its seventh go-around. As tradition has held since the show’s second season, the victor’s debut single will drop the following day so as to compete to be the “Christmas number one,” (the top spot on the UK singles chart for the sales-heavy week prior to the holiday), a feat accomplished by four of the last five champs, much to the chagrin of the show’s detractors. Last year, however, a grassroots Facebook campaign known as Rage Against the X Factor lobbied over 500,000 supporters to pay to download “Killing in the Name,” the explicit 1992 debut single by Rage Against the Machine, and the title held off the debut of X Factor winner Joe McElderry (a cover of Miley Cyrus‘ “The Climb”) to become the first download-only Christmas number one in chart history.
Seeing the name Britney Spears appear anywhere in relation to cover songs should strike fear into your heart. The infamous pop music icon has a storied history of disastrous covers, made all the more notorious by the popularity and elitist appeal of the classics she has mangled. Any listing of all-time worst cover songs is all but certain to include either her 2000 mauling of “I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction)” (which even this Spears apologist admits is truly dreadful) or the 2002 reincarnation of “I Love Rock N Roll” that got one bewildered journalist noting that “Joan Jett would be rolling in her grave if she were dead.”
Fortunately, it appears that the pop superstar may have grown wise to the ire her cover songs inspire and withdrew from a game she clearly hadn’t the skills to play. Meanwhile, Britney effect has continued to pervade the world of cover songs on the flip side of the coin: not as one who covers but rather as one who is covered – arguably a weightier assessment of artistic importance than a knack for musical reinterpretation of another’s work. Some of the covers out there of Britney Spears tunes are excellent – and even most of the rest turn out more interesting than your average remake.