Why are song covers so fascinating? This is why we find vintage reassuring and interesting

A few days ago, while drinking coffee with a friend, we found ourselves talking about music. Sitting at a table, in the middle of a square, we started a debate about what the true value of music is and whether a remake can be considered as good as the original. While he argued song covers are not real music (such a purist!) I believe they are actually very interesting and I want to explain why.

Lulled by the notes

Can you recall that pleasant homely feeling of when you listen to a song that reminds you of something? Now, this is one of the reasons why I love song covers. They lull me, they reassure me and allow me to discover small but substantial differences from the original version without shaking me or making my ears feel heavy. Yes, what we know reassures us and this is also valid for the realm of music.

This principle is also valid for fashion: all those items which regularly come back into fashion, with just a few changes to adapt them to the period’s taste, bring a small piece of something we already know, but which feels new, nto our wardrobes and into our lives, and this intrigues us. The awareness that what we are wearing or listening to is not completely unknown to us and that, on the contrary, it also brings to mind distant memories, a feeling, an idea, a déjà-vu, while still holding an aura of newness, stimulates our imagination and tickles our senses.

For example, while watching Stranger Things I thought that choosing Peter Gabriel’s cover of Heroes for the scene where El reads the letter left by Hopper was spot-on. This very moving, slow, profound and melancholic version managed to add a great deal of emotion to that crucial scene, without distracting or overwhelming us and telling us something more than what we could get from the actors’ words alone: it added emotion and a comment from an external narrating voice, and David Bowie’s version would not have been able to transmit the same feelings.

Please don’t take this the wrong way, I am not talking about which version is the best, about the original or the copy (if this is what we can call it) being better or about the worth of the respective artists. What I want to tell you is that, even though the lyrics are the same, this version managed to add something different from what the original version could have, this is because each artist leaves a mark on a song, even on one written by someone else.

The most fascinating thing, however, is the fact that, while watching that scene, the song managed to add something without distracting me. This is what made it magical: being reassured by something I felt I knew even though that was not the case. Fascinating right?

More famous than the originals

Yet, the example of Stranger Things, was not enough to win the argument, so I tried with another example, also extracted from a TV series. Everybody knows Money Heist and its version of Bella Ciao. An Italian folk song, born after the liberation and associated with the partisan resistance which has become the symbol of the fight against nazi-fascism. While being known all over Europe, it has never been the kind of song radio stations would play or something to listen to while driving to work, this is, clearly, as it was not made to be a hit tune but a rebellious folk song.

Song covers, however, are able to surprise us every time, even when the subject is as complicated as this. In fact Bella Ciao has become famous all over the world, mostly among young people, thanks to the scene where The Professor sings it in this very famous TV series. We need to admit the choice was both shocking and spot-on, as it linked a song from the Italian partisans’ resistance with the resistance of a group of thieves, a particular juxtaposition which made us sympathise with them, making us see them as heroes!

In this case, therefore, the remake has become more famous than the original for various reasons: the song has lost nearly all of its political connotations, it has been associated with a successful TV series (and sung by one of its main characters in person) and, thanks to this, it has been exported around the world.

Unique but replicable

Sometimes, it can happen that that for various reasons the remake becomes more famous than the original. Sometimes, in fact, the fame of its author or a particular moment in time can change the destiny of a song and make it famous. I specified again to my interlocutor that I was not talking about personal taste but about data, such as how often the song is played on the radio or the number of downloads and so on, as I wanted the conversation to stay on an equal and objective ground, and we could discuss our preferences at another time.

Sometimes the original is much less famous, sometimes, on the other hand, its fame varies depending on the generation. Anyway, when talking about song covers we need to take into account two of the most sung songs of all time: Knockin’ on Heavens Door and Hallelujah.

Let us start talking about the former: it was written by Bob Dylan in 1973 for the soundtrack of the film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Knockin’ on Heavens Door soon became the symbol of a generation. In 1991 Guns N’ Roses decided to record a new version of it in their own style, adding a hard rock feel to it and changing the lyrics slightly. Their version is undoubtedly the most famous cover of all time.

Whereas Hallelujah, is a song written and sung by the Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen in 1984. Initially it was not very successful, so much so that the author himself reworked on it various times over the years. In 1994 Jeff Buckley recorded a new version for his album Grace. With his remake Hallelujah finally became successful, and still today some people do not know it is a cover.

I believe these two anecdotes teach us something important: It is not important for us to focus on the worth of the original or on how artistic a copy can be, because remakes are no “copy and paste” of the original. They are reinterpretations to which the artists add a bit of themselves, sometimes finding potential in something that was rejected by others and making it successful.

In the end, as any debate worthy of the name, there were no winners or losers, but we left the cafè table with a new perspective on remakes: I promised to investigate every remake, trying to find out more about its origins and to appreciate the original, he left with the resolution to look at covers with new eyes, having found out they can be much more than a copy.