By The Landlord
At some point in the late 1980s I put on a record by Bruce Springsteen, his best-known album - Born in the USA. What happened next was mesmeric because, to my astonishment, Dolly Parton was singing. Had they collaborated? Was this an upbeat remix? Had I discovered a secret dual groove in the vinyl? Or were the Boss’s trousers simply too tight? None of the above. It was a LP meant to go at 33rpm, but I’d forgotten that the last thing on the turntable was a 7in single at 45rpm. I told my friends, and they all tried it and discovered the same experience. Years later, I now note that someone else has discovered the same with a song from that album. Have a listen. Bruce isn’t just On Fire, he’s also on helium.
A silly example, but what might this reveal when a song is covered by the opposite sex? The best cover versions are meant to bring something different to a song, and so this week, we’re concentrating less on what makes a good cover version overall, more in particular what a singer – or other kind of musician - of the opposite sex brings to it. Springsteen is also in recent gender-related news story - he boycotted a North Carolina concert over an anti-LGBT law that could legalise discrimination. Bryan Adams then followed his example for a gig in Mississippi. But here on Song Bar we don’t discriminate on gender or anything, even when it comes to use of toilets, and especially not singing songs, so they and anyone else can play here any time.
So how might a cover version change when performed by the opposite sex? First, perhaps a change in range. Does a male voice singing an octave lower or female singing an octave higher make a significant difference? Of course they may sing exactly the same notes, or bring something even more surprising. Had the wide-range of Nina Simone covered a Michael Jackson song, might she have sung it lower? So what so-called masculine or feminine qualities do different performers bring to a song, and can these be inverted by androgyny, from everyone from David Bowie in his various guises, particularly as Ziggy Stardust, to the unconventional contemporary Texan – music's answer to Mickey Mouse - Shamir?
Meanwhile, aside from Nina, there are also no shortage of deep-voiced female performers, such as Mavis Staples, Diana Krall, or indeed the Indian pop and jazz singer Usha Uthup, who in this clip does Adele's Skyfall and she jokes about how people think she sounds a bit like Tom Jones. Sounds as good as Tom, I reckon.
But what other elements of expression does a woman bring to a song originally done by a man, or vice versa? And more than than style, delivery, pace or genre, what about perspective and context if rendered by someone else? Last week Barbryn’s write-up of songs that inspire pathos included two songs sung by a man from a female perspective - Tom Waits’s Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis and a wildcard pick - Tom Hickox’s The Pretty Pride of Russia, from the point of view of a Russian girl wanting to come to London. Would this be any more or less powerful if sung by a woman? Katy Perry’s pop-hit I Kissed A Girl would certainly not have the same effect if done by a man, though had the words been changed to I Kissed A Bloke, and sung by, say, Tom Jones, then that would be interesting, and not a little amusing.
So what perspectives can a man or woman bring to a song done by the opposite sex? Do they gain greater tenderness, or more aggression, a different depth of feeling, an increased, or decreased vulnerability? Tori Amos created an entire album of covers from songs originally done by men, and changed some of the words to alter perspective, the Stranglers’ Strange Little Girl giving the album its title. For better, or worse and how does this change the song? Musical style aside, does it invert prejudice in any way, or give new insight? After all a great song is a great song, whoever, sings it - or is that not always the case? But what if it's not a great song? Here is Amos doing a version of Eminem's '97 Bonnie and Clyde. This whispery oddity is even more sinister perhaps than the rapper spitting lyrics, but does it bring a new perspective?
One big starting point might be to look at covers of the big names, such as the Beatles, Stones, Bowie, Dylan, or Led Zeppelin, where covers make up acres of rich pickings. The Beatles’ early output included several covers of Motown girl group songs – such as Please Mr. Postman (The Marvelettes), Baby, It's You (The Shirelles) and Devil In Her Heart (The Donays). But do they improve them? Perhaps not. And the other big factor to consider is the songwriter. If they are written by men, but sung by women, what does that do to the song? Postman, incidentally, was a writing collaboration by both genders - Georgia Dobbins, William Garrett, Freddie Gorman, Brian Holland, and Robert Bateman.
So was Gloria Jones's Tainted Love improved by Soft Cell? Or Fiona Apple's version of Across the Universe? What about Gloria Gaynor's female karaoke classic in the deep-voiced sweary version by Cake, Karen O's version of of Led Zep's Immigrant Song, and to return to where we began, back to Dolly Parton, reversing to Jack White's singing of Jolene?
There are many such treasures out there, so please put them forward in comments below. This week's gender-version judge is another old friend making a Song Bar debut, the talented takeitawayGuru. The musical bell of last orders will be called at some point on Monday so that other-gender cover version playlists can be published next Wednesday. So let's talk about sex, as in gender, and probably no shortage of sexual relations into the bargain.
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