Untouchable Songs Why you should cover the greats and make mistakes

Lauren O'Connell - Pyragraph

Guest Blogger Lauren O’Connell is a musician based in Northern California. This post originally appeared at her blog. You can also find Lauren online at her Patreon and Bandcamp pages.


Only masters of music should TRY this song. When you hear Nina Simone and Odetta cover this song. You understand the monster of a song you are trying to play. The Animals, Bob Dylan and Leadbelly have tried and have all failed.

As a musician; I would never play this song. If you can’t make it better, then you shouldn’t even try. Or don’t post it at least.

I don’t say this to be cruel. You have a great voice, your obviously super talented. This is how you do it:2 Irish Boys Sing We Found Love

The above quote is a comment I got on my “House of the Rising Sun” cover recently.

I try not to dwell on the negative stuff, but once in a while there’s an actual discussion to be had, and the commenter seems reasonable and respectful. This person is actually touching on a topic that I’ve wanted to write about for a while, so it seemed like an opportune time to share my thoughts on cover songs and beyond.

RIVETING BACKGROUND STORY: I regularly covered “House of the Rising Sun” at shows as a teenager. I stopped playing it for the exact reasons this person described. But a couple years ago, I reluctantly agreed to cover one verse of it when someone requested it for a video game trailer. It’s not that I thought my version would be bad as a standalone work, just that it couldn’t possibly compare to what was already out there. Even so, I did it. I came up with some ideas that I was excited about, and ended up doing the whole song.

What upsets me is that I know artists take this kind of thing to heart, and it’s bullshit.

So, “I was afraid to cover something good, but it turns out I’M AMAZING!!!!” That’s not what I’m saying; the quality of my rendition is beside the point. I’m saying that I totally understand where this person is coming from, and I used to apply that “untouchable songs” rule to myself. However, after several years of covering songs, writing songs, listening to lots of music, and undergoing the occasional artistic crisis, I decided that it’s better to live and work without that particular hang-up.

So, as you may have gathered, I take issue with the idea that someone shouldn’t even try to cover something that’s previously been done well if he or she can’t “make it better.” The implication that someone doesn’t have the right to attempt a particular artistic statement is problematic.

(To be clear, I’m not talking about legal rights or intellectual property. That’s a different subject entirely and my law degree is still pending.)

Firstly and most simply, there’s the whole “apples and oranges” thing that applies when comparing different works, e.g., Bob Dylan vs. Nina Simone. It doesn’t mean you can’t compare them, but I think it’s unfair to declare one rendition a failure based on the success of another.

Secondly, the idea of one rendition (or song or film or painting) being unequivocally better than another is a slippery slope. I’m not trying to be the PC police, and everyone’s free to discuss music in whatever terms they want.

I don’t think it’s right to say that a work shouldn’t have been created or published.

If a work of art means something to someone, it has value. Even if the creator is the only one who cares about it, it means something. No one has the authority to declare that meaning invalid. I’m in favor of criticizing art and understanding why certain things do and don’t work from a given point of view. But still, we all know how opinions work, and the inherent subjectivity of criticism should be understood. If you love an album, it doesn’t matter that Pitchfork gave it a 3/10 or that 90% of listeners find it to be a flaming bowl of garbage.

I firmly believe that in order to be great, one must first be fucking awful.

Go ahead and call it a flaming bowl of garbage, be offended, say it’s in poor taste. But to say it shouldn’t exist? Even if just 10 people like a video on YouTube, do you really think those people should be forbidden from enjoying or finding meaning in something because you disapprove of it? What dystopian novel are we living in, and who appointed you gatekeeper?

As much as this whole thing grinds my gears, I’m not writing this as a vent session or an attack on people who speak in extreme terms. They’ll always be there. What upsets me is that I know artists take this kind of thing to heart, and it’s bullshit. I feel like every open mic has some condescending, jaded old dude waiting for a chance to ramble on about the late greats and tell you what to listen to if you want to see “how it’s done.” I used to listen to that guy.

Filtering criticism is an art itself, and I’m not condoning ignorance, but holy shit, please don’t listen to that guy. Many of you reading this are musicians, artists, writers, avant-garde dog groomers, etc. As far as this particular criticism goes, I’m kind of over it. YouTube is like internet boot camp. But it makes me crazy knowing that artists are constantly being told that things are off-limits, and that this is often coming from other artists.

Fortunately, in this century, most of us don’t have to worry about our works actually being censored by the powers that be. But I think an attitude of censorship within the artistic community might be worse.

It’s not about expression being kept underground. It’s about expression never happening in the first place.

I firmly believe that in order to be great, one must first be fucking awful. If we all worried about how much we sucked when we started out, there would be no musicians. If we all constantly questioned the way we expressed ourselves, no one would ever make anything groundbreaking. I’m not saying everyone is going to be a star or that everyone should publish everything they do, but no one should fear that they will anger the music gods because they were inspired by something great.

It’s important to be honest with yourself about your work, and you have to be realistic if you have career goals. Sometimes you’ll fail in your own eyes, and that’s fine. But you can self-edit and decide what to publish later. Right now, you should be a cocky, irreverent bastard.

Don’t heed imaginary rules. Cover “Eleanor Rigby” on the kazoo. Write a song about someone who will think you’re creepy. Embrace “bad” technique. Crash and burn.

Photo by Jeffrey Marini.

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  1. brendan doherty on June 3, 2014 at 9:54 am

    so, I would argue a couple different points, other than the idiot who told you that only the greats can touch a particular song (people like that are rarely so well schooled that they know the original author of a song anyhow). I don’t like the song, but that’s beside the point-

    First- What are -you- bringing to the song, the interpretation that is somehow different/fresh/relevant or important? It’s ok and enough that sometimes it’s just you singing that song, but I would argue that covering a song can have transformative power for you and the audience if there is a reason, point of view, or experience that you put into it. Don’t play it because it’s something you know, play it because it’s such a great song that it can stand to let you put you through it. Example: Tainted love Gloria Jones, great soul classic. Tainted love, Soft Cell-synth gay anthem.

    Bringing a fresh perspective, treatment or insight into a song recorded and known by so many might be hard with -that- song. Which leads me to my second point-

    Second, can you dig deeper? Is it possible to find another song by the same artist (Tom Ashley or Gwen Foster), or to go laterally through Alan Lomax’ recordings and find something else that you can bring to people, unearth, that would have a particularly valuable insight, 80, 70, 60 years later? If you can find that song, you will find something more than a song.

  2. Elene on June 3, 2014 at 3:58 pm

    I agree!

    A) Oh geez, that commenter isn’t even bright enough to know the difference between “your” and “you’re,” and he/she is an expert who can tell you what not to sing?

    B) So what recordings does the commenter have out there that show how excellent his/her musical taste and ability is, compared to yours?

    C) OK, sorry, I’m starting to sound a little juvenile in response to those juvenile comments. I sang “House of the Rising Sun” when I was a kid, and nobody told me not to. When I was in bands we covered all sorts of stuff and nobody said that we shouldn’t because the songs were somehow sacred and should never, ever be sung by anyone else again for the entire history of the world. Quite the opposite– they wanted to hear those great, familiar songs.

    For the past couple of decades I’ve been concentrating on classical piano as the main part of my musical life. I specialize in Chopin. Everybody plays the nocturnes, for example; probably literally millions of people are playing a nocturne right now at this very minute. We may not want to hear recordings of every one of them, but every one of those people is unique and is finding something a little different in the same pieces. I’ll never play “better” than Steven Hough or Valentina Igoshina, but as you’ve pointed out, that’s not a reason to avoid a piece of music. They’ll never play “better” than Horowitz or Rubinstein (or Chopin himself). Should they never play pieces those guys played? Never enjoy and interact with some of the greatest music ever created? What a silly thought.

  3. Peri Pakroo on June 5, 2014 at 7:59 pm

    I would also add that some songs are just fun to play/sing, and that’s a good enough reason too, I think!

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