11 July 2013

Whose song is it?

I watch singing contests. I go for shows like The Voice and The Sing Off because I think they reward good singing more than histrionic runs. Singers who are out for votes sing songs that they expect the audience to be familiar with, which means a lot of standards and current pop hits.

(I hate runs more and more, particularly when I hear someone talking about them as if they are mandatory. I think that the singer has to earn the runs by solidly acquainting the listener with the melody first. I also think that their vocal performance has to support the story of the song, not just stunt. I'm a stick in the mud.)

Anyway, back to the contests. What that means is that I hear a lot of popular songs in a contest before I ever hear the original version. It's very interesting to pass through versions of a song in reverse order like that. Some covers are obviously bad. They have "cut-rate imitation" stamped on them. There is not one bit of magic that might have made the original rise to popularity. I put pretty much all the Adele and Katy Perry covers in that pile. Some covers are obviously meant to present a known song in a novel genre. I put many strange versions of "Baby baby baby oh" in that pile.

I think that country music has a different take on covers than Pop music. In Country, the songwriters are usually known. There are star writers as well as star performers. Songs relatively often have more than one popular and successful version, and people know that, and it's all good. Many songs are written before anyone knows who's going to sing it, so the song is written with its own feet to stand on. I can hear that in the contest shows, two versions of the same song that both sound completely authentic.

Some covers that I hear are so spot on the song, so compelling, that for me listening in reverse order makes the original sounds like the pale or odd imitation. An easy example is Whitney Houston's cover of "I Will Always Love You". Full props to Dolly Parton's song and performance, but Whitney pwned.

I'd like to share two examples from Pentatonix, who won the last season of The Sing Off a capella singing contest. This first performance is of "Dog Days Are Over" from the contest and, to me, they completely took ownership of the song.

I should never have sought out the original of that, because it was such a let down. Pentatonix also has an amazing version of "Somebody That I Used To Know".


The Gotye version is good, but it sounds like the imitation to me. I will probably never hear a version of either of those without measuring it against the Pentatonix version.

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