Extraordinary Renditions

The problem of cross-genre covers.

Jay-Z at the Glastonbury Festival in England

Jay-Z knows how to handle himself in a rap feud; he’s triumphed in battles with some of hip-hop’s sharpest tongues. But this spring, he was presented with an unfamiliar sort of antagonist. In an interview, Oasis’ Noel Gallagher scoffed at the news that the Brooklyn MC had been invited to headline in Glastonbury, a longstanding U.K. rock festival: “Glastonbury has a history of guitar music,” he said. “I’m not having Jay-Z at Glastonbury. It’s wrong.” At first, Jay-Z rebutted with a rather polite sound bite: “We don’t play guitars, Noel, but hip-hop has put in its work like any other form of music.” But earlier this month, at the festival itself, his response took on an unlikelier, funnier, and more devastating form. He performed a cover.

The song was “Wonderwall,” the old Oasis hit, and it opened Jay-Z’s performance. He strolled out pretending to strum an electric guitar as the original played over the speakers. Wearing a delighted grin, he missed big chunks of the lyrics, flubbed many of the rest, and delivered everything in a tone-deaf sneer. It was a mess, but that was the point: Jay-Z wanted the guitar to look like a big, goofy prop (in Gallagher’s formulation, after all, guitars aren’t instruments so much as membership cards); he wanted to mistreat the melody, not coddle it; and he couldn’t be bothered to remember lyrics that, when you think about it, sound sort of flubbed to begin with. By butchering the cover, Jay-Z weaponized it.

Jay-Z’s sarcastic “Wonderwall” illustrates a deeper truth about cross-genre covers in general (indie boys covering teen starlets, lounge lizards covering metalheads, bookish singer-songwriters covering R&B Casanovas, etc.): These songs often contain a thorny tangle of value judgments, power dynamics, and aesthetic agendas. Unlike polyglot MP3 blogs, mash-ups, and the iPod’s shuffle function—all of which enable exhilarating collisions and unlikely harmonies between different sounds, reflecting a digital-era erosion of musical boundaries—cross-genre covers don’t necessarily reflect anything so utopian. The seemingly neutral act of singing someone else’s song can function as an argument, a slap, a grenade toss.

“Wonderwall,” as it turns out, has been butchered before. Pavement recorded a similarly abusive version—full of forgotten words, dropped notes, and disdainful chuckles—during a late-’90s BBC appearance. This was a brutal piss-take and an act of snobbery through and through: scruffy grad-school types swiping at rock-star roosters, draining the song of bravado and leaving it shriveled on the studio floor. Snobbery animates many cross-genre covers. Alanis Morrissette’s best song in years was her 2007 re-envisioning of the Black Eyed Peas’ giddily inane “My Humps.”

But snobbery isn’t always so likeable. A band as ridiculous as Oasis can sustain—deserves, even—all sorts of mockery. By contrast, there can be something smug and unseemly about indie-rock jabs at big-money pop. One wonders why Ben Gibbard bothered with his live cover of Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” if he was going to snicker so much throughout it. “No, no, it’s a serious song!” he shouts in false protest when the crowd snickers, too. With his band Death Cab for Cutie, Gibbard spares no syllable in his quest to detail even the most trivial emotional state; his goal here seems to be to fault Lavigne for failing to bring the same nuance to her pubescent social drama. “The thing about that song I love is, I don’t really understand what’s so complicated!” he says to rapturous laughter when the cover is done. “It seems pretty cut-and-dry!” There’s something genuinely admiring in parts of his performance, but it’s smothered by a greasy layer of condescension.

Of course, many cross-genre covers are acts of loving homage. British techno brats the Klaxons wiped the smirks from their faces and bowed at the temple of “No Diggity,” Blackstreet’s sublimely sashaying ode to a femme fatale. Likewise, Plain White T’s, Mandy Moore, and My Chemical Romance joined the parade of non-R&B artists who realized that Rihanna’s “Umbrella” was the best single of 2007 and responded with reverent, if bland, tributes. In 2006, Slate’s Jody Rosen assessed the similar flurry of covers that greeted Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.”

Sometimes, the homage impulse leads to more radical reimaginings: Sonic Youth scrawled noise all over Madonna’s “Into the Groove,” and Yo La Tengo did the same with Fleetwood Mac’s pristine “Dreams.” Ted Leo’s cover medley of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps” was a great bit of musicology, highlighting the songs’ shared breakdown. Cat Power’s best covers tend to teach us as much about her as they do about their originals; on two albums devoted to interpretations, she’s boiled songs down to a gray-blue mush, reflecting her conviction that every great song has misery in its DNA.

Even homage, though, can involve a form of snobbery. For a while, the British rock group Travis included a cover of Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time” in its set list. Travis’ version wasn’t mocking, but—intentionally or not—the cover carried a patronizing subtext: that the ProTooled pop ditty needs an honest-to-goodness rocker to ride along, scrub away the deadening Top 40 luster, and exhume the fine song hidden beneath. Rather than break down aesthetic prejudices, such covers can reinforce them, implying that the so-called frivolous pop song has value but that this value is only revealed and affirmed in an “authentic,” rock-based iteration.

Sometimes an artist uses a cover to advertise something about him- or herself. Rihanna doing MIA’s “Paper Planes,” indie bard John Darnielle doing R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix),” country star Taylor Swift doing Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”— these covers are something like musical name-drops, ways for musicians to flaunt the breadth of their tastes or resist reductive stereotypes attached to their genres. And there is an entire cottage industry of cross-genre covers that operates purely on the level of novelty: bluegrass renditions of AC/DC, Paul Anka crooning “Eye of the Tiger,” classical pianist Christopher O’Riley’s tedious takes on Radiohead.

It isn’t always clear which of these categories a cover belongs to—the lines are blurry—but we can safely add to this final column nearly every instance of rockers covering rappers. (There are virtually no examples of rappers covering rappers, although 50 Cent recently released an enjoyable mix tape in which he reworks several old-school tracks; in hip-hop, other MCs’ rhymes can be quoted or tweaked in tribute, but to repeat an entire song verbatim would be regarded as something like theft.) At least two CDs—the 2000 Take a Bite Outta Rhyme and the 2008 Punk Goes Crunk—have compiled middling rock bands’ versions of rap songs. The appeal of these experiments, if any, is primarily comedic, but while it’s funny to hear white people over-enunciate black slang, the gag quickly wears thin. More to the point, the gag is dubious anyhow, as the butt of the joke can swing from coverer to coveree. Rarely is the cross-genre cover’s propensity for condescension so pronounced. Of course, every rule has its exception, and there is one artist who reliably elevates any hip-hop song he deigns to cover. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Robert Goulet.