Is the Cover Making a Recovery?

The history of the cover song, and why it may be mounting a comeback.

A grid of video screenshots of Drake, Cardi B, and Weezer.
Animation by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos via Young Money Cash Money, Atlantic, Jeff Hahne/Getty Images.

The rains of “Africa” that Toto fantasized about 36 years ago came pelting down again this summer, with Weezer’s cover version of the 1982 hit. While it drew as much mockery as praise, the rebooted “Africa” has become Rivers Cuomo’s band’s most commercially successful release in a decade. Granted, the fate of “Africa” in the internet age is a singular one, a woozy alchemy of hypersincerity and kitsch. Take a step back, though, and Weezer’s novelty hit is not so novel. As I’m writing this, on Billboard’s Hot Rock Songs chart, it’s one of three covers in the Top 10, one a hard-rock take on the Cranberries’ 1994 hit “Zombie” by the band Bad Wolves, and the other Disturbed’s metal version of Simon & Garfunkel’s 1965 “The Sound of Silence.” Billboard counts at least 15 such covers on its rock charts in the past two years.

You might shrug that rock is the natural stomping grounds of musical dinosaurs. But consider two of the biggest songs of the summer, both hip-hop: Drake’s “Nice for What” and Cardi B’s “I Like It.” The former is constructed on the scaffolding of Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor” from 1998, while the latter is built around samples of Pete Rodriguez’s 1967 boogaloo classic “I Like It Like That.” The sounds of the originals are so prominent amid the contemporary vocals and beats that both records verge on being cover versions—more so than has been commonplace in hip-hop for years.

The New American Songbook

Which of today’s hits will be tomorrow’s classics?

The status of the cover song has shape-shifted throughout pop-music history. Well into the 1950s, it barely even needed a name: It was just the routine way of doing business. During the rock era, covers became suspect as inauthentic, the stuff of the hack bar band, unless an artist “made the song their own.” With the rise of hip-hop, covers were displaced by sampling and remixes, but then samples themselves became more concealed and layered, for reasons of both art and copyright. In the 2000s and earlier this decade, the practice migrated to YouTube, where concert clips or home videos of one-off covers, rearrangements, and parodies might show off the skills and wit of amateurs and pros alike but still seldom troubled the charts—unless they also made it to soundtracks or TV ads, where acoustic remakes of once-upon-a-time hits (either twee or glum or both) have become a staple.

The notion of cover versions has always been enticing to me. It makes me imagine a parallel world where songs are chattering among themselves, dropping around each other’s places for a visit, exchanging sarcastic barbs and delicate confidences. Covers can stitch distant sound worlds together across genres or serve as acts of criticism, revealing aspects of the originals that their makers might never have suspected. I am perhaps only too excited to run with the chart evidence and speculate we might be in the throes of a covers comeback, as the online culture of endless recombination increasingly crosses over to the commercial realm.

If so, Slate’s current project of asking a wide range of contributors to help formulate a New American Songbook, spanning the past quarter century, might be timely. The notion of a “songbook,” as opposed to lists of the top songs or a canon of great recordings, inherently implies cover versions. It’s a book that’s meant to be read aloud.

The automatic parallel is with the Great American Songbook. That’s an umbrella term for the set of the most enduringly performed, rerecorded, and reinterpreted songs written between about the 1920s and the early 1950s, mainly from Broadway, Hollywood, and the New York songwriting and publishing district known as Tin Pan Alley, at the height of big-band jazz, crooners, and show tunes. It was only in the twilight of that era that certain selections were semiofficially deemed the standard repertoire for discerning listeners, and thus “standards.”

They are songs like “Stardust,” “Night and Day,” “Always,” “Stormy Weather,” “April in Paris,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Summertime,” and “As Time Goes By,” written by the likes of the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart (or Hammerstein), and Duke Ellington, and sung by people like Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra. They would be improvised on by jazz groups, recorded in countless versions, arranged for stage or studio according to producers’ and bandleaders’ aesthetics and commercial aims. If you were a musician, you were expected to know them before you got on the bandstand.

By that measure, you can make a list of America’s collective favorite recent jams, but it’s difficult to call them a songbook—to call them standards—unless they’re also being covered.

“Good songs never die,” Willie Nelson told Variety earlier this year. “If it was good a hundred years ago, it’s still good today.” He was talking about his new album, My Way, on which the 85-year-old Texan returns to the “deep well” of the Great American Songbook, as he did in 1978 with his multiplatinum album Stardust and several records in between.

His maxim, however, collapses at the slightest poke. Countless things considered “good” a century ago would appall anyone in their right mind today, from cocaine as a health tonic to Southern segregation. And the same goes for many of the songs: 100 years ago, blackfaced-minstrelsy holdovers were still staples in vaudeville and on Broadway—just as lots of pop songs include questionable and perishable content today. The more sensible version of Nelson’s aphorism is that the songs that are still being played decades after their heydays are probably fairly darn good. And so it is with the American Songbook.

In fact, 40 years after Nelson’s Stardust, the later-career standards album has itself become a standard move, whether as a credibility play or a way to age more gracefully. The blueprint’s been followed by everyone from Linda Ronstadt to Rod Stewart to George Michael to Paul McCartney to Lady Gaga (in her duets with Tony Bennett) to onetime standards skeptic Bob Dylan (on three consecutive albums in the past four years) to, why not, Tony Danza. Whatever you think of the results, the songs’ amenability to the process is impressive.

But contrary to the mystifications of too many devotees of that period, it was not miraculous. It was a product of the business and technological conditions of the time, as documented by music historians such as Elijah Wald. Until the mid–20th century, the dominant commercial unit of the music business wasn’t records, which were still a fragile and low-fidelity medium—the money was in sheet music. Live shows aside, music was mainly a publishing industry, and records were in large part ads for songs, so consumers would buy the music to play at home later. As much as any performer, songs themselves were the stars (and sometimes the songwriters, too, several of whom later got the Hollywood-biopic treatment). Many early commercial recordings were sung by anonymous hires whose names weren’t even on the label. Before World War II, meanwhile, radio relied on in-house performers doing live-to-air versions of the current hit parade. As the record business grew, companies wanted to get their own versions of the latest popular song out as soon as possible, directed at different regions or demographics, to “cover” the marketplace—which seems to be researchers’ best guess at the origin of the term cover version. Several recordings of the same song might sit side-by-side on the charts.

It can’t be denied that the years between the wars were a highly fertile time in American songwriting, when the cross-pollination of European and black American music was spawning new song forms, harmonic progressions, and lyrical innovations. But it was driven by this hothouse of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway, where the most intense competition was song versus song, one songwriter versus the “cleffer” in the office next door. Remarkable music was being made elsewhere in America—certainly in Southern blues and country—but it wasn’t admitted to the Songbook’s East Coast clubhouse.

After World War II, though, the music business became less centralized, and the new higher-quality vinyl record was becoming the center of the action. Independent labels sprang up across the country, pushing product to radio, where DJs became major power brokers. Meanwhile the sheet-music trade dwindled, as the hi-fi began to take over the piano’s pride of place as living-room furniture. Among mainstream white audiences, the recording field was split between 45-rpm singles, directed at the young hordes newly called “teenagers,” and long-playing albums, aimed at the adult market—including collections of the newly christened “standards,” along with musicals’ cast albums and many other forms of “mood music” that would remain strong sellers for decades to come. Standards were the “classy,” “sophisticated” (and nostalgic) postwar choices of the erstwhile swing generation. Grown-ups now could self-style as recording connoisseurs—Tell me, sweetheart, do you prefer Sinatra’s “Stormy Weather” or Lena Horne’s?—while for teens, records were turning into badges of tribal membership. In that context, a disc like Pat Boone’s infamous sanitized cover of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” was no longer just business as usual but a near blasphemy, catering to your parents’ race and sex panic and leaving a stink on the term cover version for years to come.

In the 1960s, rock gradually joined its elders as an album-oriented form, and its audience increasingly considered performers auteurs and recordings works of art. Following the lead of songwriter-performers Bob Dylan and the Beatles (who of course started off doing covers), that meant mostly original material. By the early 1970s, when Dylan, Ringo Starr, and John Lennon alike put out covers albums, whether to patch over a fallow period or just to get back to their roots, they met with hostile critics and lousy sales. Covers? What a rip-off!

The switch was much less marked in country and soul, and singer-songwriters never completely took over—in most genres, keeping the roles separate remained the norm. But after the 1960s and certainly by the 1980s, a quickly turned-out cover of a recently popular song became much rarer. Covers were more often like special events, the way we tend to think of them today. It might be about paying tribute to an influence or a peer, giving a song a radical stylistic reinterpretation and contorting it into new meanings (a specialty of punk and indie rock) or bringing an obscurity to light.

Meanwhile, as studio techniques became more and more sophisticated, especially as synthesizers and computers were introduced, sheer sound arguably became as basic to the currency of a record as melody or lyrics. The arc of the recording overtaking the song as the industry’s base unit was complete. Through sampling and other techniques, songs might have whole archives of recording history sedimented into them, but breaks and beats are all but indifferent to the existence of songs as Tin Pan Alley knew them.

Hip-hop also included the imperative—even more fiercely than rock—that rappers write their own bars, no matter how clichéd they might be. “Biting” and ghostwriting were verboten. The idea of one rapper “covering” another—except as a quick reference or quotation—is still almost unheard of. For any list of potential standards in the 21st century, that’s a steep barrier.

In Ben Yagoda’s 2015 book, The B-Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song, the author acknowledges that there have been plenty of great songwriters since the Tin Pan Alley era but asserts that “it isn’t possible for them to write a standard.” I guess that’s true if you define a standard as a song written in AABA form between the 1920s and the 1950s, probably in New York by a Jewish songwriter, and then sung by Frank Sinatra. But even Irving Berlin didn’t start off trying to write standards—he was trying to write hits. A standard is something that happens when you’re busy making other plans. Potential perennials come along on the regular. The challenge is that we’re now less accustomed to thinking of a song separately from its defining recording.

Personally, I’m encouraged by the fact that since the turn of the century, jazz bands have started wanting to reinterpret contemporary pop songs again, beginning with pianist Brad Mehldau covering Radiohead on record in 1998 and the trio the Bad Plus in 2001 doing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” with many following in their wake. Likewise, the American Songbook series at Lincoln Center in New York has expanded from its original late-1990s preservationist remit to an expansionist one. In the past year it’s invited queer cabaret artist Justin Vivian Bond (singing the Carpenters), Rachel Bloom from the musical sitcom Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, gospel-blues group the Blind Boys of Alabama, and country-Americana royalty Rosanne Cash to come and inquire, as the New York Times put it, “What the heck is the American Songbook at this point?”

The answer, I think, doesn’t require such exalted gatekeepers. It might be as near as the songbook (or database) at your local karaoke night, which seems a fair indication of which songs from the past few decades people want to hear and sing. And without prompting, at least through the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, you could probably scribble out a list of 20 song standards a decade off the top of your head, the ones you know from movies, TV, and classic-rock, soul, country, or old-school hip-hop radio formats. From tribute albums. From awards-show performances. From the songs that everyone wants to sing in the days and months after a major artist dies. (With Prince, for instance, the hands-down consensus is “Purple Rain.” For David Bowie, a bit less predictably, it was “Life on Mars.”) Not to mention, ahem, from the lobbying of legions of music critics.

You might also look to the songs that were covered on the TV hit Glee, which from 2009–15 constantly propelled cast cover versions of present and long-ago hits back onto the charts. It joined the genre of jukebox TV that also includes singing competition shows such as American Idol and The Voice—the latter usually don’t generate hit covers per se, but they do keep modern standards in circulation and probably help decide what they will be.

By that yardstick, a look through the songs that rose to the top of Slate’s New American Songbook survey finds mixed success, although many of them made it onto Glee (er, not “Fuck and Run,” though). There are also a few shoo-ins as oft-covered standards, such as the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” which got there by the unorthodox route of becoming an international sports anthem, or Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” one of the only songs since the traditional Songbook to have seized an apparently permanent spot in the holiday pantheon. And Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” clearly achieved its place directly because of a cover: Johnny Cash’s stunning rendition from the American Recordings series.

But most of the songs draw only amateur covers—sometimes slews of them, as with the “Call Me Maybe” YouTube phenomenon of 2012—and the odd celebrity one-off, rather than official recordings. (Amusingly, most of them have been covered by a prolific YouTube outfit called Postmodern Jukebox, whose shtick is to dress up modern songs in old-timey-jazz drag, making them sound like they might have come from the original American Songbook.)

As I hinted above, the dearth of covers is especially notable with regard to the R&B and hip-hop songs that dominate the list. Most covers of them I could find were in the mode of parody, or novelties such as all-kid bands, or, most ubiquitously, poker-faced, slowed-down, coffeehouse-folk, or ukulele covers by white people, which tend to draw comments like, “I never liked this song before now.” At least there are fewer today of the goofy-white-dude, hey-look-Ma-I’m-a-rapper versions that summon up the ghost of Pat Boone, only for Pat Boone’s ghost to object that even he wasn’t performing black music in this much bad faith.

That said, Cat Power’s new album includes a fine take on Rihanna’s “Stay,” and Meshell Ndegeocello recently covered TLC’s “Waterfalls” (in Slate’s Top 10) on her all-covers album Ventriloquism, which presents itself partly as a self-conscious effort to suggest some lineaments of a contemporary black canon.

While some of the landmark songs of the past quarter century might still scare off would-be interpreters, there’s ample cause to believe that the cover song as a category is regaining status in the music business. After all, the history I traced above, in which the value of the recording overtook that of the song, abruptly hit an internet-shaped iceberg in the past couple of decades, sending the profit margins on recordings plummeting into the icy depths. One effect, thanks to both file sharing and all manner of streaming, is that the single or track once again reigns over the auteurist form of the album (though never quite managing to kill it).

That 21st-century revenge of the single also elevated the songwriter-producers of the new “hit factories” to a visibility they haven’t enjoyed since the likes of Phil Spector in the early 1960s: If there is a New American Songbook, a figure such as Swedish studio mastermind and songwriter Max Martin may be its George Gershwin (Martin is the only behind-the-scenes songwriter with two songs on Slate’s list: Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” and the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way”), Kanye West its Cole Porter, and Pharrell Williams perhaps Richard Rodgers.

But let’s avoid debating that. More cogently, to the extent anyone understands anything, it might better be said the unit of value has been relocated, first, back to the concert stage. Second, and more nebulously, it’s moved to the artist as a persona and marketing hub and social media presence, whose value is tangled up with her unfolding public “narrative.”

Which sounds grim, and it is. But cover songs offer advantages both ways. As a draw to live shows, for instance, surprise covers can add excitement to a set list—and then can become viral video clips on YouTube. Witness how Lorde and Jack Antonoff, on the former’s Melodrama tour, would take a segment out in each show to play unpredictable acoustic covers together. Or take a look at Harry Styles, formerly of boy-band One Direction, boosting his rock credibility by bringing Stevie Nicks out onstage for a duet on Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” (if only for the moment when Styles bursts into overwhelmed tears at 4 minutes, 35 seconds in). Rather than repeat their lead singles everywhere they go, artists also pull out covers for the endless multimedia-promo occasions they’re now subjected to, on series such as BBC’s Live Lounge, NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts, the A.V. Club’s A.V. Undercover, Australia’s Like a Version, and more.

On the “narrative” level, they also might make a cover into an Instagram post, or something more elaborate, such as Miley Cyrus’ extensive, charming Backyard Sessions YouTube series, which came at a point earlier in the decade when her image cried out for some rehabilitation: Her cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”—which has been viewed about 165 million times—for instance, showed off her Nashville bona fides (Parton is actually Cyrus’ godmother) and a musicality hard to gainsay no matter how flaky you thought she was. Like most covers, these are conspicuous performances of taste: Selections might display an artist’s eclectic knowledge, their sly quirks, facets of their voices previously untapped, and more.

The chart trends I mentioned up top hint that these strategies are expanding beyond novelties to more major career moves. Covering an earlier song can be a gambit for a new artist or a faded midcareer one to attract notice, as in most of the rock-chart cases. But for stars, it can also be an inflection point in that all-important narrative—for instance, Drake underlining his woman-friendliness (amid rumblings to the contrary) through a long-distance duet with Lauryn Hill, or Cardi B countering any perception of two-dimensionality by highlighting her Latina background.

On the downside, if you search for a famous song on a major streaming service, you’re likely to find a lot of covers by seeming nonentities attempting to game the algorithm for clicks—a digital revival of the early record business’s practice of “covering” the marketplace with cheap copies for quick profit.

But in most ways the future is unlikely to resemble the past, and it would be unwise to want the functions of a 21st-century American Songbook to resemble the old too much, especially with the elitist baggage it’s tended to carry. As much as through covers, the new standards may circulate more in the mode of samples and interpolations (the fashionable term for musical quotations inserted into a song by other means, which is sometimes a creative maneuver and sometimes a legal dodge), or memes, or dances, or soundtrack fodder, or satire. As much as a New American Songbook, then, it might be fitting to talk about a New American Codebook, a set of musical signs and symbols that diffuse through the culture, forever condensing, evaporating, and scattering anew. Kind of like those rains down in Africa. Bless them.