Way back in the ‘90s, it was just about de rigueur for every skate-punk band to record at least one snotty “ironic” cover of an old pop song. These were generally awful, but at least they didn’t take themselves too seriously, and they were over in a minute and a half.
Today’s equivalent is worse.
It all started, I think, with Gary Jules’ cover of “Mad World” on the Donnie Darko soundtrack. There may have been precedents, but I think Gary Jules was the warning sign, an ominous entrail configuration that foretold a vast new world of bad taste.
What Gary Jules did was take a Tears for Fears song from the ‘80s which featured sad lyrics, a danceable beat and some weird, by-then-antique computer sounds, and murmur it really slowly at a piano like it was The Saddest Thing Ever. It took a composition that had a few tones (sad, jaunty, alienated), and reduced it to one (sad).
And everyone acted like this was an improvement. I used to get this thing forwarded to me as an MP3, with someone invariably saying, “You know, it’s actually a really beautiful song once you strip away all the cheesy ‘80s stuff.” No! Wrong! It was a beautiful song to begin with, but it was also an emotionally and sonically complex one. What was treated like the transmutation of kitsch into beauty was, in fact, the transmutation of beautiful kitsch into maudlin schlock.
Nowadays the internet is glutted with these kinds of things—danceable pop songs performed as mawkish ballads by big-eyed, skinny-jeaned YouTube darlings, voices quavering, emoting their little hearts out. I’m talking about clips like this:
Why is everyone singing like a college-acapella dorkus all of a sudden? I love the AV Club and the idea of their Undercover series, but I wish it featured fewer indie bands desexualizing great rock and pop songs by playing them like lullabies. (Why on earth would you cover “Rio”—fucking “Rio”—and not bother to learn the bassline?)
Maybe this goes back to the ‘70s clash between suburban, straight, white rock (aesthetically valid) and urban, queer, non-white disco (“cheesy,” aesthetically invalid). It’s as if any measure of funkiness or groove or sonic weirdness had to be unsexed/deracinated out of a song before you could notice how beautiful it was. Pop music and sexual desire are inextricably connected, so it’s pretty depressing to see these songs treated as if their libidinal qualities were somehow embarrassing.
(And frankly, not to say it’s impossible to write a good stripped-down ballad, but people who are really good at it know you need more ideas to fill six minutes than to fill three, and that just slowing down a three-minute, four-chord confection is not going to work.)
The single unluckiest target of this trend is almost certainly the best dance-pop song of the last decade, “Dancing On My Own” by Robyn. The song is great because it embodies the core premise of pop music: It’s cathartic. Musically and lyrically, it’s about feeling sad and dancing anyway. There’s dignity in that!
So if you do this:
…you are missing the point. It is not an improvement, even when Robyn does it herself. You can’t dance to these covers! Christ, it’s right there in the title! It’s not called “Sitting in My Candlelit Room Crying in Front of a Webcam On My Own,” for fuck’s sake!
Go out and dance, you moaners!