The Conversation: Is Playing Other People's Songs Respectable?

Dallas disco cover band Le Freak
Dallas disco cover band Le Freak

A well-timed cover can be just the thing to take a band's live performance from good to great. But if the execution of the song is off, it could blow the whole set. On the flip side, although playing a cover is a risky move, sometimes the rewards can make an artist's career. 

But what about acts who make their living performing other people's songs? There are many varieties of this sort -- cover bands, tribute bands, country acts, and pop stars among them.

Certainly there's a respectable way to do it. But where's the line?

Take Christina Aguilera for instance. She has an amazing voice -- and she lets you know about it in every second of every song -- but she doesn't write her own music. Should she still be considered much an artist? I personally don't think so.

Pete and I went back and forth on the subject in this week's conversation. Hit the jump to check it out, and feel free to weigh in with your opinion in the comments section.

Daniel: It's hard to think of a cover band without sort of cringing. There is a good number of musicians here in town that make a living performing other people's songs four or five days a week. And, I guess that's a respectable way to earn a living. I can't imagine doing it for a long period of time without getting burnt out.

Generally, people play in cover bands as a means to nurture their own pet projects, the ones they love to do. For example, both members of The O's, Taylor Young and John Pedigo, play in a few cover bands on the side. It helps pay a few bills, or at least a few bar tabs, so you can't discount them for picking up the extra gigs.

But what about artists, if you want to call them that, who make a living performing songs written by other people? There are some in almost every genre and they have teams of people in Nashville working around the clock just to get these people a hit song. My question to you is: Do you think less of people who call themselves artists but only perform songs written by other people? Because I kind of do.

Pete: Well, I always do think it's funny when we see a press release that announces a new disc from some Top 40 act that, finally, has recorded his or her own songs. It's an awkward stab at authenticity, and one that, in such a context, falls completely flat.

But, discarding the folkies and the bands, very few of our history's great, solo pop sensations have ever written their own songs. From Elvis to Britney Spears -- they've all made names for themselves by performing other peoples' songs. Which, I think, is at least partially why the recent losses of Jerry Leiber and Nick Ashford were so sad; these were guys who made the mainstream better by happily taking a backseat and giving their songs to others. I wonder, though, if their passing also signifies something greater, simply by the resurfacing of the fact that Leiber and Ashford existed in such a bygone era. Songwriting really was a business back then. To think about the Brill Building in L.A. New York and all that happened within it is insane. And so many of the songs produced then remain unbelievably great songs.

I'll answer your question with another one : Is Lady Gaga a more important figure than, say, Christina Aguilera simply because Gaga has a hand in writing all of her material, whereas XTina traditionally doesn't?

I'm not so sure. Singing someone else's song can be a really powerful thing and it can definitely have some real artistic merit to it as well. I thought it was mostly bizarre, but I know some people went pretty crazy over that recent Chipotle ad featuring Willie Nelson singing Coldplay's "The Scientist." He certainly put his own spin on the song, that's for sure.

Part of me really longs for the not-so-long-ago time when multiple artists would record their own renditions of the same song and all have successful singles with them -- like how Roger Miller, Kenny Rogers, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Gordon Lightfoot, Kris Kristofferson and Janis Joplin all released versions of the Kristofferson-penned "Me & Bobby McGee" over the span of three years. American Idol and The Voice have kind of ruined this song for me (see also: Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and Ray LaMontagne's "Trouble"), but when I heard John Legend's version of Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" (apparently at Donald Glover's request, interestingly enough), I felt like it was a throwback to that fairly golden era.

So, I guess part of me wishes people did perform other peoples' songs more often -- so long as they're offering their own take on the track and not just regurgitating it for some drunken suburban bar crowd that's just waiting to sing along to "Don't Stop Believin'" or whatever.

Daniel: I think you're onto something, Pete. These days, it seems like commercial viability carries much more weight in the songwriting process than in the bygone era of Jerry Leiber and Nick Ashford, to which you referred earlier.

A good example from that time is Glen Campbell's "Wichita Lineman," which was penned by professional songwriter Jimmy Webb. The song not only went to number three in Billboard's Hot 100 in 1969, but it was a brilliant song; one of the best ever written.

Nowadays, you've got guys like Bruno Mars writing hit songs for other artists and grabbing a piece of the spotlight for himself by releasing material under his own name. He's getting huge, too. But love him or not, "Just The Way You Are" doesn't even touch the greatness and beauty of "Wichita Lineman."

You have to sang like Xtina in order to be considered a great voice, which brings me to your earlier question. I don't think the fact that Lady Gaga writes some of her own music makes her any more important than Christina Aguilera. Gaga's songs suck -- just like Kelly Clarkson's did when she wrote her own album.

The problem with both of them, though, is my problem with pop music in general. The voices are all too good. There's no character in the vocals. They're all perfect and generic like a set of whitened teeth or an airbrushed magazine cover. I think the best covered songs are sung by people whose voices add character to the song.

Johnny Cash's version of "Hurt" by Nine Inch Nails turned out to be one of the greatest songs he ever did. And just how popular would Nico be without having sung "These Days" by Jackson Browne? I'll even throw in the Smashing Pumpkins version of "Landslide" by Stevie Nicks as an example. All three are great songs, and interestingly enough, all of the vocals are garbage by today's pop standards.

Pete: OK, so pop music is its own beast. We can agree on that. As far as bands with less reach that strictly make a living playing other people's songs, though? I tend not to think it's so terrible, either. I've seen some great cover bands just destroying at weddings and making the whole thing a great time; the open bars might have something to do with that, but the point -- that there's a place for these kinds of bands -- remains the same.

Will I go out to some suburban bar to see a cover band play? Rarely intentionally. But I honestly don't mind tribute bands too much; there's a certain inherent reverence in what they do that I'll always find charming, and, in its own way, artistic. There are some great tribute bands here in town that are doing pretty well, too -- Hard Night's Day has been around forever, Le Cure is pretty solid. And some of them make pretty good money: I was up in Chicago visiting some family this past weekend and I saw an ad promoting a House of Blues gig there from the Dallas-based Guns N' Roses tribute band Guns 4 Roses. That was kind of a treat to see in print. Clearly, those dudes are doing something right if they, as we've discussed in past "Conversations" before, can tour to other major cities unlike so many other talented local acts.

And that's where something else that I've thought about a few times comes into play, and it all stems, maybe, from the fact that I don't think it's so terrible for people to perform one another's songs. The gist of the thought is this: Would it be so bad if Dallas were more like Nashville?

Here's the argument: Not every band in Dallas is going to be some super cool, hip buzz band. Not every band is gonna stick around long enough to slowburn themselves into a decent draw. Not every band is going to be able to tour. So why don't bands and songwriters in Dallas actually take a cue from Nashville, and share with one another their songs? It's maybe not "living the dream," per se, but it'd be a nice way to cultivate a scene.

A few area acts do this, I know. Ryan Thomas Becker regularly performs New Science Projects songs at shows; he might've even recorded one. Meanwhile, Madison King's well-received debut features a song fittingly called "Here in Arms" penned by Here in Arms' lead songwriter, Brent Engel. I've always thought it was super cool and supportive when this happens. It tends to work out well for all parties, too. I'd like to see more of it -- to get more of a collective vibe going around these parts, y'know?

And I don't think there's anything necessarily inartistic about that, as you implied in your blanket-statement opening to this discussion.

Daniel: Yeah, I've been known to make an occasional blanket statement. But I should clarify. There are singers who have songs written for them, which is (blanket statement alert!) inartistic. Same goes for cover bands. I can see the diligence put into a tribute act making their craft more hallowed, but still, it's just really high-production karaoke, right? Then, there's the established artist that just covers someone else's song, which I think is the most respectable way to do it.

That's not to say that I don't think any of the above have their place. I once spent an evening on a dancefloor at a Le Freak show (deal with it!), and had a blast.

It does seem rare, though, to hear a current artist cover another current artist. But as you pointed out earlier, not so rare anymore. I think bands in Dallas really like the idea. Remember the Dallas Observer Music Awards last year, when local bands spontaneously began to cover songs by other local bands? I think people are just looking for an excuse to do it. And, really, I don't see any reason why they should.

Pete: First off, you've clearly never seen the cinematic feat that is Mark Wahlberg's performance in Rock Star.

Second, some great singers just aren't great songwriters and vice versa, and I think that's just a fact of life that the industry is gonna be forever handcuffed by, despite your lofty notions.

Third, I agree about local bands playing each other songs. More please. And, hey, since we're again in the throes of Dallas Observer Music Awards season, maybe it'll happen once more? Fingers crossed.

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