Is the Industry Open to Interpretation?

One of the interesting trends to emerge from “American Idol” in recent seasons — proven again this week by David Cook’s version of “Always Be My Baby” — is that audiences are surprisingly open to hearing songs they know creatively reinterpreted, whether it was Blake Lewis’ “You Give Love A Bad Name” last season, or Chikezie’s “She’s A Woman,” or even to discovery of songs. Simon Cowell may have chided Syesha Mercado for not choosing a well-known Mariah Carey hit, but avoiding nuance-by-nuance comparison with a well-known song has turned out to be a surprisingly bright strategy, particularly for Jason Castro, who clearly has a career as a music supervisor in TV or at an ad agency if this Idol thing doesn’t work out.
It’s been pretty well documented at this point that Idol helped propel pop music back into an era where a new artist didn’t necessarily need to show up with a notebook full of their own compositions. In 2002, it was important to convince the industry that Avril Lavigne had played a significant part in the crafting of her own songs. In 2007, we were told that Kelly Clarkson would have been much better served to stick with the handful of hot songwriting teams who would have gladly crafted her some better imitations of Evanescence and Linkin Park than her own, if that was really the direction she insisted on taking.
But if America is responding to Idols who have a talent for interpretation and rearranging songs, the music industry should run with it. When Taylor Hicks sang Ray LaMontagne’s “Trouble” on Idol a few seasons ago, it was a perfect cover choice: a song that had already galvanized an audience at Triple-A, but a relatively small one, not unlike Jason’s choice of “Hallelujah.” “Trouble” would have been a better vehicle to get Hicks on to pop radio than anything on his own album and, as it turns out, probably a better representation of the artist that America liked that season than the odd mashup of Taylor and Matchbox Twenty that emerged on his major-label debut.
For many years, interpretation and covers of songs that had been recently released by other artists (even if they were hits) were a major part of the label A&R aresenal. Songs would have often been released several times by various artists by the time they finally became hits for somebody. Aretha Franklin could cover “Bridge Over Troubled Water” or “I Say A Little Prayer” within a year of them being hits and still go top 10 just because people wanted to hear what she did with them. (Aretha’s “Respect” was, of course, the ultimate example of a song that was already a hit becoming a classic.)
The ’70s rise of the singer/songwriter, if anything, enhanced the role of interpretation. Linda Ronstadt was derided at the time for covering songs, not writing them, but her albums were a showplace for Warren Zevon, J.D. Souther, Karla Bonoff, Jimmy Cliff, Neil Young, James Taylor, Elvis Costello (despite his widely reported grousing), Jackson Browne and many others.
And the aesthetic of the time didn’t stop those artists who could write songs as well from taking on recently released songs–particularly in an era when the hot artists often had far more great songs than they could issue as singles themselves. Robert Palmer could certainly write them himself, but he could also cover Todd Rundgren, Kool & the Gang, or Moon Martin, who had done “Bad Case Of Loving You” a year earlier. And it’s now the James Taylor version of “You’ve Got A Friend” that most people regard as the standard, not the Carole King original.
Producers and A&R people in that era usually had a stash of songs that they kept recording until somebody finally had a hit with them. Mike Chapman (the Knack, Pat Benatar, the Sweet) in particular was known for cutting songs on multiple artists. Huey Lewis & the News had no problem coming up with their own songs, but his “Heart & Soul” had charted two years earlier for Exile (of “Kiss You All Over” fame).
Somewhere in those intervening years, relying too heavily on somebody else’s catalog became a badge of dishonor on the pop/rock side, despite the irony of Jeff Buckley — the cult singer/songwriter of the last decade — cementing his own reputation on a well-chosen Leonard Cohen cover. Even with the resurgence of the writer/producer (already entrenched in Country and R&B/Hip-Hop) on the pop side, there’s been little judicious use of catalog.
Perhaps it’s because the movie soundtrack — often the vehicle for Sixpence None The Richer to cover “There She Goes” or Maxwell to remake “A Woman’s Work” — has languished recently. Perhaps it was because some in the industry felt that an artist who couldn’t write wouldn’t be taken seriously by the album-buying public. In this era, all bets are off and the best selling album of 2007 is a collection of Christmas covers. The ability of songs to break through TV series or commercial exposure — usually stripped of their context on an album or in an artist’s oeuvre — is testament to the power of the song.
So why not the best songs? Some of those will always come from the hot writer/producers. But some are sitting in the secret weapon stash at a Triple-A or an Urban AC. Why shouldn’t “Trouble” be a pop hit for somebody? Or Afro-Celt Sound System’s “When You’re Falling”? Or “Basement Apartment” by Sarah Harmer? In today’s music business climate, radio and labels need to reach consumers on as many tracks as possible. There is room for great writers and great interpreters. And sometimes what great writers and interpreters need is each other.

7 replies
  1. The Infinite Dial
    The Infinite Dial says:

    Is The Industry Open To Interpretation?

    One of the interesting trends to emerge from “American Idol” in recent seasons — proven again last night by David Cook’s version of “Always Be My Baby” — is that audiences are surprisingly open to hearing songs they know creatively…

  2. Michael McDowell/Blitz Magazine
    Michael McDowell/Blitz Magazine says:

    The notion of an all or nothing mentality is another leftover from the bad end of the ’70s. One can also make a cohesive argument for utilizing the best sources to make a worthy final product, meaning that the best voice might benefit from sympathetic outside material, production, instrumental support and such.
    Wilbert Harrison did quite well as a one man band, but he is the exception. If utilizing top talent brings in the desired results, so be it.
    Great article, as always!

  3. Mike Fitzgerald
    Mike Fitzgerald says:

    And to add a bit more icing to this cake, a wondeful way to keep the “oldies/Classic” formats alive and thriving. Why not drop in one of these remakes and do an on air comparison for the audience. I program WKAZ-FM in Charleston, WV and the concept is working wonderfully on my “Classic Top 40″ format.

  4. Lou P.
    Lou P. says:

    There are some amazingly talented songwriters who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting since I moved back to Nashville. While most of that has been in the country category, there are a bevy of songs out there that *could* be hits on the pop charts with the right singer and presentation.

  5. Shannon West
    Shannon West says:

    It should be noted that,especially this season, a lot of the songs geing covered are not the standard tired, burnt out radio fare: “Angels,” “Innocent,” “Hallelujah,” etc. Superficially one could say do more covers. But note that a lot of the songs that are making an impact here are fairly obscure songs by incredible contemporary songwriters. Artists whose skills sway more toward interpretation than writing could be well served by digging into the catalogs of singer/songwriters whose material resonates with them but that is a totally different concept than dragging out some tired, decades old, warhorse of a song and flogging it yet again.


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