Thursday, January 08, 2009

We started singin'

Matt, Bess and I have this CD club type thing that we do on roughly an every-other-month basis. How it works is we each contribute 4 songs that are either in heavy rotation or that we particularly like. We limit it to 4 songs each so as not to overwhelm the other listeners and to force us to choose the songs carefully. The result is a 12 song CD that is composed of three different people's musical tastes. After the CD has been distributed, discussion commences. Our tastes are all over the map, but oddly enough, each CD really turns out well and they are great fun to receive and discuss.

This time around, I came up with the brilliant (if I do say so myself) idea of contributing only cover songs. I really love cover songs, but there are so many bad ones that separating the wheat from the chaff gets a bit overwhelming. In my opinion, what makes a good cover song is taking a song and kind of turning it on its ear. Doing a note for note remake of a song is not only dreadfully boring, it is also lazy. (Notable exceptions to this rule do exist, but they are just that -- exceptions.) Since it's usually my job to contribute a Madonna song to the CD, I got to thinking about covers that Madonna has done, and there really aren't very many. There's "Fever" from Erotica and "Imagine" which she did on the Re-Invention Tour. She's also mashed "Billie Jean" into a live version of "Like A Virgin" and "Just My Imagination" into "Rain" on the Girlie Show.

And then, there's "American Pie."

"American Pie" completely embodies the reason why I believe Madonna doesn't do many covers in the studio. I'm not sure whose idea it was for Madonna to record the Don McLean song about the day the music died, but I remember hearing about it and kind of getting a sinking feeling. There are many things that Madonna can do, but by recording "American Pie", she was about to find a new talent - pissing off classic rock fans en masse. William Orbit put in his requisite blips and bleeps and Madonna, to her credit, reinterpreted the song in a very post-Ray of Light Madonna way, thus fitting in with my criteria for a good cover.

But the thing is, it's not a very good cover. Fans of the original song were up in arms over Madonna's treatment of their beloved classic. In the process of recording "American Pie", she eviscerated the song, removing God-knows-how-many verses. Really, she had to because there was no way that radio would play the full version (and as it turns out, they didn't play what she did record very much either.) Although the a cappella version performed in the cemetery is the single watchable scene in The Next Best Thing, it's one of those songs that I really wish she hadn't recorded.

That's not to say that I don't enjoy it from time to time. But in the pantheon of Madonna songs, it is definitely in the lowest 10th percentile of songs. Which means she'll probably trot it out on tour in a couple years.

I think that part of the problem is that Madonna has such a bigger than life persona, even at this stage in her career with white-hot fame decidedly behind her, that when she tries to do covers, the cover always gets caught up on the Madonna and it becomes Madonna singing someone else's song, rather than her being able to make it her own. Celebrity karaoke anyone?

The converse is also true in that I think that good covers of Madonna's work are few and very far between. There are some big exceptions - Darren Hayes' "Dress You Up", Ofra Haza's "Open Your Heart", and Chapin Sisters' "Borderline" spring to mind right away. I'm sure there are others (help me out here, fellow Madge freaks) but most of them are just bad ideas from the start. And again, it's extricating the song from Madonna that proves to be the hardest part. Madonna's own songs are so much part of her, part of the entire Madonna package that whenever anyone else tries to cover her work, I can't forget the original. Part of that is the insanely strong visuals that are attached to the vast majority of Madonna's work. I sometimes wonder if covers of Madonna songs are easier for casual fans to swallow as opposed to us uberfans that have immersed themselves in her music for a quarter century.

So Madonna and covers - a contentious relationship all around. There probably won't be a Madonna song on this CD that Matt, Bess and I put together, but there are a lot of other cover songs to choose from. And because I can, here's Duffy doing "Borderline" - one I discovered while You Tubing those other videos.


Myfizzypop said...

not a cover version but an irish pop group called Fifth Avenue sampled Papa Don't Preach heavily for a single about 5-6 years ago. I completely forget what it was called though :( Sorry!

Anonymous said...

Great post. I agree. I'm really not that big on covers by any artist. I find them lazy. I like it that Madonna does very few covers and mostly does her own stuff.
I didn't like American Pie by her, but then I never liked the original song anyway.
To me the only covers of Madonna songs I like are when artists do some of her less well known songs that aren't so iconic. Julianna Hatfield did a great cover of Gone from Music and Regina Spector did this great cover of Love Profusion from AL.

xolondon said...

I don't mind her American Pie too much. It's very Orbity.

I think my fave Madonna cover is Jody Watley's version of Borderline. It changes it a bit, but it's lovely.

Yuяi said...

I sorta like American Pie as well, especially the blips and chirps. This was the 2nd song I heard on my "return to Madge" after being shut away in that awful church experience. So I was excited as hell for new Madonna material.

I think the Heaven 17 version of "Holiday" is pretty smoking.

Dan said...

I think my biggest problem with "American Pie" is that we got that song and The Next Best Thing instead of a tour supporting Ray Of Light. It would have been fine had the movie been remotely watchable. And the song is just kind of uninspired. It is not awful, but y'know.