Why Cover Songs That Don’t Stray Too Far From the Original Version Inevitably Invite Critical Comparison

The wonderfully motor-mouthed, artistically talented music theorist 12Tone explains why covers songs aren’t always the most successful form of music, no matter who is performing the cover version. He uses the Weezer cover of the Toto song “Africa” as his first example. While the Weezer version is fun, it didn’t wander too far from the original melody and immediately invited comparison to that which was more familiar. If someone wants to do a successful cover song, they need to find the heart of the song and change it just enough to make it sound original. Metal covers of pop songs do change everything about the original songs, they don’t really hit the mark. Instead, they sound like condescending parodies.

Cover songs are hard! You have to take a song that everyone already likes and transform it into something new without losing that thing that everyone liked in the first place. Doing a good cover of someone else’s song takes a steady hand and a lot of skill, but doing it right can be hugely rewarding. … I should clarify that I don’t have anything against Weezer in general. They have plenty of songs I like. In fact, I think their cover of Africa is, as a piece of music, pretty good, I just think that, as a cover, it’s lazy. It’s plenty of fun to listen to, but that’s almost exclusively due to the strength of the source material, not any decisions Weezer made.

The notable exception to this thesis, however, is the Jimi Hendrix cover of the Bob Dylan song “All Along the Watchtower”. In his cover, Hendrix pays recognizable tribute to Dylan but made it his own with his iconic deconstructed, languid style, which Dylan readily adopted.