When the Beatles destroyed rock ‘n’ roll in the early 1960s, one of the main victims was the cover version. Artists who didn’t write their own material were castigated. Worse still, white artists who covered material by black artists and had better success in the charts than them, were deemed to be racial oppressors. Pat Boone is usually regarded as the main villain of the piece. Simon Frith has stated that his cover of Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’ is ‘probably the nearest thing to a consensual bad record in popular music history, a track that is both exploitative and feeble’.
But cover versions are making a comeback. As stated in my previous post, they are one of elements of the current pop world that hark back to the pre-Beatles era. Some of these new cover versions can be labelled feeble and exploitative. Talent show winners are causing outrage by recording cherished pop songs (‘Hallelujah’, ‘When We Collide’); white artists are causing upset by performing black artists’ material (Fall Out Boy’s version of ‘Beat It’); and opportunists are trying to cash in by hoping we will mistakenly download or stream their ‘tribute’ versions of hits (the multitude of cover tracks that populate iTunes and Spotify).
Cover versions are also performing a completely different feat: they are becoming the last refuge of the pop snob. In my previous post I wrote of the way that party DJs are becoming more altruistic; they are playing the hit songs that partygoers know. Some have found a way to do this and still eat their elitist cake, however. Rather than playing the original version of the song that everyone has heard before, they opt for obscure, cultish cover versions. At one and the same time they can show off their knowledge of pop’s long tail as well as its short head.
This is productive consumption in action. In refusing to endorse the hegemonic version of a hit song, these party DJs are indulging in guerrilla tactics. They are ‘poaching’ popular culture in a way that theorists such as John Fiske and Michel De Certeau would admire. Fiske has argued that resistance to the cultural industries is ‘characterized by the creativity of the weak in using the resources provided by a disempowering system while refusing finally to submit that power’. For him, it is not art works that constitute popular culture, but instead what the people do with them. The truly ‘popular’ cultural moments occur when the people react against the ‘forces of domination’.
By this measure, the most radical (and camp!) act that could now be performed within the world of cover versions would be to re-appropriate Pat Boone and stand him against the cultural power bloc that has made Little Richard dominant. This isn’t happening, however. The party DJs who are playing cover versions might well be snobs, but they also believe in an aesthetics of the popular. They want to put forward the best popular culture and for them it is to be found within the works created by the cultural industries. They maintain a faith in this art that critics such as Fiske, for all his supposed populism, would deny.