The Uncanny Valley of Cover Songs

Listening to the radio the other day, I heard Seether’s cover of the George Michael classic, Careless Whisper. And I started thinking about cover songs.

I came to the conclusion that cover songs are subject to a phenomenon similar to the uncanny valley of robotics and puppetry. The idea is that the closer a thing is to appearing human, without quite being human, the more disturbing it is. I personally think this stems from behavioral immune responses that help us avoid people with, say, the bubonic plague. Or, one supposes, zombies, Terminators, and aliens attempting to infiltrate human society in disguise.

Anyway, with cover songs, I find that I tend to enjoy them most when they are either a) a straight cover, or b) the artist has basically remade the song in their own style. Now, sometimes they do a crap job, or their own style happens to be one I don’t care for (Marilyn Manson’s cover of Sweet Dreams comes to mind). But in general, either of these is preferable to an artist either trying to do a dead-on cover, which never works; or doing basically a straight cover but overselling it, trying to one-up the original artist. This, in my estimation, is the uncanny valley of cover songs; the point at which the cover is just jarring and uncomfortable rather than a fresh take on a beloved tune.

So… that’s pretty much it. I never said it was a deep conclusion.

*EDIT* Yeah, I totally thought it was a Duran Duran song, but I was wrong. It was George Michael/WHAM! Now I feel slightly dirty. */EDIT*


~ by oberon the fool on April 19, 2009.

4 Responses to “The Uncanny Valley of Cover Songs”

  1. I wonder if this works if someone has never heard the original song before? They might think the “cover” works just because it’s the only one with which they are familiar. Is that how we get alien mutant babies? *grin*

  2. Well, I know that I tend to prefer whatever version of a song I encounter first. It’s not 100%, but it’s pretty consistent.

  3. I think it depends on the song. Sometimes the original cannot be improved upon, and anyone who tries just makes a fool of him or herself. But sometimes, the cover is better. For example, Van Atta High’s cover of Afternoon Delight. They’re a relatively unknown indie band hugely popular in NJ, and their cover of this song is a vast improvement over the original, despite Starland’s version being such a big hit. Check it out… there’s even a funny video for it:

  4. Hm. It’s not bad. I like the original better, but the cover doesn’t suck.

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