Let's play a game, where all of the rules are subjective and everybody hates each other by the time it's over.
No, not Monopoly: I'm talking about the Stolen Cover Songs Game. The point is to think of a cover song that just completely stole the show from the original artist, not necessarily because of its quality, or arrangement, or performance, but because the cover has an intangible something that more fully embodies what the song should have been. To see if you're on the right track, just pick a cover song and look up its YouTube video: Do the comments consist solely of arguments about which is the better version, interspersed with the most hateful, vitriolic bile human beings have ever spewed at one other?
If so, congratulations! You're on the right track.
#5. "Common People": Ben Folds and William Shatner Stole It From Pulp
The original version by British rock band Pulp is catchy, biting and satirical, but it's also kind of hiply aloof. And it really shouldn't be. The soft, airy instrumentals and Cocker's soothing, effete vocals still make the song seem like a condemnation, sure; but it's a half-hearted, almost fond one. That's not in line with the soul of the piece: "Common People" is about lower class rage at the poverty-tourism of hip young rich kids, and yet the wry, clever delivery and synth-pop sensibilities make the original come off more like a pretentious hipster damning the new scenesters who just don't know that Dante's is so over now, rather than the jaded diatribe of a working stiff finally sticking one to a rich girl.
I know this is going to sound ridiculous, impossible, and insane -- this sounds like somebody accidentally transcribed a drunken bet on the back of a sheet of Mad Libs and the ink bled through -- but Ben Folds and William Shatner made a fantastic album together, called Has Been. It's a bizarre orgy of conflicting priorities, equal parts beat poetry, punk rock and midlife crisis. And there is a fucking amazing cover of "Common People" on there. William Shatner delivers the vocals in every way Cocker didn't: He's artless, forthright and furious. The cover is all driving guitars and Cockney screaming while Shatner whiskey-slurs a devastating tirade to an inappropriately young girl whom he wants to bang almost as much as he wants to murder and leave in a river.
You play Pulp's version of "Common People" for that rich girl who keeps coming to your punk house, and she'll take it as kind of a backhanded compliment. She'll think it's cool "that you thought of her at all, you know?" Play Shatner's version for her, and she'll kick you in the nuts and run sobbing back out to her Jetta.
They always have Jettas.
#4. "No One's Gonna Love You": Cee Lo Green Stole It From Band of Horses
I don't want to talk smack about any band; that's not what this game is about. These cover songs aren't objectively better than the originals, and the artists are not superior musicians for having stolen them. It's all just a matter of finding the secret intent in a piece and who can best bring it out.
But that being said: Fuck Band of Horses.
To me, their music sounds like anemic, lifeless heroin wraiths who wake sporadically to strum a guitar for 30 seconds before falling back into a nod. I've never actually made it all the way through this song; I always switch it off after a minute because it's like listening to Paul Simon doing ads for The Gap.
Remember the '80s? The best parts of that decade, admittedly scattered few and far between the neon plastic skateboards and cocaine hair, were the moments when we realized, as a culture, that it was OK to be earnest. To just believe in a thing wholly, without reserve, and put everything you have into it. Steve Perry may have looked like somebody molested a Pee Wee hockey game, got it pregnant and inexplicably decided to keep the baby, but he sung the holy shit out of whatever he performed, and that was kind of awesome.
That's what's happening in this cover: It's so shamelessly, cheesily, ridiculously overdramatic that it circumnavigates all the way around Lame and lands back on the border of Amazing. Cee Lo absolutely killed this song, and I don't mean that in the sense that he "nailed it." No, he somehow reached into the air and wrapped his hands around the intangible concept of "song" and strangled until it stopped kicking.
#3. "The Man Who Sold the World": Nirvana Stole It From David Bowie
Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World" is like literally everything else Bowie does -- from albums to bowel movements -- equal parts technically impressive and strangely magical. Musically, it's a warped space calypso where somebody has the balls to use a guiro -- a motherfuckin' guiro! -- and actually pulls it off. Lyrically, it's a vignette about a man meeting either his future self or some kind of pod person and trying to reconcile the man he's become with the man he is. Or else it's about aliens. That's always a safe Bowie-bet: If you don't understand something, aliens did it.
Possibly because they were on alien drugs.
Oh, god, unclench. I can feel your sphincters tightening with indignant rage through the Internet. It's practically audible. Gross.
But remember: This isn't necessarily "cover songs that did it better than the original" or "cover bands that were better performers." This is just "covers that more fully embody the spirit of the song." In this case, it's not that Nirvana did a better job than Bowie at ... well, at pretty much anything in their lives. Nirvana had a huge impact on my teenage years, and I still like them to this day, but they're no Bowie, because ain't nobody is no motherfucking Bowie. You play the Goblin King, you stay the Goblin King. Nobody can step to that.
But you have to admit that Kurt Cobain's sulking, weary acoustic performance of "Man who Sold The World" more perfectly embodied the apathetic, depressed and beaten soul of the piece. It was a song about being a sell-out; about this crushed, jaded man-thing who's probably going to throw himself down that stairway when he reaches the top. Bowie's version has a weird but ultimately refined, very British kind of sadness to it. When the song finished, you got the feeling Bowie was going to shed one single, repressed tear into his goblet of Rare Tibetan Eagle Wine. In Nirvana's version, it sounds like bookies are taking odds on which verse suicide is going to knock Cobain out during -- and Kurt's up there trying to throw the fight.
Besides, if the contest is all about embodying the soul of the song -- and the soul of this song is disillusionment, self-hatred and despair -- maybe you should just cede this one to the guy who actually committed suicide and go back to dick-painting supermodels with goldleaf, David Bowie.