Many artists like to try and honour their idols, or just to cover a song they like. Sometimes they do it justice – it sounds great! The most famed covers often provide unique twists on a well loved classic, reinventing the song. But a lot of the time, in the course of doing this, they decide to change the pronouns in the song. A prime example is when Katy Perry performed ‘Yesterday’ by The Beatles, singing, “Why’d he have to go? I don’t know, he wouldn’t say”. This seems so unnecessary to do, rewriting one of the most popular songs of an iconic band to fit her gender, for fear of… what? Sounding gay? When her career kicked off with a song called ‘I Kissed A Girl’?
It’s obviously not just Perry doing this, though; it’s been in mainstream music for a long time. In Sheryl Crow’s cover of Guns N’ Roses ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’, ‘she’ is changed to ‘he’ throughout. Bat for Lashes’ cover of Springsteen’s ‘I’m On Fire’ is often regarded as an example of exactly how to do a great cover; it’s not a straight copy, but amplifies some elements of the song over others, and tries different instrumentation to entirely shift the mood and genre, from rock ballad to an almost eerie southern gothic. Still – Springsteen’s iconic opening line is changed to, “Hey little boy is your momma home, did she go and leave you all alone”. It doesn’t seem to make sense – for the most part, because of how much celebrities lives are discussed, people know their sexuality; but even if they don’t, it is hardly relevant. Nobody is going to hear a song cover with the pronouns unchanged and suddenly think their sexuality is different.
I’m all for personalising music and covers; music is a form of self-expression, and it should suit the performer. It should be manipulated and modified, reinterpreted and rejuvenated. But I think people need to be less concerned about their ‘straight’ or ‘gay’ image when covering songs, realise it isn’t their song and is not meant to be from their point of view, and do songs the justice they deserve as a piece of art rather than making it fit them in a way that doesn’t make sense.
With this in mind, then, what are some great covers without pronoun changes? They’re definitely not the first covers that spring to mind, simply as they’re in such a minority. Well, one you might kick yourself for not immediately thinking of is Amy Winehouse’s treatment of ‘Valerie’, originally by The Zutons, produced by Mark Ronson. I remember being confused by this song when I was younger, because I didn’t actually understand the concept of someone singing a song by someone of a different gender without squishing it to fit into boxes of respectable heterosexuality. Even little 13-year-old me knew how refreshing this was!
More than just being refreshing, though, this creative approach can contribute to the reinvention of the track in question. In Lana Del Rey’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Chelsea Hotel No. 2’, she hasn’t changed the lyric, “You told me again you preferred handsome men, but for me you would make an exception.” While in Cohen’s mouth it told of his brief relationship with Janis Joplin, which he has discussed honestly as being a relationship between two ‘ugly’ people, in Del Rey’s it becomes a far more sad lament with an entirely different meaning. The same, too, can be said for Sara Bareilles’ predilection for performing Cee Lo Green’s ‘Fuck You‘ live in concert, before blending it smoothly into her own ‘Gonna Get Over You’. It breathes new life into her upbeat post-breakup song, and tells a different story to the one listeners are used to hearing.
Male artists shouldn’t be left out, though these covers are definitely fewer in number and might reflect a desire to maintain a front of stereotypical masculinity. We are seeing a change in this, though, particularly so with younger artists ready to bring fresh and unrestricted interpretations. In 2012, Ed Sheeran covered Nina Simone’s ‘Be My Husband‘ in The Live Room, giving it a blues-y acoustic treatment where he took inspiration from Simone’s distinctive vocals and mumbled, almost slurred, his for a unique tribute.
That’s what a cover is, at its heart – a tribute, or a thanks, to an artist or to a song. To see them treated in their purest form, without the needless fears or ego-centrism of those who perform them in covers with pronoun changes, is refreshing and empowering.