A year of uncertainty packed with fraught twists and turns, 2020 has consistently defied expectation. General rules don’t apply and people are seeking solace and familiarity in whatever way they can. With housebound citizens desperately consuming and creatives considering new ways of keeping fans entertained, any reminder of ‘life before lockdown’ is welcome. Memory Lane has never looked so rosy.
And so, despite months mistily merging into one, something that has emerged out of the fog is the sudden abundance of cover song releases. Fontaines D.C. released their version of The Beach Boys ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ as part of Deezer’s InVersions compilation just last week, whilst Miley Cyrus wowed with a powerhouse cover of Blondie classic ‘Heart of Glass’. They're only the latest in a long string of 2020 cover releases.
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August saw a collaboration between Courtney Barnett and Phoebe Bridgers as part of the Newport Virtual Folk Festival covering Gillian Welch’s ‘Everything Is Free’ and Purity Ring transformed a club classic into something far more tender with Alice Deejay's ‘Better Off Alone’. Previously considered a lighthearted 'soft' release, cover songs appear to be carrying far more creative weight this year.
Covers of course, are not new. Re-interpretations of old gems have led artists to both elevate and obliterate songs for decades. Some more career-defining than others, their presence can sometimes forge a huge part of an artist's story. Covering a song is a notable way for an act to exhibit their penchant: how they interpret the song (and indeed, which song they choose) is a powerful display of character and skill.
Adele’s version of Dylan's ‘Make You Feel My Love’ launched her into unthinkable heights of success in 2008, and other cover versions are so landmarking, you forget the preceding originals. Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ is originally by Dolly Parton, lest we forget. Natalie Imbruglia's 'Torn' is not an original. It was Prince who first brought 'Nothing Compares 2 U' to the world ahead of Sinéad O'Connor, and Nine Inch Nails who wrote 'Hurt' before Johnny Cash. But in 2020, a new love for covers calls for a closer look.
Artists have been isolating at home with endless days of thought and contemplation; plentiful time to reminisce about what inspires them and what makes them tick. Maybe an older song that holds a special place in a childhood memory is now one they want - and have time - to share with their fans. They wish to put their spin on the music that provided them with so much, in the hope it does the same for us. Arlo Parks for example, has often cited Radiohead as a huge influence and released her haunting cover of ‘Creep’ back in June. It’s a delicate task but one that can tighten the personal bond between artist and fan in an increasingly difficult time.
It’s equally plausible that the year's copious thinking time has provided artists with increased perspective. Keen to explicitly declare what world they wish to fit into, covering the ‘right song’ can align artists with others they admire. Chicago’s Whitney covered country favourite ‘Take Me Home, Country Road’ which came as no surprise, but did a fantastic job in highlighting the similarities between their sound and that of classic country: a known inspiration for the band. Similarly, Father John Misty covered within the world his own music inhabits, choosing Leonard Cohen’s ‘Anthem’ as a release. For these artists, their cover intention was to potentially make a mark in a place they wish to be seen, and amongst fans whose support that desire.
Or maybe there’s a less sentimental approach to the question: one that doesn’t consider the creativity or fans behind the surge. In a business that often places artists at the bottom of the financial food chain, innovative income ideas are always welcome, whether it’s 2020 or not. With the extreme travel restrictions COVID-19 has induced, many artists have been left with no capacity to tour and are consequently suffering from the financial losses. Perhaps this influx of cover songs is charged by hopeful labels wanting their artists’ cover efforts picked up for TV or film. After all, there’s no denying how well a slowed-down classic sung in cursive can go down. Sync deals award artists huge platforms and are accompanied by a hefty pay. Take South London’s Joy Crookes whose cover of The Wannadies ‘You & Me Song’ has bagged the latest O2 advert.
Media consumption rocketed in lockdown for obvious reasons. For many, too, time was empty but fruitful. People emerged out of lockdown with new favourite singers, bands, films and TV shows. Utilising this period of open heartedness and acceptance has been great for artists. Releasing an unexpected cover to potentially attract new fans has been a way to keep things progressing, especially when everything has felt particularly stagnant. Nirvana’s ‘Heart Shaped Box’ is famously angsty, but this year it became a dewy, far more plateaued version courtesy of Glass Animals. Providing this element of surprise is proof of versatility - and what better time to give it a go.
Our enduring and complex love for covers is nothing new, but something that has been particularly appreciated this year by artists and listeners alike. We’ve needed continuity; we've wanted nostalgia. Giving new life to songs we already know is achieving this somewhat. Perhaps this 2020 love for the cover is a reach for safety and familiarity: despite all the change this year has delivered, it’s comforting to know we’re still singing the same old songs.