The first cover versions of songs were released by singers — and labels — hoping to make a quick buck off the back of another artist’s recent single. Rock in the Fifties was a Wild West: macho men, canny profiteers: and a profit-driven invasion of territory belonging to people of colour. The theft of Black American music by white musicians was as widespread as it was accepted. The back catalogue of the canonical, phallocentric Great Rock Bands — Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles — is really an amalgamated cover version of the Blues and Gospel; Chuck Berry and James Taylor.
Though lawsuits have settled a few of the most blatant thefts, I think the the idea of a cover version of song is still tempered by these appropriative origins. Even today, this is seen through the lens of more recent, properly credited, examples: I Will Always Love You and Tainted Love and YouTube ukulele players.
Covering can be an attempt to interpret another artist’s creation; a homage, a blending of styles. But the emphasis still very much lies in the original: behind Johnny Cash’s version of ‘Hurt’, I always hear the Nine Inch Nails original’s industrial bleeding. It’s a layered tissue of compositions and genres: Cash’s song might be accepted as superior, but it will never really stand alone. That’s because it will never be ‘the original’, but always a version, seen as the latter of two, not one in its own right.
But sometimes, a song sounds so good in another singer’s voice that it separates entirely from the original recording.
A couple of years ago, the American singer-songwriter Ezra Furman recorded a version of LCD Soundsystem’s ‘I Can Change’. I’ve known ‘I Can Change’ for a long time — I first heard it on the Fifa 11 soundtrack (there’s a flashback) pumped out of tinny Nintendo speakers.
At fourteen, when I discovered indie rock and voice cracks, I was surprised to find out that the primary school me had been listening to a classic electro track by the best New York band who didn’t wear skinny jeans. But I didn’t really ‘hear’ the song, not until Furman replaced those nostalgic, staccato synthesisers with a simple chord progression on an acoustic guitar.
Image credit: Mixmag
LCD’s frontman, James Murphy, is the most huggable man in indie music. He’s also one of its best lyricists: few phrases have stuck in my mind like ‘the neighborhood bars I’d once dreamed I would drink’ (from ‘New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down’). In the lyrics to ‘I Can Change’, after a list of analogies that explain what love is, ’Love is an open book to a verse of your bad poetry / And this is coming from me’ is a double-punchline to rival the sharpest of wits. But somehow, the wit is so dry coming from Murphy that it doesn’t really register; it gets subsumed under the instrumental.
Ezra’s voice does LCD’s song justice, and the song’s lyrics do Ezra justice. At the time, he identified as a queer, androgynous man. His voice is both husky and high. On the cover of Songs by Others he’s in black and white, but also a baseball cap, floppy mid-length hair, a pearl necklace, a blouse.
Furman’s track is a queer reading in its most pure form. When Murphy repeated ‘I can change, I can change … if it helps you fall in love’, he was embracing a Noughties hedonism, hinting at the persona of a faintly desperate cisgender man trying to press himself into whatever mould the woman he’s trying to chat up likes. But when Furman sings it, and when he sings ‘It’s good in the dark, good in the dark/But into the lover’s light/Here comes another fight’ in his high-husky voice, we hear him talking about something different: the mutability of his body, the joy of inhabiting it, the excitement of someone touching it, and the rejection that could stem from being truly seen.
Ezra’s own lyrics have always inhabited that particular realm of American dryness that Murphy, like David Sedaris and Nora Ephron before him, also call home. But he’s also always used lyrics to discuss his own queer identity and fluid appearance: ‘making my rounds in my five dollar dress/ I can’t go home although I’m not homeless’ (‘Restless Year’); ‘Showed up in court wearing an Indian headdress/somehow I think maybe the message was lost’ (‘Lousy Connection’); ‘Honey, I know that I don’t have the body you want in a girlfriend; / What I am working with is less than ideal’ (‘I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend’). If you’re familiar with his background, ‘I Can Change’ stops being the lie of a desperate man, but the vulnerable admission of a queer one who ‘just do[es] being a man different than some.’
The joyous melancholy that inhabits every LCD song comes from the contrast of Murphy’s self-deprecating wit and the endlessly upbeat synthesisers; who else could make a crowd bounce to ‘Where are your friends tonight? Where are you friends tonight?’ Ezra’s cover captures that electrifying two-things-at-once spirit: by simplifying it musically, and complicating it lyrically — and simply by singing it in his own voice — he makes ‘I Can Change’ into the song that was always hiding within it; that it always deserved to be.
The original isn’t bad, by any means — I love it, and not just because it’s a digital-era madeleine that takes me back to the joy of getting Messi on Ultimate Team. But it can’t compete with such a simple, complicated song. That’s the joyous thing about queer readings — they don’t need any effort at all to give a whole new heart to a text. Queering is a joyous process of reinvention, not just a ‘take’ on an original. It’s a way of changing a dull text into an exciting one, a fixed one into a slippy one, a normative one in an act of sheer, uplifting freedom.