The Importance Of Cover Songs

In an interview with Rajeev Masand, Asha Bhonsle rips apart Sunidhi Chauhan’s rendition of ‘Duniya Mein’ in a song called ‘Parda‘ in ‘Once Upon A Time in Mumbai’. And she does it with a beatific smile lighting up her face. She’s a spirited old lady alright and I admire her verve and energy.

However, I disagree with her insinuation – the lady conveys a lot without saying much – that original songs should be left alone. As long as the following two conditions are met, I think cover songs are great:

  1. Credit – The original should be given credit and given credit prominently.
  2. Creative interpretation – It’s no good if the cover version tries to be just like the original.

Here is why I think cover songs are important:

  1. It helps listeners discover new artists and genres and it helps artists span across generations. I bought my first Bob Dylan album because I wanted to find out what the original ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ sounded like (I heard the Guns N’ Roses version first). Every time a new artist covers a Dylan song, a new generation discovers Dylan.
  2. Cover songs unearth hidden gems. My guess is that Asha Bhosle’s reaction would have been more favourable if one of her lesser-known songs had been covered. It took the cover version of ‘Kya Janoon Sajan‘ in “Dil Vil Pyar Vyar’ for me to discover the beautiful original sung by Lata Mangeshkar. (In fact, all songs in ‘Dil Vil Pyar Vyar‘ are wonderful covers of R.D. Burman songs.)
  3. Sometimes, just sometimes, the cover can improve on the original. If I say, ‘Black Magic Woman‘, ‘All Along the Watchtower’ and ‘The Man Who Sold the World’, do you think Santana, Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana; or Fleetwood Mac, Bob Dylan and David Bowie? Can you think of a world without these cover songs?
  4. Cover songs help new artists stand their ground while they establish themselves. Not my personal favourite, but ever heard of a band called Boyzone?

We don’t have enough cover songs in India. I am not talking about plagiarized music (copying without permission/credit), renditions with no creativity (artists trying to sound like the original) or remixes that add gobbledygook (or jhankaar beats or whatever) to the original. We have plenty of those. I am talking about musicians taking an original with permission, imparting it their voice and style and making it their own.