a thoughtful discussion about music


Covers: Art they or aren't they?

Today we're going to be discussing the music of Cat Power and more specifically the wealth of songs that she has covered throughout her career. Cat Power, or Chan Marshall (age 39) has grown to be a fairly widely known singer/songwriter for her emotional breathy vocals, minimalist style, and simple but arousing guitar parts. She has produced nine records ranging from her first, Dear Sir, which exemplifies her grungy start, playing in Brooklyn warehouses; to her latest, Jukebox, which includes much more up-beat, polished, jazz and blues inspired songs such as "Aretha, Sing One for Me".

Though her style is one of originality--mixing the feelings of grunge and old blues or jazz--within all of the albums that Chan has made there are a large amount of songs thrown in that are not originals. In 2000 she came out with The Covers Record, in which she she recreates the songs of musicians including The Rolling Stones, Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, Moby Grape, Smog, Nina Simone, Lou Reed and even herself.

To get more down deep into these songs and trying to figure out why or even if cover songs can be considered art, I am going to be
comparing one specific cover by Chan to the original version. Things I would like to discuss are questions such as: What happens when an artist's source for content starts somewhere outside of them? How can a musician creating covers get their audience to take them seriously? Can a cover ever be art?

The album begins with a song that we have all heard, but that Chan Marshall has rendered somewhat unrecognizable. The first track, "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction", originally a Rolling Stones classic, begins with a simple, but beautiful guitar part and Chan's calm, emotive, and almost haunting voice. The first feeling and device that she seems to completely alter in the song is the pace. She has taken it down (more than) a few notches, losing the up-beat, repetitive tempo that the song originally had. While the Stones version makes you sway your hips and want to dance around the room, Marshall's cover draws you into a state of calm or contemplation.

In the last verse of the song she sings the lines, "When I'm riding around the globe, and I'm doing this, and I'm signing that, and I'm trying, and I'm trying". She seems to be professing the lyrics to the listener with a sensibility and passion, which is quite different from the version by the Stones. Jagger sings the lyrics with a far more blunt tone, referring more to that of protest and frustration.

Marshall's subtle but expressive singing style is a huge attribution to the emotions expressed in the lyrics. Also by including only her own acoustic guitar part in the song, the minimal style places a larger emphasis on the lyrics themselves instead of creating a greater musical landscape to get lost in.

The Rolling Stones song, "Satisfaction" is played in restaurants and bars around the nation and is known as a quintessential song of rebellion against consumerism and the status quo. Released in 1965 it has a very specific context that it belongs to. Cat Power's covers are often from artists such as the Stones or Bob Dylan, musicians who have become idols in our popular culture, even reaching into today.

Even though she chooses these artists that are constantly covered and played, the songs she re-creates do not seems to be simply tributes to them. There is a sense that in the way that she strips down the lyrics and music of these songs, she exposes parts of them that were once more difficult to pull out.

*I of course have to admit that as an avid Cat Power listener and I fan of a lot of slower, emotive music, my writing might be somewhat swayed. Because of this fact I would really enjoy other's opinions on the topic, including the bringing up of other covers and reactions.

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