I love how Cat Power reinvented – or rediscovered – the covers album in the mid-2000’s. This is the thing that everybody does now, like a musical version of the trend for vintage fashion. But it seemed very subversive and anti-pop in 2006~2008 era, just as it had when Bowie, Nilsson and Ferry shook the songwriter-as-demigod cult in the early 1970’s. Doing covers is really all about imprinting other people’s material with your own persona. Having said all that, the song that’s making me wax poetic is actually an original composition by Chan Marshall herself, eased in among classics by Dylan and Holiday. What’s great is how well it eases in. It’s the right intimate mood, the right contemplative thoughts. Who is Bobby, in this context, I wonder. Is it Bobby D himself? Or just some vague Bobby who serves as a songwriter’s casual muse? There’s no right answer, of course, but it’s nice to ask the question. Jukebox, in short, is the kind of record that makes one muse about muses.
Gender-flipped, radically reconstituted covers of hoary male narratives is one of my favorite subgenres. I love the idea of finding something intimate, feminine and modern in something tough and masculine from another era. Cat Power didn’t invent that idea, but she was doing it before it became trendy. She really knows how to weave her own narrative out of narratives written by people with wildly different lives and points of view. Her cover of Hank Williams’ Ramblin’ Man is a classic exercise in finding new truth in old tales. Nothing represents old-school rugged manliness like the Highwaymen: Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, outlaw country’s grand old men. The Highwaymen were formed as a reminder of what outlaw country used to be, before country music became just another bland, pandering, million-dollar pumping mainstream industry. They weren’t shy about leaning on leathery cowboy motifs, a reminder that in their day real men did really manly things, with horses and/or motorcycles, and they did it while day-drunk on whiskey-cocaine highballs. They were broadly implying that being a so-called bad guy living outside the law was some kind of moral high ground because at least they hadn’t sold their souls working for the man or whatever. In practice it just meant a lot of drunk driving, neglected families and money woes, but it’s a nice all-American fantasy of rugged individualism. Those guys probably intended riding off on a silver stallion as a metaphor for refusing to go to rehab (real men don’t go to rehab, real men die of cirrhosis like God intended!) but what does it mean for a woman living in today-times? Obviously it’s still a narrative of personal liberation, of freeing oneself from the woes of mundane life and zooming off, one way or another, into a lonelier, grubbier, but more self-actualized life. Which honestly is still the same message, delivered in sexier tones. Wherever you personal silver stallion takes you, saddle up and ride it as far is it goes.
If you haven’t heard of or don’t remember Cat Power, just note that today’s music scene owes her a lot. Seventeen years ago she pretty much singlehandedly started the trend of feminizing manly rock songs, thus paving the way for acts like Nouvelle Vague and everybody and their dog’s covers album. In 2000 a girl with a breathy voice covering (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction – without the chorus! Sacrebleu! – was both a novelty and a sacrilege. Now every cock rock anthem is ripe to be reinterpreted as a female lament. Personally, I love this trend. This is one trend I can get behind. Obviously, that’s partly because I love unexpected covers. Every sacred cow needs to be seen with fresh eyes (so to speak) every once in a while, even if the results aren’t necessarily spectacular. I also love that women’s perspectives have come to the forefront in pop music, and co-opting classic male tropes is a particularly cheeky aspect of that movement. Cat Power isn’t about to make me set aside my feelings for The Rolling Stones, and she isn’t going to make anyone forget Hank Williams either. That isn’t the point. The point of these covers is twofold. First of all, these tropes are as old as time; Hank Williams didn’t invent the idea of the rambling man, the rambling man has been a character in the popular imagination for centuries before Hank Williams came along. These tropes are tired because they’ve been repeated over and over by same kinds of people – men in cowboy hats, men with electric guitars, men with mandolins, angry young men with long hair – turning themselves and their stories into cliches. But the second part of what makes a smart cover relevant is the reminder that these tropes that we’re so used to are bigger than the artists that perform them. Underneath the cliches are stories and ideas that have hung on because they’re universal. They don’t have to be told by men in cowboy hats, they can be told by anyone. Is the cover as good or as important as the original? No, and it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes removing the specificity of expected context is necessary to make a piece of art fresh again, to remind us why it’s art and why we cared about it in the first place.