Every Monday in Listening Closer, Jeffrey Overstreet opens up the art of songcraft, sharing his own musical experiences, interpretations, and epiphanies, while soliciting alternate interpretations and discussion.

“Here’s a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles,” said Bono. “But we’re stealing it back!”

Then U2 tore into a blistering rendition of the Fab Four’s “Helter Skelter.” So began the band’s divisive 1988 rock tour documentary Rattle and Hum.

Beatles fans will argue about whether U2’s theft was a successful heist or a botched job by overreaching amateurs. They may just as well debate the merits of Jack White’s remake of U2’s “Love Is Blindness.” And so they’ll continue the time-honored tradition of arguing about cover songs.

Cover songs are often controversial. Is the artist respecting the original? Subverting it? Reinventing it? Completely misunderstanding it?

Take Leonard Cohen’s legendary lament “Hallelujah.”

It became twice as famous when Jeff Buckley covered it, although if you listen carefully, the lyrics have been revised, subtly affecting the meaning of the song and sending Cohen and Buckley fans into everlasting debate about which version is superior.

I don’t know about you, but as much fun as I had watching the movie Shrek, the whole Dreamworks affair was nearly spoiled by a preposterously out-of-place application of the song.

Then the song was used even more disgracefully during Zack Snyder‘s Watchmen. I’ll refrain from posting that here, as I’m sympathetic to anyone who calls Snyder’s abuse of the song “pornographic.”

To make matters worse, there’s a Christian-music rewrite of the lyrics that drains the song of its darker implications—implications that ring true to the bittersweet turns in the story of the troubled King David. I’ve seen a lot of Christians on Facebook celebrating this “Christmas version” as if it “redeems” a flawed song. But if you’re like me, you’re more inclined to feel that a crime has been committed against a great work of art.

I don’t mean to say that artists shouldn’t tease out the possibilities of great songs by playing around with new renditions. But when a complicated, mysterious song is rewritten into something blunt, straightforward, and sentimental . . . well, it makes me hope someone will accept the challenge to “steal it back.”

(As if the Christmas version isn’t bad enough, there’s also an Easter version.)

The re-use and abuse of “Hallelujah” has reached such extremes that there’s even a book on the subject: The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah.”

If I were to start listing all of the covers of “Hallelujah,” good and bad, we’d be here for hours. I have to agree with Leonard Cohen’s own words on the subject:

I was just reading a review of a movie called Watchmen that uses it, and the reviewer said “Can we please have a moratorium on Hallelujah in movies and television shows?” And I kind of feel the same way. I think it’s a good song, but I think too many people sing it.

Please, somebody . . . make it stop!

Just stop.

* * *

“Stop.” Hey . . . that reminds me of something.

The new album by Bettye LaVette, produced by Joe Henry, features some excellent test cases when it comes to the subject of cover songs. The album—titled Worthy for its inclusion of a Mary Gauthier cover—boasts some truly imaginative renditions of classics. There’s a Beatles cover—“Wait”—that’s even more audacious than U2’s big-screen Beatles recovery. She knocks a new version of Bob Dylan’s “Unbelievable” out of the park. Then there’s an almost unrecognizable version of “Undamned” from my favorite Over the Rhine record, The Long Surrender (where it was sung by Karin Bergquist and Lucinda Williams).

And then there’s LaVette’s performance of Joe Henry’s own “Stop,” from his album Scar.

“Stop,” as a matter of fact, gives us a prime example of a song that seems new every time it resurfaces. Whatever the singer is talking about, it’s more important to him than love, than the sun shining, than the changing seasons. It suggests a loss of all reason and perspective. An addiction. It seems . . . unhealthy. But depending on how you sing it, it might be about drug addiction, it might be about a lover’s obsession, or. . . who knows?

Henry’s own version—which is still my favorite—is a sort of tango.

But then there’s this smoky, sultry performance by Lizz Wright from the 2002 record Dreaming Wide Awake. I think it’s fantastic.

The song played a part in an episode of TV’s The Sopranos, but I can’t include that scene here due to a variety of HBO-quality content. (It takes place in a strip-club, and it involves Tony Soprano bashing somebody’s head repeatedly with a bottle.) I was trying to figure out how the song was relevant for the scene until Soprano’s violent outburst, when I heard myself thinking “Somebody make him stop!”

One surefire way to lose track of time is to start searching for covers of your favorite songs by artists you’ve never discovered before. A quick search led me to this lovely performance, by Lydia Schulz and Rene Flächsenhaar.

. . . and this live performance by a former contestant on The Voice, Karina Iglesias and the Nu-Thang.

Or this by George Psomiadis . . .

Which brings us to the most popular and widely distributed version of the song (which she titles “Don’t Tell Me”)—the one that Madonna recorded for her album Music, which came out in 2000.

Madonna told Interview that the inspiration “came from my brother-in-law, Joe Henry, who’s married to my sister. He’s one of my all-time favorite people in the whole world, and a true poet, a singer/songwriter himself.” On her revisions to the song, she says, “I just took it and ran with it and finished writing it and then Mirwais [the producer] and I changed the music. But what I loved about it—I just love the defiance of it.”

Okay, sure—I think we all know that Madonna has built her career with an attitude of defiance. But really, what does she think the song is about? She continues: “To me it is a romantic song. Just, you know, rip my skin off, do not tell me who I should love, or how I should love. Don’t tell me to give up. To me, in a way it’s like that Frank Sinatra song, ‘If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.’”

You can hear interviews with both Joe Henry and Madonna about this unlikely rendition here:

In a Washington Post article (preserved here), Richard Lieby said of Madonna’s successful rendition that Henry is “pleased to take a share of the limelight, and even more delighted to receive songwriting royalties, which he says will help pay for his two children’s orthodontia.” He adds that Henry “offers nothing but praise” for it. Then . . .

But he also humbly realizes that “people just don’t listen to lyrics,” and that words matter little in the overall equation of pop success. “Are these strange words or not? They couldn’t have cared less,” Henry says. “For them being at a Madonna show is not so much like a musical event, it’s like watching a parade.”

Then, well . . . this happened.

Now we’re seeing a new kind of cover: The cover-song mash-up. That’s where somebody, somewhere, with a mysterious amount of free time on his hands, tries to merge disparate recordings of a song into one. Someday, this emerging art form might lead to something innovative and awesome.

But this time? No. Not yet.

I guess what I really want to say is this: Joe Henry has shown extraordinary respect in his comments about his sister-in-law’s Frankenstein Monster version of his song. I’m not sure that I can manage such politeness. I think it’s hard to deny that Madonna and Miley diminished—I’d even go so far as to say they disrespected—Henry’s dark, soulful lament.

But thank you, Bettye LaVette, for stealing it back!


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