Wednesday, February 01, 2006

When Black Music Happens to White People

There's something about white performers' cover versions of rap and R&B songs that is both compelling and disturbing. Lots of attention was given in the blogosphere to Nina Gordon's NWA cover and Ben Folds' "Bitches Ain't Shit". I have to admit that I liked the Gourds' bluegrass version of "Gin and Juice". I even used to like the Barenaked Ladies' cover of "Fight the Power".

But even when the intention is to be ironic or clever, are these covers any different from back when Pat Boone would take a Little Richard song, bleed the aggression and transgression from it, and flog its pale corpse before a white audience? Discuss. And what really makes a song "black" or "white"? Is it the performer, or the audience, or something intrinsic to the song itself? Some white performers try to mimic black musical styles, but when the Embarrassment tackle Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop til You Get Enough", they do it in a way that is unabashedly white, and the song succeeds on its own terms.

Despite my reservations, I sometimes like the cover better than the original. (Except
"Fight the Power".) I've lost respect for Kelis, and I try to avoid the multimedia conglomerate that is Beyonce, but I can enjoy their songs translated into guitar rock (even if the British rapper on "Crazy in Love" is weak). The Pictures are an Australian band led by Davey Lane of You Am I. If you download just one of these, make it Heros Severum. Like their Athens neighbors We Versus the Shark, they are taking post/math/whatever rock into a new, danceable direction. Even my kids like it. Heros Severum are a trio with two guitarists and a drummer. If you said their music had no bottom end, that would be a bassless accusation (har de har). There is a new Heros Severum CD on the Two Sheds label.

Heros Severum: Get Yr Freak On
Snow Petrol: Crazy in Love
The Pictures: Milkshake
The Embarrassment: Don't Stop til You Get Enough


At 2/07/2006 12:00 AM , Anonymous Rick said...

That Embarrassment song is great! Exactly as you described: they translate the song into another genre, and it works and there's no smugness behind it. The Heros Severum thing just wasn't my bag - it's pretty much a straight cover minus the Missy Elliot ghetto charm. But I would perhaps be interested in hearing some of their original numbers.

I'm feelin' it, cuz. Thank you.

At 2/07/2006 9:10 AM , Blogger jon manyjars said...

Thanks for stopping by, Rick! Pitchfork has a new Heros Severum track available for download, and there are several at the band's label, Two Sheds (, where you can also buy their records! You can also listen to more songs at The first HS album, "Wonderful Educated Bear", is available at eMusic, as is the essential Embarrassment compilation "Heyday".


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