The Precariousness of Covering the Beatles

Having had a chance to reflect on Tuesday’s American Idol Top 12 performances, featuring music from the Lennon/McCartney songbook, I feel I can now properly and more accurately express myself. The Beatles are likely the most covered band of all time. But for some reason, some covers just work and others just don’t.

Take, for example, Katharine “Kat” McPhee’s take on George Harrison’s Abbey Road masterpiece, “Something.” No doubt McPhee can sing, she can actually hold a note in tune longer than most the “most talented top 12 evar!” But the song was scary bad. Why? First of all, she committed the cardinal sin of adding her own lyrics to a Beatles by closing the song with “…it’s in the way he moves” over the song’s signature lick. Secondly, she changed “she” to “he,” which is another no-no. And lastly, she kept the song mostly the same while changing some of the intonations punching different syllables. In a package, it was painful.

On the other hand, Ramiele Malubay’s take on “In My Life,” universally panned as “boring” was actually a nice, albeit unadventurous and sleepy. It was unintrusive. Compare that to David Hernandez, whose run-infused, manic take on “I Saw Her Standing There” was anything but vanilla – it actually hurt my ears to hear it. Kristy Lee Cook – aka “Wide Stance” – took on 8 Days a Week in a manner I thought might have suited the song well if the particular arrangement wasn’t so frenetic. In exchange for the disasterous tempo and insane over-country-tude, she delivered a performance so embrassing that YouTube ought to ban it as “offensive.” The only redeeming quality was that she let the song end with its signature guitar outro instead of assaulting that piece too.

David Cook’s “Eleanor Rigby” – no doubt slightly flavored by the version by Thrice – was inspiring. Much like his masterful redux of Lionel Ritchie’s “Hello,” it was a mostly fresh and experimental take on a song, done in a different light. Likewise, Chikezie’s interesting take on “She’s a Women” was a blast, and really let him shine as an artist.

Elsewhere in the crowd, Carly Smithson showed again that she really can sing like Ann Wilson with her caffeine-infused version of “Come Together” and Syesha Mercado gave us an uneventful performance of “Got To Get You Into My Life” that committed no crime other than being forgettable. Meanwhile, Jason Castro’s understated “I Feel Fine” was solid enough to remind us it’s a great song, but not astound.

What do we see? Someone who tries to stylize a Beatles song as is will never do it justice. It’s either you add your own layer or it flops, because no artisrt will ever do it better than the Beatles, if only because the Beatles version is the definitive version stuck in everyone’s head. Doing a Beatles song as they did it with only minor variation will never bring you success. In the case of Malubay, it led to a dreary take of a great song. In the case of Hernandez, it led to his ouster. But with Cook and Chikezie, the rearrangements led to universal praise.

Covering the Beatles is one of those operations that can go either way. A re-envisioning of a song is often rewarded (D. Cook), but not always (K.L. Cook). A simple recreation can be successful (Castro, Smithson) or sleep-inducing (Malubay, Mercado).

No doubt that a live concert is a great place to recreate some Beatles magic – in front of fans and crowds. But when it comes to impressing on a mass scale, your best bet is to leave Beatles songs in someone else’s head – I promise, they’re almost always better there than your version will be.

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