After the peak of high-energy music in the 1980s, the hip new thing was to play low-key acoustic covers of songs that originally had electric instruments and layer upon layer of slick studio production effects. During the '90s, MTV put together a popular series of such concerts that exploited the trend, MTV Unplugged, and their sister channel did likewise with VH1 Storytellers.
The reasoning was that the bombast of the original hit required not just a toning down of the intensity of the performance, but a change in the instrumentation -- perhaps because electric guitars suggested electricity, high voltage, etc.? It seemed straightforward at the time, but it's not as though there weren't electronic songs that still created a minimalist atmosphere -- "Cars," "Pop Muzik," and so on.
Those minimal synthpop songs are danceable, though, and the whole point of a low-key performance is to keep your body still and get you to appreciate the music on a (relatively) more cerebral level. But then there were minimal and non-danceable electronic songs like "Song to the Siren" by the Cocteau Twins for This Mortal Coil. That one was a cover, too, showing that there was nothing incompatible between the atmosphere that the Unplugged trend was aiming for, and plugged-in instruments.
I stumbled upon a recent example of a cover of the Backstreet Boys' mega-hit "I Want It That Way". The original is about as catchy as pop music could have been in the doldrums of the late '90s, though it does sound overly-produced. Most people will probably remember this as a techno-pop song, but the main riff is from an acoustic guitar, and there's a piano as well. This shows that it's not incompatible for an over-the-top dance-pop hit to use mostly acoustic instruments.
The cover version is by Charli XCX, an electropop singer whose recent hits you've probably heard without knowing her name. First impression of what they're channeling -- "In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins mixed with "True Colors" by Cyndi Lauper, as sung by Gwen Stefani.
The only instrumentation is a pair of synthesizers and an electronic drum. It sounds more "unplugged" than the original, despite substituting electronic for acoustic instruments, because they're sparse and atmospheric rather than heavily layered and in-your-face. That is more important to create a low-key version; the synthetic timbre of the instruments doesn't make us feel like we're listening to a bombastic chart-topper. The slowed tempo also helps to change the mood.
In fact, the only exaggerated thing in the cover is the vocal embellishment, admittedly making it somewhat harsh to listen to. I think if she studied Phil Collins' voice better on "In the Air Tonight," it would come off much better. Simpler, cleaner, gradually escalating and receding in intensity. But then she's a Millennial, so I don't know if she can speak in anything other than mumbling, vocal fry, and tantrum-growling.
Although this is hardly the greatest re-interpretation you've ever heard, they recorded it for a cover song project by the Onion AV Club, rather than putting the most thought and effort into it for a track on one of their own albums. It is a pretty clever rendition of such a bubblegummy pop hit, though, and it's refreshing to hear an electronic approach to the minimalist cover song.
We live in another period of over-produced bombastic dance-y poppy mega-hits, and it would be nice to hear understated cover versions that still used electronic instruments, rather than the usual formula of acoustic = low-key.
Bonus: Au Revoir Simone performs an understated electronic cover of "Fade Into You" by Mazzy Star. The original was not a super-slick studio production effort, but did have a heavier emotional intensity than the cute little cover version. What sound are they going for here? It sounds like Joy Division plays for a children's tea party. Prim post-punk.