August 10, 2019

Cover songs have disappeared, while movies & TV are all remakes

I've started looking more systematically into whether cover songs choose original versions that were from a matching phase of the 15-year cultural excitement cycle. Probably won't have the full results and discussion for a few days.

But I did notice something striking so far -- there hasn't been a single cover song to make the year-end charts since 2006 ("Life Is a Highway"). That ends a tradition of cover songs being popular.

Even more bizarrely, this is the same period during which all hit TV shows and movies have become remakes, reboots, and other derivative forms.

What's the difference?

Songs are lyrical and more personally tied to their creators, whereas narratives are more impersonal and only loosely tied to their creators (except where the narrative is considered the distinctive work of an auteur).

Songs are also more tightly defined formally -- by their melody and lyrics, whose alterations turn it into a different song. Narratives are more loosely defined, with an overarching plot, themes, and character types, which can be altered somewhat without turning it into an entirely different story.

So, covering a song commits you more to the efforts of someone else, and is less of a showcase of your individuality. Remaking a movie requires less faithful of a commitment, and allows more individuality to show.

Whether the void of original ideas during the 21st century, and the rise of individuality since roughly 1980, is due to the production or consumption side does not matter here. The point is that, although the culture overall seems bereft of new ideas among producers, and/or uninterested in them at the mass audience level, the two types of media are reacting in opposite ways to the same trends.

In both of them, the makers want to showcase their individual awesomeness, despite a lack of originality. Movie makers can dress up someone else's child in their own individual styling and pass it off as their own creation, while songwriters cannot because everyone has such a narrowly defined expectation of what that other person's child is supposed to be like.


  1. There could be a much simpler explanation. Having done a bit of studio and production work, I can't say that most songs from previous cycles would be very easy to translate into the contemporary top of the pops sound; the stylistic change in pop music has been huge, essentially adopting the forms and techniques of pop rap/r'n'b. And modern pop rap /r'n'b has so little fundamental variation that the only way to genuinely differentiate songs is through the words. Of course, it's not much of a cover if you change the words. Modern pop still references older hits, in a sense conveying the feeling that covers evoke, but through variations of quotes, sampled snippets, or simply name dropping older songs or artists. I'm inclined to think that in this case, it's down to the simple fact that rap has altered pop, and rap is different from rock.

    1. I notice Country sounds completely different than previous decades yet they name drop past hits and artists as much as any genre.

  2. That doesn't explain why rap doesn't cover rap, or R&B cover R&B. There's now 30 years of rap hits, and MTV Classic shows re-runs of Yo! MTV Raps from 25-30 years ago.

    "Finesse" stylistically covered late '80s New Jack Swing, and the video refs In Living Color (still in re-runs on basic cable).

    So why not cover an actual New Jack Swing song from the late '80s? Or during the early 2010s, whose atmosphere was similar to the early '80s, why didn't some R&B group cover "Candy Girl" by New Edition?

    Then there's the electronic dance music that does not cover its own ancestors of 20-30 years ago either.

    The absence of covers holds within each genre, so it's not simply a case of one genre fading and a stylistically dissimilar one taking its place.


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