Enough with the Sad White Guy Piano Covers!
A couple of weeks back, I was sat in the cinema preparing to watch a film when a trailer for Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut American Pastoral came on. It’s a very immediately arresting trailer, starting with the quintessentially American image of a small-town post-office, its owner proceeding to begin his day by unfurling and raising high the American flag before heading back inside, only for the establishment to suddenly explode, the victim of an act of terrorism. As opening hooks go, it’s a damn good one, I was intrigued and I nowadays don’t remain seated for the trailers (finding they spoil too much of the films they are supposed to advertise). I wished to view more.
Then those descending minor-key piano notes came in. You know the ones, the ones that have become ubiquitous over the last decade to the point of causing immediate eye-rolling whenever they appear. I sighed, knowing exactly what was coming next, and 16 bars later… “All around me are familiar faces…” The trailer for American Pastoral chose to follow an attention-grabbing opening sequence with yet another sad piano cover of Tears for Fears’ 1982 hit single, “Mad World,” a gambit so played out even back in 2008 that Battlefield: Bad Company was taking swipes at the practice. Now, in defence of the singer, Jasmine Thompson, this particular cover was actually performed, recorded, and released back in 2013, so it’s not like this particular horse is still being beaten to death… that is until you remember Amazon’s trailers for The Man in the High Castle featured yet another solemn “Mad World” cover, this one drowned in endless reverb for faux-poignancy, and which was recorded last year.
This is not a complaint about trailers constantly going to the “Mad World” well, don’t worry. Complaints about “Mad World” oversaturation are just as boring and predictable as “Mad World” cues and covers by this point. No, instead I am here today to make a completely different and almost equally as played out plea to the music industry at large: ENOUGH WITH THE SAD WHITE GUY PIANO COVERS! Seriously, just stop! A chill ran down my spine recently when I realised that I am now anywhere from a month to a month-and-a-half away from this year’s John Lewis holiday advert and yet another bastardisation of an upbeat song with sad lyrics getting fed through the Sad White Guy Piano Cover machine by imbeciles who don’t understand the joys of musical juxtaposition.
Or, to put things in more current terms, take “Dancing On My Own.” Originally a minor hit for constantly underrated Swedish pop artist Robyn, “Dancing On My Own” is a melancholy but upbeat dancefloor anthem about heartbreak, longing, and more than a little jealous stalking. It takes place at a club and, whilst the mood isn’t completely upbeat, the music represents the story being told and the conflicting emotions by being legitimately danceable and more than a little cathartic. Robyn’s voice trembles with palpable emotion but doesn’t overpower the track, occasionally receding into the mix because the juxtaposition between her emotional pain and the uncaring or indifferent musical world surrounding her is the whole point of the song; it’s why the song is a near-as-dammit modern classic.
In 2015, a Britain’s Got Talent auditionee called Calum Scott performed the song on the show. He released it as a single this year. Compare the version you heard up there with Scott’s version and see if you can spot where everything goes wrong, it shouldn’t take you much effort.
Robyn’s version is unique, it works in layers. That disconnect between the heartbreak in her vocals and her lyrics, and the escapist euphoria in the music is what makes that song so powerful. Robyn is dancing on her own because she’s in a club trying to lose her pain in dance. Calum Scott, by contrast, is sulking around in his home like a sullen teenager. By stripping out that duality – of raw emotional pain and freeing escapist pleasure, of the apparent contradiction in the music and the lyrics – Scott’s version is just yet another Sad White Guy Piano Cover. Maybe there was a time once when Sad White Guy Piano Covers were novel and had actual meaning, when recognising that upbeat songs sometimes had sad lyrics and that certain people only fully realise this when you strip out the upbeat music. But nowadays they are super rote and incredibly unnecessary, acting as nothing more than self-aggrandising vocal showcases for the singers. Condensed promotional highlight reels for “listen to just how amazing and emotional my singing voice is!” of which Scott’s “Dancing On My Own” is a textbook example of.
(Before we move on, a little clarification: Sad White Guy Piano Covers do not specifically have to be Sad White Guys on pianos. It’s more of an idea. The Sad White Guy might be a woman, or an ethnicity other than Caucasian, or their chosen instrument might be an acoustic guitar rather than a piano, but the idea is the same. It refers to a cover that purposefully takes an upbeat, fast-paced, or positive-sounding song with miserable lyrics, strips away the upbeat music that creates that juxtaposition and replaces it with a sparse, often dirge-y arrangement that focuses the listener’s attention on the voice and the lyrics. These are almost always creatively bankrupt and cynically designed, lacking in any unique personality outside of a novelty that has long since died and a voice that is almost never strong enough to transcend the hackneyed set-up ostensibly designed to sell it.)
Again, there was once a time when such a style of cover may have been vital or exciting or interesting, but that time is not now. Nowadays, the Sad White Guy Piano Cover is an inevitable occurrence on the musical calendar and about as necessary as a Sad White Guy Piano Cover of “Mr. Brightside” by The Killers (of which at least one exists) or a Sad White Guy Piano Cover of “Hey Ya!” by Outkast (of which at least one disappointingly exists). So who’s to blame for this seemingly undying trend? Like most bad things that have happened this century, one could place the blame at the feet of Donnie Darko, where the “Sad Mad World Cover” infestation first reared its ugly head thanks to Michael Andrews and Gary Jules’ unlikely UK Christmas #1 (beating out this brilliant Darkness song which I’m still bitter about). You could also point to the rise in popularity of BBC Radio 1’s Live Lounge – technically intended to allow artists to put their own spin on songs that seemingly don’t fit their usual style, like Arctic Monkeys’ charmingly shambolic cover of Girls Aloud’s “Love Machine” or Fall Out Boy desecrating “Uptown Funk” for everybody else, but mostly resulting in boring-ass shit like Justin Bieber covering Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” or Kodaline murdering three upbeat pop songs for the price of one. And, of course, one can’t forget those atrocious John Lewis adverts that have been reliably butchering classics in the most boring of ways since 2008.
Trying to assign blame, however, is quite futile, since this subgenre was existing well before it got pushed into the mainstream to be cynically exploited by every last possible budding musician, and gets away from the overall point. Sad White Guy Piano Covers don’t suck because they’re overexposed, they suck because they’re just bad cover versions, period. A truly good cover version is neither a straightforward cover version of a pre-existing song, nor is it just stripping it down to the lyrics, melody, and chords and playing them on a piano or acoustic guitar. A truly good cover version sees a band or artist taking a pre-existing song and attempting to re-interpret it in their own unique musical style. They may not always be great, and they’re almost never better than the original, but they can cleverly change the meaning and tease out new dimensions that the original didn’t or couldn’t tap into.
As an example: a few months back (which was also what first set this article rattling around in my head), I saw a Glaswegian punk band called Baby Strange. About halfway through their set, they launched into a cover of Peter Bjorn & John’s seminal 2006 hit “Young Folks.” You know “Young Folks,” it was everywhere throughout 2007 and hasn’t really gone away since, with good reason. PB&J’s version is a gorgeous ode to young love, its instrumentation sparse but warm and inviting, its tempo steady and certain, the young love conveyed being wistful and quietly confident, of two lovers lost in their own world without a care for what’s happening around them and content to just lay together for as long as they can blocking out the noise.
What Baby Strange did, as you’ve probably gathered if you actually watched that embed above this paragraph, is speed the track up by approximately 200MPH, layer it with punk distortion, and play it in a purposefully sloppy and barely-held-together manner. Punk, in other words, and by doing so they’ve brilliantly twisted the song into a different touch than the original without bastardising its general meaning, like Calum Scott did with Robyn. Both versions are about young love, but whereas Peter Bjorn & John’s version is focussed on that relaxing moment where two lovers just lay down holding hands and block out the world around them for as long as they can manage, Baby Strange’s cover is instead focussed on young lust, of two lovers utterly infatuated with one another and trying to escape from the noise around them so they can start fucking each other’s brains out. It’s the same song, it’s arguably even the same relationship, but both versions take place in different parts of that relationship: Baby Strange that initial heady rush of a relationship built on sexual attraction and lust, Peter Bjorn & John that moment where you mutually realise that this relationship is serious and that neither of you are bailing from it any time soon.
Another example: “Nightvision” by Daft Punk. By Daft Punk, it’s a gorgeous little interval track, bridging the relentless hit parade of Discovery’s opening third and the more emotional middle third that follows it. Riffing off of 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” in order to create an emotional collapse from what came prior and let the listener wallow briefly, whilst also providing suitable backing to one of the darkest passages in the narrative of the accompanying anime, Interstella 5555. By The Twelves – and, for the record, I consider it a cover rather than a remix – it’s a modern disco stomper. Going extroverted where Daft Punk goes introverted, blowing up the production to a true disco size with a groovy bassline and swelling strings and a four-to-the-floor beat, releasing where the original remains closed-off. It also, brilliantly, remains true to Daft Punk by being truly disco, the very genre that the Discovery album predominately homages.
That’s not to say that applying the conventions of Sad White Guy Piano Covers to other songs is inherently worthless, or that they are incapable of producing great covers. What I am saying is that there needs to be some value gained from doing so, a net positive and reason beyond pure vocal power or pointing out the juxtaposition inherent in the original. For example, Placebo’s cover of “Running Up That Hill” has all the tenants of a Sad White Guy Piano Cover, but transcends the negative effects that typically plague the subgenre because the feel of the song is switched to something more masculine compared to Kate Bush’s more feminine original, and Placebo (particularly lyricist Brian Moloko) frequently grapple with sexuality and feelings of gender dysphoria in their own songs, which they are able to bring out and hit upon in their cover.
By contrast, Lily Allen’s “Somewhere Only We Know” does absolutely nothing that the original Keane version didn’t already accomplish. In fact, in many ways, it makes it worse: Keane songs are already on the verge of being emotionally overdone as is, and pushing the tone even more maudlin by stripping out the drums but bringing in a super-solemn string section just tips the track over the line from “pretty” to “obnoxiously self-involved.” And whilst Lily Allen is a woman of many talents, raw emotional vocal power really is not one of them which leaves the song just sagging limpidly for nearly four minutes achieving nothing. There is ultimately no reason for the song to exist in this manner, save for blatant cynical cash-grabbing through pathetic attempts at emotional manipulation (that clearly somehow still work), which is what makes it so utterly worthless.
That’s ultimately what annoys me about the Sad White Guy Piano Cover more than anything. You’ll get bad cover versions everywhere, even if the artist in question has genuinely tried to re-interpret the song in their own style, sometimes because doing so is an inherently awful idea – nu-metal/alt-rock covers of David Bowie songs are strong arguments for the return of capital punishment – and other times because the band or the genre just doesn’t fit the track – which is why Disturbed’s take of “The Sound of Silence” is just plain bad. But at least there’s a risk there, people tried to do something interesting, to try re-interpreting a classic song, and sometimes that pays off and sometimes it doesn’t. But the Sad White Guy Piano Cover has no risk, it’s not trying to do anything interesting or actually re-interpret a classic. It’s just an ego-stroking exercise designed to sell an often wildly-over-singing voice that’s absolutely not worth the spotlight the performer thinks it needs. It’s gotten out of control and needs to be reigned back in.
I, for one, would prefer to live in a world where for every turgid Calum Scott interpretation of “Dancing On My Own,” there are 100 covers like Limp Bizkit’s version of “Faith” and not just because Limp Bizkit’s version of “Faith” is still the funniest joke in all of human existence nearly 2 decades on.
Callie Petch goes up like prices at Christmas.