There are lots of topics that will stir up an audience and get them buzzing. For reference, check out one the most successful posts ever on JacoBLOG: the great Sheri Lynch (“The Bob & Sheri Show”) who wrote “The Top 5 Radio Topics That Get The Phones Ringing” back in early 2017. Since then, the post has racked up north of 150,000 views. For our blog, these are “Serial” numbers.
Of course, one of the reasons Sheri's post resonated so well is that its topic reflected pop culture, the zeitgeist of what drives us to engage with each other – or in her and Bob Lacey's case, a highly successful, long-running show. Among her favorite can't-miss phone starters, Sheri mentioned “My ex and I still live together,” and a favorite of mine, “Money you're hiding from your partner.”
Of course, relationship cheating, pet stories, and anything to do with money is fair game. Our most-COVID workspace drama provides contemporary context on the old issue of getting along with others – including the boss – at work.
Not that I'm itching to write a prep sheet (I'm not), there are simply some topics that are fun and productive, leading to great phones and social media interaction. And one my pet peeves is cover songs.
There are too many of them. And as we've seen the past couple decades on TV and in the film industry, “covers” have gone from interesting novelties to the only concepts worthy of funding. Reboots, spinoffs, prequels, sequels – you name it – they're all one form or another of a “cover.”
Will the new network version of “Quantum Leap” perform better than the original? Who knows? And who cares? Most of those who watch this reboot on NBC-TV probably will be new to this show and it's clever time and face shifting original.
The idea of “covers” ostensibly got its start in the world of music. Covers were always part of the scene. The most covered songs of all time? Good on-air trivia question. (Answer at the end of this post.)
White artists (in)famously covered many R&B songs, originally recorded by black singers and groups. In the process, they overshadowed the composers and performers who found themselves in the musical shadows.
And there have been times when innovative covers have performed better than the originals, including Manfred Mann doing a very different version of “Blinded By The Light,” originally a Bruce Springsteen song. There was Jimi Hendrix's cover of Dylan's “All Along the Watchtower” or Clapton recording his rendition of the Bob Marley reggae hit, “I Shot the Sheriff.”
When we enter a phase like we're in now where covers are becoming more prevalent, it is very likely an indicator that musical innovation and invention are not exactly peaking. I don't have the data to back this up, but I'd venture a guess there have been more covers produced in the last decade or so than in most musical periods of the past. It's not a great sign about the future of pop and rock music when recording big hits of the past becomes a trend.
But when an artist decides to cover a past hit, I hope the new version shows signs of risk-taking, rather than simply cloning the original. The concept of recording someone else's song is a safe decision, in and of itself. Being faithful to the original isn't particularly innovative although it is easy.
The point is do something different from the original, remind us of how great it was, but bring out a different interpretation of a song. That's not what Weezer did with Toto's “Africa” back in 2018 although you can't argue with the result. Here's a band that seemed unlikely to cover a song that was decades old originally recorded by a group of studio musicians who never had much of a profile to begin with.
Here's the video, featuring Weird Al Yankovic (which may be the most innovative thing about this cover):
The story goes that Weezer was inspired by “Stranger Things” (hello, Kate Bush) and hearing the Toto original, probably for the first time. Once again, art imitating art.
I liked Disturbed's cover of “The Sound of Silence,” while I thought Post Malone did some incredible work on the entire Nirvana catalogue. And Joe Cocker's version of “With A Little Help From My Friends” stands up well to the Beatles' original from “Sgt. Pepper's.”
When I saw Stevie Nicks get into the act last week, covering Buffalo Springfield‘s iconic “For What It's Worth,” my defenses were already up. The original, written by Stephen Stills, is considered one of the greatest protest songs of all time.
In spite of the 60's purge that's been underway on Classic Hits and Classic Rock stations over the past few years, “For What It's Worth” still tests very, very well. Fans of various ages hear something haunting, foreboding, relevant, and even predictive in the song, not dissimilar to the way Marvin Gaye's “What's Goin' On?” still resonates.
The original is well more than half a century old, and still holds up. And that's something Stevie Nicks was apparently thinking long and hard about when she made the decision to cover it:
— Stevie Nicks (@StevieNicks) September 21, 2022
It is fascinating to gain some insights from the artist about her raison d'être for (re)recording “FWIW.”
Like most songs she records, the song sounds different from the way we hear the original, released way back in 1966. Back then, Vietnam War and civil rights protests were ongoing, and the U.S. had already witnessed the shocking assassination of its President, John F. Kennedy. There would be more to come. Unlike Neil Young's “Ohio” or even Barry McGuire's “Eve of Destruction,” Stills' protest song was gauzier than in other protest songs. The references to the world around him are intentionally vague, perhaps one of the reasons why the song has held up so well. People hear what the want to hear:
“There something happening here but what is is ain't exactly clear…”
In other words, see it for yourself. Make your own judgements especially as people become set in their ways and their dogmas:
“There's battle lines being drawn, nobody's right if everybody's wrong…”
So, “what's going down?”
Stevie's quest to reimagine Stephen Stills' lyrics and soul through “the eyes of a woman” is part of what makes this project compelling. It is also a reminder that musicians have been noticeably absent from the conversation these past few years – out of fear of losing fans or perhaps having little to say. In this bipolar, heated political environment, it is easier to write songs about partying and romance.
Here's the interesting part of Stevie's play with this timeless classic.
There's no video accompanying her haunting cover of “FWIW.” Now, I certainly don't know the plan. The song could simply be another piece of the concert playlist for her new tour. Or maybe the idea is to make it bigger than that. For all I know, the video drops this week.
But until then, we're left to think about Stevie's interpretation of this classic with just audio, perhaps as it should be:
“Stop, hey what's that sound?”
As we know, criticisms of the MTV Era reminded us that once we saw a song's video, those visuals became the main way we “saw the song.” That's certainly the case for tunes like “Sledgehammer,” “Beat It,” and “Old Time Rock n' Roll.” Once you see the dynamic videos produced for songs like these, it's hard to “unsee” them every time you hear the song.
The lack of a artwork, graphics, photos, or old footage to support Stevie's cover of “FWIW” means the interpretation is up to us, each of us seeing the song through our own lens rather than through a music video.
If she ends up releasing a video, those images may make her intentions clearer, but they may also stir up yet another exhausting debate fueled by vitriol coming from zealots from both sides of the spectrum.
”Singing songs and they're carrying signs, mostly sayin' ‘hooray for our side.'”
Frankly, I'm happy there's no video. And my hope is that Stevie keeps the graphics nebulous when she performs “FWIW” in concert. But that's me.
Here's Stevie Nicks' cover of “For What It's Worth,” a song that simply doesn't age. The “video” is labeled as the “official audio.”
What should radio programmers do with it?
If you're a Classic Rock station with any degree of soul, you play it. In rotation.
And don't laugh – I know there isn't a current rotation at most classic-formatted stations. So on my station, I play it once a daypart. I let my staff and listeners talk about it on the morning show and on social. I post it on the website and let visitors vote. How does it compare to the original? What was Stevie thinking? Why this song?
In other words, it's a “classic current,” if you excuse the oxymoron. And every format needs currents, even if we're talking about gold-based radio. This is a beloved core artist sending a message about how she sees the world. We should give her – and the audience – a chance to be heard.
I know too well the “perils of politics.” And I'm not trying to drag you into that morass.
But when something comes along like this, it's a moment – albeit a brief one – that stations can find a way to lean into.
A number of Alternative stations walked away from the Kate Bush retro hit, thanks to its appearance in “Stranger Things,” allowing Top 40 or AC stations in some markets to own it. “It didn't fit the format,” some programmers explained.
But it did fit the zeitgeist of the moment, hitching an easy ride on one of Netflix's biggest hits. It is about being in the moment.
So you could give Stevie Nicks' cover of “For What It's Worth,” a few spins and see if anything happens.
Or you could play “Edge of Seventeen” for the 400,000th time.
P.S. I was watching the Sunday Night NFL game last night, and caught the tail end of a promo for next week's game, pitting the Tampa Bay Bucs and the Kansas City Chiefs. Better put, a battle between the old guard – Tom Brady – and his heir apparent, Patrick Mahomes.
The promo was brilliant – Beck doing his cover of Neil Young's “Old Man.” Beck has long admired Young, and this tribute pays homage to the artist and one of his best songs ever.
So, ALT PDs, look like you've got some decisions to make, too. Enjoy.