Reba McEntire’s new album, All the Women I Am, features a spirited rendition of Beyoncé’s “If I Were a Boy,” which you can hear above, and which got us thinking again about the tricky nature of cross-genre cover songs. McEntire remains true to the song’s melody, save the addition of her country twang, but adds spare acoustic plucks and a slide guitar to make it her own. More importantly, the song’s questions of gender identity lose no meaning when sung by McEntire, especially on an album about womanhood. In other words, it’s not a joke. And that’s usually the problem with these things: “The appeal of these experiments, if any, is primarily comedic but while it’s funny to hear white people over-enunciate black slang, the gag quickly wears thin,” wrote Jonah Weiner at Slate on the subject. So who else has done it right? Well, Beyoncé, for one…
Beyoncé does Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know”
The diva took to infusing her own performances of “If I Were a Boy” with a section from Morissette’s angsty 1995 smash. Though most Beyoncé albums don’t feature much crushing, distorted guitar or swearing, what works here is her vocal strength and willingness to toss in bits of Morissette’s own inflection. The professionalism of the arrangement keeps it from being funny, while the back-up singers’ soulful handling of the pre-chorus highlights something you might have missed in the original, on account of Morissette’s disturbed warble.
José González does The Knife’s “Heartbeats”
Known far and wide from the above advertisement, and probably more famous than the original, González’s stripped-down version of The Knife’s churning, electronic original does without percussion, allowing the beauty of the vocal melody and lyrics come through.
Dixie Chicks do Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide”
Like McEntire’s cover, the Dixie Chicks don’t do too much to disguise the Stevie Nicks original. In fact, none of the artists mentioned are too different (and all are liable to be found on your mother’s iPod), but the freshness of the composition and additional instrumentation change the feel of the song enough to be considered cross-genre. And the vocal harmonies are ace.
Johnny Cash does Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”
It sounds like a gimmick, but it’s really not. Like “Heartbeats,” an aging Cash doing the Nine Inch Nails song gives the lyrics new life, re-contextualizing the message. But where González did it through music, Cash can rely on circumstance. Additionally, Cash’s version may have reached a few people who weren’t listening to Trent Reznor in 1994.
Jimi Hendrix does Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”
This one is obvious. Widely considered one of the best cover songs of all-time, Hendrix probably could have just laid down the opening guitar solo and called it a day.