The infobahn is alive with Susan Boyle’s rendition (nice word, eh?) of the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses”. There is an overwhelming opinion that Boyle has now recorded one of the definitive versions of the song. This, however, is seen as sacrilege by others, who cling to memories of the Stones and Gram Parsons. This sort of fuss is frequent when someone decides to cover a song. Why? What’s the issue?
One of the most enduring myths in pop culture is the myth of the auteur. There is a strange obsession about artists singing their own lyrics. I think it comes from our desire to associate the performer with the song – as if most men could actually love you “all night long” or Marilyn Manson was as dark and twisted as he tries to make out (which I doubt – he’s remarkably well-read and articulate). To burst the bubble, all one has to do is think of some absolute defining moments in pop and ask: who cares who wrote them?
Who cares that Elvis Presley didn’t write “Hound Dog” (Lieber & Stoller)? Who cares that Edith Piaf didn’t write “Je ne regrette rien” (Doumont & Vaucaire)? Who cares if Jimi Hendrix didn’t compose “Hey Joe” (Billy Roberts)? Each made history and moved countless millions of people with their versions. What’s more, how would those songs sound if sung by their respective authors? The answer is easy: disappointing in most cases.
If it’s worth singing, sing it well
So I can’t knock people singing “covers”. It’s a tribute. If a song is worth writing, it is worth singing well. And for me, the better the singer the happier we should be. Yes, even if that singer is Celine Dion, Nana Mouskouri or in this case the winner of a TV show.
Coming back to “Wild Horses”, Boyle has indeed created a superb version. Yes, it’s a bit incongruous Susan Boyle slipping into a song made famous by Mick Jagger. But she breathes new life into the song. When you look at it from a songwriting perspective, “Wild Horses” is basically a magnificent melody and structure with dubious lyrics. I’m not sure how Boyle manages to put such emotion into Jagger’s mild misogyny, but she does. Being a nice guy at heart, I salute verses such as:
I watched you suffer a dull aching pain
Now you decided to show me the same
No sweeping exits or offstage lines
Could make me feel bitter or treat you unkind
Wild horses couldn’t drag me away
Wild, wild horses, couldn’t drag me away
But I’ll pass on the rest. We should be thanking Susan Boyle for her voice and heart. We need more of both in the charts.
Susan Boyle: I Dreamed a Dream