Explaining My Obsession with Cover Songs on YouTube

Nick Martens has watched hundreds — maybe even thousands — of cover songs on YouTube. Here’s what he learned.

You know that feeling, when a really catchy pop song gets stuck in your head and all you want to do is listen to it on repeat for hours? It’s like the urge to scratch a nasty itch. To give in is to briefly experience comfort, but at what price? I always scratch too long, overexposing myself to the song, and then I can’t listen to it again for months — or years, even — until the itch comes back and the cycle repeats itself. (I call this the “Seven Nation Army” Cycle.)

So instead, when a song gets its hooks in deep, I turn to YouTube. While looking up videos of amateur covers may not provide the instant relief of mainlining the original, it soothes the burn like a healing salve and does less damage to the song’s long-term listenability.

Sometimes, but rarely, a YouTube cover will transform a song in a revelatory way. I’m thinking of the theremin cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” or this version of the Shins’s “New Slang”:

Rather than flattening the song into something dull and pretty, as legions of acoustic guitar players on YouTube inevitably do, this group engages with the song and reveals a new side of the original recording. They turn the soaring ooh-ooh-oohs into the emotional center of their performance, shifting focus away from James Mercer’s melancholy lyrics to make the song jubilant and vivacious. And, somehow, I don’t hate the Coldplay interlude.

If their sin is laying it on too thick, or letting their nervous, amateur enthusiasm show through too strongly, that’s okay with me. That’s why I watch these videos. Because this excursion into the depths of YouTube isn’t really about music. It’s about hundreds of tiny, hidden stories about human peculiarity, floating just below the level of common awareness. Here are some of the most endearing, mystifying, and oddly profound performances that our new technological world has allowed me to witness.

Ke$ha, “Tik Tok”

The first pop hit of the new decade has already been covered thousands of times. Ke$ha’s music doesn’t really lend itself to instrumental innovation, but it compensates amply on the lyrical front.

  • The Coffee Cover – I am so proud of all the awkward teenage nerds who put themselves out there in these videos. They’re so far ahead of where I was at their age. Sure, I’m a bit confused why a high-school kid might be compelled to rewrite “Tik Tok” as an ode to the importance of coffee in an office worker’s lifestyle, but I’m glad he did.
  • Acoustic Twins – These videos can get into Twilight Zone territory pretty quickly. Here, a meticulously dressed pair of twins covers the song on New Year’s Eve, assuring us that they are drinking non-alcoholic champagne.
  • Squares? Rectangles? Trapezoids? THEY ALL HAVE FOUR SIDES – Okay, not an actual cover, since they use the original backing track, but I cannot deny three adorable kids singing about geometry. Bonus: Futura Bold.
  • The Colin Greave Band – Not so much amateur charm here; the video looks professional and the performance is sharp. But what’s with all the chickenshit dudes who rewrite the girly parts of the song to shelter their fragile masculinity? If you’re gonna cover “Tik Tok,” you need to own the fact that you’re singing about pedicures and boys trying to touch your junk. These guys handle it properly.

One of the many secret reasons to watch these videos is to keep tabs on what the young people of the world are up to. But this cover of the White Stripes’ “Fell in Love with a Girl” poses more questions than it answers. Is that mic stand really necessary? If these are the “Bathroom Unplugged Sessions” (plural), why do the Moonwalking Bears only have this one song on YouTube? Is that a bottle of beer next to the shampoo?

Actually, that might explain everything.

Joy Division, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”

Tricky. Everyone wants to make this song as slow, suicidal, and acoustic as possible. But that denies the energetic instrumentation in the original that contrasts so strikingly with the Ian Curtis’s dark-than-ink lyrics.

  • Trash Can Drums – I can’t imagine it’s easy to inject humor into Joy Division without ruining everything. But these guys pull it off, and they sound awesome.
  • Worm Is Green – The perfect way to slow down this song without turning it into a dirge: minimal instrumentation with a focus on the unique percussion.
  • Super Strings Theory – I will admit that I’m fixated on awkward teenagers being awkward. But I dare you not to be charmed by these kids (who at least put some damn effort into their acoustic cover.)
  • Vincent & Arlo – Super creepy. Watching this alone late at night could probably convince you that you’re in a Japanese horror movie.

The second time I watched this version of the Beatles’s “And Your Bird Can Sing,” I realized it was a pretty awesome cover. But the first time I was completely absorbed by the original Final Fantasy being projected behind the band. If these dudes cater to a nerd audience, and everything about them indicates that they do, they should know better than give their crowd such a captivating distraction from their music.

Bach, “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”

I found good covers in every genre with the exception of country, and I’m inclined to blame that on my ignorance of country music rather than on some deficiency in the genre. Because, technically speaking, there is just a shit-ton of music on YouTube. This composition, for example, probably has more than 100 performances on electric guitar alone.

  • Ketil Strand – Amazing technical skill without any cheesy death-metal bullshit.
  • thedarkprep – The exact right amount of cheesy death-metal bullshit.
  • The Grim Shredder – Gloriously overdoing the bullshit.
  • Nickstermc – On a different note entirely, this guy really just goes for it. I would kill for his lack of self-conciousness.

Humans on the internet refuse to conform to my expectations of them. Every other version of the Killers’s “Mr. Brightside” was bland, lazy, and predictable, but then I stumbled across this girl, who recorded her own cover, then proceeds to pole dance to it, blindfolded, on a pole that is evidently installed in her kitchen. I give up.

(I don’t feel too bad about embedding sexy, stripper-esque moves because her dance obviously involves real skill, but as a minor penance to readers who are into dudes, please feel free to fall madly in love with this guy singing Animal Collective’s “My Girls.”)

Jonathan Coulton – “Still Alive”

Dear lord, there are millions of covers of this song, mostly by talented, enthusiastic nerds, which I deeply appreciate. But I was surprised that so few took creative liberties with the song itself. I suppose a reverence for Mr. Coulton and for the game in which the song appears, Portal, stopped most of the nerds from going to town. Thankfully, a few still did.

  • Flora – I’m convinced that the best covers almost always make their performances more energetic than the original. This is a great example of that principle in effect, and the Russian-tinted vocals certainly don’t hurt.
  • Black Sheep Rebellion – Once again, the youth of the world warm my heart. The talented violinist carries the whole thing, but this is much improved by his buddies backing him up.
  • Shael Riley – A very nice cover, with a perfect use of 8-bit instrumentation, but I love this most for the absurdly affected Gameboy-playing by the uninvolved band member. He must be on a high level in Tetris or something.
  • Sveta – This is the single weirdest thing I found out of all the videos I’ve watched. The singer replaced all the original lyrics with horrible sappy dreck, then recorded an overexposed Hallmark card of a music video, complete with bubbly heart graphics. Beyond bizarre, watching this is like experiencing a fever dream.

“Someone Great” by LCD Soundsystem is one of my favorite songs, and if you asked me why a couple of weeks ago, I probably would have told you that I love it because it evokes a uniquely American melancholy, an awkward distance that compounds its emotional turmoil. But here are four dudes in Mumbai who completely rewrote the instrumentals while still carrying the spirit and tone of the song. So while our species seems perpetually bent upon tearing itself apart, at least we have obscure pop culture to keep us together.

Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.