Don't be surprised if, someday soon, you should spy a fellow stamping around Pike Place Market sporting unkempt locks and brandishing a placard emblazoned "Pop>"/>
Don't be surprised if, someday soon, you should spy a fellow stamping around Pike Place Market sporting unkempt locks and brandishing a placard emblazoned "Pop Music Is Dead." I don't care if tourists snicker and my peers shun me—I can't stand by idly much longer.
Whether it's Destiny's Child borrowing a whopping chunk of Stevie Nicks' "Edge of Seventeen" for its so-called original "Bootylicious" or Thievery Corporation remixing Ennio Morricone, everywhere you turn contemporary musicians are simply pillaging the riches of history rather than adding to the repertoire. Fresh song ideas are thin upon the ground, so artists have taken to revisiting the tired and true, over and over and over. But what did we all learn in school? If you keep harvesting the same crop time and again, eventually the fields will be barren.
I can stomach the deluge of tracks based around well-known samples and DJ-producers deconstructing old classics because sometimes they actually yield cool new hybrids. But I am sick to death of half-assed pop stars covering proven hits, from Limp Bizkit's career-making stab at George Michael's "Faith" to that new version of Labelle's "Lady Marmalade" by the Christina Aguilera All-Stars. But the most egregious examples of this practice may currently be found on the soundtrack to Bridget Jones's Diary.
First of all, we're subjected to U.K. pop sensation Robbie Williams hamming it up on Rodgers & Hart's "Have You Met Miss Jones?" Though it pains me to point this out, my future ex-husband Robbie is one of the most consistent offenders when it comes to pointless remakes; in the past five years, he's tackled the La's, George Michael, Ian Dury, Primal Scream, the Clash, Pet Shop Boys, Adam and the Ants, David Bowie, XTC, and even Cole Porter. Sure, every now and then he puts a little muscle into it—the best example being his rambunctious take on Noel Coward's "There Are Bad Times Just Around the Corner" from the British tribute album Twentieth Century Blues— but for the most part, Williams is just subjecting fans to celebrity karaoke.
But the cut that truly galls me, the one that made me pop the Bridget Jones's disc out of my CD player and hurl it across the room, is Geri Halliwell (formerly known as Ginger Spice) doing the '80s disco classic "It's Raining Men." Not only does Halliwell fail to inject her rendition with a fraction of the original's unhinged enthusiasm (she rattles off the line "barometer's gettin' low" like she has no clue what a barometer is), she can't even sing the melody as written! None of which has stopped the damned thing from going No. 1 in England and threatening to be a huge hit stateside, too. You can call it nostalgia; I call it sacrilege.
I was in this cantankerous state of mind when For the Stars: Anne Sofie von Otter Meets Elvis Costello (Deutsche Grammophon) landed on my desk. The very notion of an operatic mezzo-soprano recording material by Tom Waits and the Beatles put my teeth on edge. Pop stars covering standards are bad enough, but opera singers are far worse. While half-wits like Halliwell don't bother to get under the skin of a song, classically trained vocalists suffer from the opposite problem—with their crisp diction, quavering vibrato, and exaggerated dynamics, they sound about as comfortable crooning "My Funny Valentine" as the Rock trying to squeeze into a jacket from Baby Gap.
In light of all this, For the Stars is, miraculously, a stunning album. Under Costello's direction, von Otter turns in subtle, thoughtful performances. The opening line of the Beach Boys' "You Still Believe in Me," "I know perfectly well I'm not where I should be," would feel like a cruel joke coming from the mouths of most La Scala vets, but the Swedish diva adds a new dimension of meaning to the Pet Sounds ditty, substituting a hint of maturity for the original's youthful naﶥt鮠She even manages to go to the bottomless well of camp that is ABBA and come back with a tender take on "Like an Angel Passing Through the Room."
The album isn't perfect. At times, von Otter's clipped delivery is a bit too reminiscent of Julie Andrews, and Costello's own pipes (which he lifts in song only sparingly) aren't always an adequate match for the mezzo's. But overall, For the Stars is teeming with magnificent examples of everything cover versions should be and rarely are anymore: cherished pieces of music cast in a new light by seasoned interpreters. And while it's probably not accessible enough to stem the tide of execrable pabulum like the Bridget Jones's Diary soundtrack, at least it's given me a reason to postpone my new career as a sign-wielding maniac for a little while longer.