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In Defense of That Indefensible ‘Punk Goes Pop’ Series

Fourteen covers that are actually kinda, maybe, sorta good?

by Luke O'Neil
Nov 20 2014, 3:40pm

The sixth installment of the Punk Goes Pop series was released earlier this week, and, as in all previous releases of the now venerable Fearless Records series, it's a nice mix of surprising takes on familiar hits done in a style that uncovers unheard aspects of the songs, and unlistenable audio diarrhea.

When the first Punk Goes Pop came out in 2002, (after Punk Goes Metal in 2000) the idea of punk bands performing covers outside of the genre was by no means new—a few years earlier, Social Distortion had just released their Under the Influences, and hardcore and emo bands like Minor Threat doing “I'm Not Your Stepping Stone,” and Cap'n Jazz doing “Take On Me,” to name just a few, had long showed that there was ample fun to be had by stretching the musical boundaries. (Performing covers is the very basis of rock and roll itself, stretching all the way back to Chuck Berry and the Beatles of course.) But the series did help to solidify the pop cover as a staple in the contemporary punk band's arsenal.

Since then, Fearless has served up a whopping 17 variations on the theme, ranging from pop and acoustic, to crunk, country, and Christmas. And while there's been a huge range, in both genre, and quality of the material, there are a few general rules that we can take away from the catalog to figure out what it takes to stand out.

The best of the bunch, as in all cover songs, tend to come in one of two forms. Either the band plays the cover straight, but filtering it through their own distinctive style, thereby presenting an alternate universe version of an already quality song, or completely obliterates the structure, and reinvents it from the ground up. On the other end of the spectrum, the worst examples of the form come when the cover is played for laughs. When the premise—“What if a metalcore band did Cookie Monster screaming on a Miley Cyrus song?!” or, “What if some dorky white emo nerds pretended to be hard rap dudes?!”—does all of the work. Neither of those types of stylistic choices are necessarily grounds for dismissal, but while it's important for a cover song to be fun, it's almost always a bad idea to try to make it funny.

Instead, what we want from a punk or metal or hardcore band covering a song outside their normal comfort zone is what we want from music in general: someone performing material that they believe in with conviction. No surprise then that the best of the Punk Goes... series tend to be the tracks where you can tell the band recognizes they've got a great song to work with and they don't want to fuck it up.

Here's a list of the best from the series over the years. All decisions here are final and non-negotiable.

We Came As Romans - “Glad You Came”

The song was always there underneath the cornball production.

Sparks the Rescue - “Need You Now”

Country is already just emo for people who've never been to a city.

Breathe Carolina - “Billie Jean”

You might call this sacrilege, but it works by not stretching it too far beyond its structure, updating it in a more modern context, and letting the song do the work.

Volumes - “Hold On, We're Going Home”

There have been roughly 500 covers of this song since it came out, and every single one of them is amazing. The screaming here might have otherwise overwhelmed the romance of the track, but it's wisely kept in check as a background touch that lets the clean vocals lead the way.

The Devil Wears Prada - “Still Fly”

This violates my general rule about hip-hop not translating well into the metal context, but the conviction of the soaring, melodramatic clean vocals on the chorus here override it. You wouldn't realize the song was about anything less than life or death if you didn't know better.

Go Radio - “Rolling In the Deep”

It would be hard to top the vocal performance of Adele on this track, but beefing up the track musically, the drums in particular, push what was already near-perfection into a more viscerally felt realm.

Memphis May Fire - “Grenade”

The desperation of the song always sounded a little corny in the pop R&B context. Upping the dramatic stakes with metalcore screaming and melodramatic triggers sells it.

Silverstein - “Runaway”

This really, really sounds like a bad idea on paper, but it works. Maybe because the only ones capable of capturing the inherent douchiness of Kanye is a screamo band.

The Maine - “I Wanna Love You”

The Maine, for whom I can't even really name an original song, show up again and again in the series, and it's probably because they've got the formula down: play a good song well. The end.

All Time Low - “Umbrella”

It would be easy to play this one with a shit-eating smirk plastered on your face the whole time, but the song, already having a pretty heavy guitar component, makes perfect sense as a pop punk song. The climax toward the end already needed more of a dramatic leap anyway. This is the rare example from the Punk Goes series where the rock band doing the pop hit shave off some of the original's aggression, but it works in its favor.

A Day to Remember - “Over My Head”

If you were a super cool metal pedant, you might say there's really not much difference between an already pop-leaning hard rock band like A Day to Remember and cappuccino-rockers like The Fray, but unless you're trying to impress someone, it's impossible to deny that this is a platonically ideal radio-rock hit. ADTR keep most of the song's heart intact while amplifying the aggression, making it even better soundtrack to “overcoming obstacles” and “trying your best” or whatever it is it's about in the first place.

Tonight Alive - “Little Lion Man”

Say what you will about the banjocore presentation that we all had so much joking about when this song came out a few years ago, but at its core this is a perfectly written song. Tonight Alive inject the already rollicking track with a much bigger sound that serves it well. Turns out it was a pop punk song disguised in folk trappings all along, not the other way around.

Mayday Parade featuring Vic Fuentes - "Somebody That I Used To Know"

Part of the allure of this song in the first place was its understated approach to what for most of us is a pretty harrowing emotional experience. This cover considerably ups the energy.

The Maine featuring Adam Lazzara - “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”

This one seems like it has bad news written all over it from the start, as it's some pretty unfuckwithably perfect source material, but The Maine and Adam from Taking Back Sunday reinvent the song, pulling out the inherent sadness of the song belied by its original bubbly presentation.

Luke O'Neil is on Twitter and would looooove to hear your take on these songs. - @lukeoneil47