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When Will Awful, Downbeat Covers of Songs Stop Outperforming the Originals?

Calum Scott’s dismal take on Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” is a stark reminder of the chart-dominating power of a bland man sounding sad on a piano.

by Grace Medford
16 August 2016, 9:56am

Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” is iconic. A righteous declaration of empowerment in the face of romantic rejection, it opens with head-throbbing synths that only let up once in the entire four minutes. It’s interspersed with all manner of exciting trills and tinkles and blips, before emotionally barrel-rolling into the chorus.

Robyn’s tone is pleading but resigned. Her sweet-tinged vocal is perfectly balanced against the thrumming tension of the beat. It’s the ideal tears-on-the-dancefloor anthem, primed for lights up at the end of the night – but also suitable for a long train journey, a lonely walk in the rain, in the shower, on the way to the gym, while you’re cleaning the house, or at a karaoke bar with a shit Tinder date. It’s a universal, arms-aloft-in-cathartic-release masterpiece for all occasions. Which only makes it all the more baffling that a maudlin piano cover by former Britain’s Got Talent contestant Calum Scott is doing much, much better than the original.

Up three places last week, Scott, a 27-year-old singer/songwriter from Hull, currently sits at #3 on the UK Official Top 40, held at bay only by the might of the musical behemoth that is Justin Bieber doing vocals on dance tracks (see: DJ Snake at #2 and Major Lazer at #1). Scott was Golden Buzzer-ed through to an automatic place in the Britain’s Got Talent live shows last year, propelled forth by Simon Cowell himself after auditioning with the very same song that has him riding high in the charts today. On release, 6 years ago, Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” peaked at #8. So, how is this embarrassingly middle-of-the-road dirge version managing to do better?

Firstly, I cannot stress enough how deeply mawkish, uninspired and rehashed Scott's cover is. A piano-led instrumental, picked out on one finger with all the exuberance of a John Lewis Christmas advert, saps all the nuance of Robyn's original and replaces it with a plodding air of gloom. His vocal – a nasal whine the likes of which have gone unheard since James Blunt retired from music to become Mr Twitter Banter – chomps up the syllables to sound more regional and everyman; over-enunciating some, mumbling and drawling others like he’s still a shy guy at an open mic night in a local pub, and splitting Robyn’s righteous “Ohhh” hook in the chorus into three, breathy syllables. There is no light and shade in the melody, just quiet whining and loud whining. It drags on and on, like the aural experience of walking knee-deep in wet cement.

Here’s the thing with these bland male cover versions of pop songs, popularised by talent shows and, to some extent, Radio 1’s Live Lounge: they boil the originals down to nothingness until all the subtle complexity in the production and melody and meaning is gone. Any emotional tangle is flattened into moroseness, all the nuance is bulldozed into dull familiarity. Robyn’s original is melancholic, yes, but it’s also ebullient, and it is exactly that juxtaposition that encapsulates the excruciating twist of the stomach and bursting ache in your chest that happens when you see someone you loved, and maybe still love, snogging someone else and moving, leaving you behind.

Calum Scott is not the first person to reap undeserved praise for casting a miserable, faux-ballad shadow over a well-crafted pop song – usually by a female artist – in order to bring out the “deeper meaning”. It’s been happening since Travis covered “…Baby One More Time” by Britney Spears, and you only have to look at the critical response to Ryan Adams re-recording the entirety of Taylor Swift’s record-busting 1989 to see how a male artist covering pop songs in that unchanging, distinctly formulaic way seems to always attract higher praise.

“Dancing On My Own” – the original Robyn-written, Robyn-produced version – is a modern classic, and the world slept on it when it mattered. Time and time again, male artists are allowed to get away with the musical equivalent of putting a black and white filter on a photo as a shorthand for “real artistry”. And time and time again, people eat this shit up. Now, YouTube and Twitter are awash with kids covering “Dancing On My Own” and crediting Calum Scott as the writer. This world, it seems, is upside down.

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