Turning ‘Em Around: 5 Cover Songs That Celebrate Queer Love Beautifully

Posted on August 13, 2015 in Art, Cake, LGBTQ, Popsicle, Upside-Down

Cover songs, which are recordings of popular music by a new artist, are an easy medium for musicians to expand their fan base, display their creativity in reworking old material, and of course, earn money. Most of the cover songs, particularly songs of love, sex, and breaking up involve a sort of gender-switch, where more often than not the point of view of women or men is reversed, apparently to suit the palate of the artist and the audience. Although it can be difficult to gauge whether the covering artists end up recording the version they do because they want to make a statement or if they merely want to do justice to the original by staying true to the lyrics, a few famous covers of popular obviously-heterosexual songs do end up changing the script of the traditional woman-man/man-woman format in pop music. Listed here are some covers which are a part of a limited retinue of songs which don’t hetero-normalize the queer perspective.

The dominant understanding of pop music is that it is entertainment; it is but an industry, with its logic of demand and supply and media and marketing, all of which ultimately caters to the masses. But it can be a veritable smorgasbord of deviating identities, whether this happens consciously or inadvertently.

How much currency do we give to pop music? When singers and singer-songwriters perform, to what extent do we charge them with the responsibility of owing up to the words they are singing? Is it simply make-believe, a cog in the wheel of the larger mass culture industry, or is it representative of politics too, personal or otherwise?

Maybe a bit of both, when we realize that popular music has the power to confirm, subvert, or completely bypass expectations. Since such music virtually always incorporates a lyrical element, pop singers have by the virtue of performance the opportunity to create and simultaneously address the gap seemingly created when the musical output does not cater to certain standards, and indeed normative standards of assumed gender and sexuality. The same is visible in the following famous covers.

Ed Sheeran – Drunk In Love, by Beyonce

A coy Ed Sheeran sings about his body looking fluorescent under the lights after a night of binge drinking with his gangster husband, proceeding which he is grainin’ on that wood. This cover is fascinating because the only meaningful point where Ed does switch up the words is when he changes the “I’m rubbing on it, rub-rubbing If you scared, call that reverend” of the original to “I’m rubbing on it, you rubbingIf you scared, call that reverend.”

Mark Ronson ft. Amy Winehouse – Valerie, by The Zutons

Initially an ode to an ex-girlfriend written from the point of a view of man, this evocative song came to its own in its second incarnation when it was sung by Amy Winehouse. One finds Amy yearning for Valerie, whose love has left her body a mess, and she repeatedly begs her to come over. Indeed the conviction with which she sings about, among other things, Valerie’s ginger coloured hair and her sense of dress, truly make this song a classic which just happens to be an exchange between two women.

All Time Low – Alejandro, by Lady Gaga

The popular single released by Lady Gaga from the Fame Monster EP was covered by the pop band, and refreshingly, they stayed true to the original. Composed of two intertwining narratives which can be interpreted in multiple ways, the chorus of this version nevertheless finds the band singing, “You know that I love you boyHot like Mexico, rejoice” and breaking up with not just Alejandro, but Fernando and Roberto to boot.

Lana Del Rey – Chelsea Hotel No. 2, by Leonard Cohen

This classic Cohen was written after a brief sexual encounter he had with Janis Joplin in the eponymous hotel in New York. Covered by Lana Del Rey in 2013, the track is sung like the original without changing any pronouns, which makes the sexually loaded lines (“giving me head, on the unmade bed”) replete with new meaning, invoking images of queer love.

“You told me again, you preferred handsome menbut for me you would make an exception” also gives a new direction to the moment of fleeting lesbian intimacy between the two characters in this song, rendering it wryly sweet and nostalgic without going overboard.

The White Stripes – Jolene, by Dolly Parton

This country staple about insecurity and cheating in a relationship received a decidedly new treatment under Jack White of The White Stripes. The song, originally about the singer begging the ‘other woman’ to not take her man from her just because she can, is now reinterpreted as a man supplicating the very same Jolene to leave his man be. Musically darker as well, this version does fall into using the tired trope of the unfaithful bisexual partner, who apparently has no control over who he chooses to have sex with.