Earlier this month, Ellie Goulding was a guest on Fearne Cotton’s Radio 1 mid-morning show and performed in the Live Lounge. As part of her appearance, as is de rigueur on Cotton’s show, one of the tracks played was a cover version, Bastille’s hit ‘Of The Night’, which in itself is a bastardisation of two early 90s rave classics: Snap’s ‘Rhythm Is A Dancer’ and Corona’s ‘Rhythm Of The Night’. Bastille eschew the originals’ hedonism and euphoria for something altogether more melancholy but Ellie Goulding went several steps further, removing any hint of urgency or thrust, instead turning the songs into little more than a wispy, soporific lullaby.
If this kind of thing had been done at an open mic night, it would have been dismissed as someone trying too hard to be quirky, and you’d have gone back to your drink. However, thanks to Radio 1’s unwritten rule of “acoustic cover version implies authenticity and is hence good”, Ellie Goulding suffered no such fate and, indeed, less than 24 hours later, the track got another outing, this time on Nick Grimshaw’s breakfast show.
In order to understand how this happened, and how we got to the point where the Live Lounge became such an influential brand, we need to travel through the murky depths of time to the turn of the millennium. Consider Travis – a band which don’t bother the charts much these days, yet were huge at the time, helped in no small part by the serendipitous Glastonbury downpour that accompanied their performance of ‘Why Does It Always Rain On Me?’. Around the same time, they started to include an acoustic version of Britney Spears’ pop monolith, ‘…Baby One More Time’ in their live sets. This attracted the attention of the Live Lounge’s spiritual queen, Jo Whiley, who invited the band in to perform it, and gave the cover heavy rotation on her show. Whiley would often assert that the Scots’ moody, pained reading of Max Martin’s slice of bubblegum perfection was better than the original (spoiler alert: it isn’t).
This opened the floodgates and now, no Live Lounge appearance is complete without a look-at-us-we’re-being-deeply-ironic “reinterpretation”. Despite pop music being heavily playlisted at Radio 1 and continually selling in droves, there remains a snobbish attitude that manufactured pop isn’t “proper” music or that music only has artistic value if it’s performed by artists on real instruments (as an aside, if anyone ever tries to make this point, there is no finer counter-argument than the entire recorded output of Motown Records from 1959 to 1978). It’s this belief system that gives rise to the concept of guilty pleasures, as if there could exist such a thing as music that you shouldn’t like, for some arbitrary reason. Live Lounge covers are the acceptable face of teen-oriented, mass-produced pop music, and they give an excuse for people not to feel ashamed for enjoying those songs.
Often, the factors that make a pop song brilliant are the glossy production and the sheer joie de vivre behind it, i.e., the precise things Live Lounge covers do their utmost to remove. There are now nine (nine?!) Live Lounge compilation albums, each offering over two hours of serious, guitar-plucking, anti-LOLs. The most recent instalment, released at the end of last month, features, amongst others, Robin Thicke covering Icona Pop and Charli XCX’s ‘I Love It’, Tom Odell tackling ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’ by Taylor Swift, and Gabrielle Aplin – her of last year’s John Lewis advert soundtrack – attempting ‘Best Song Ever’, a hit for pop urchins One Direction. Each of these songs has had their sledgehammer beats, huge choruses and – the lifeblood – their sense of fun swapped in exchange for acoustic finger-picking, pained vocals, and the loss of about thirty bpm.
Even acts that make their name through pure, unadulterated pop can sometimes still bend over backwards to prove their credibility at the first attempt possible. X Factor winner Matt Cardle has spent the last three years carping on to anyone who’ll listen about his songwriting and guitar playing. And the most recent X Factor victor, James Arthur, has been in hot water recently for homophobic remarks, but it all began when he tried to prove his perceived worth by taking part in a rap battle.
There are signs that artists themselves are starting to get fed up with this though – witness Dizzee Rascal’s recent tirade against Radio 1 where, amongst other things (mainly expletives), he complained about the hypocrisy of the station refusing to playlist his latest single, yet expecting him to go out of his way and prepare a cover version for a Live Lounge performance.
If you like a song, you like a song. Whether it took a single troubadour twelve hours to finely craft or was bashed out in ten minutes by a committee working on computers, it doesn’t really matter. However, Radio 1 thinks it does matter, and their desperation to be at the forefront of the next emerging musical trend means they have to be seen as lovers of “real” music. Regardless of how many times Fearne Cotton protests that London Grammar evisceration of La Roux’s ‘In For The Kill’ is “amaaaazing”, it doesn’t make it true. A song being good isn’t a corollary of it being slow and performed on acoustic instruments (live, naturally), and Radio 1 would do well to remember that.