Australian singer Courtney Barnett. Photo: Martin Boulton
When you have spent, as I did, over a decade reviewing music, you learn there are a few eternal truths about the music business: KISS will never retire, the album isn’t really dead, and indie bands like nothing better than doing “ironic” covers of rap songs.
The last point has driven me to such distraction that just last week I told friends of my dream for the future of humanity, to wit, whenever an indie band plays an earnest “ballad” cover of a rap song for their encore, a temporal rift opens up and swallows them into eternal damnation in a parallel universe made entirely of flame.
I thought of that world of flames this past weekend when I witnessed Courtney Barnett cover Kanye West’s Black Skinhead for Triple J’s ongoing series of covers, Like A Version: “Barnett changed a few words of the original for her version, ‘Because they were rude’. [...] She also sings about ‘people’ instead of dropping ‘N-bombs’ all over Triple J’s airwaves and turns ‘stop all that coon shit’ into ‘stop all that Coon cheese’, which is a ‘sentiment every Australian who doesn’t work for the dairy company should be able to get behind.’”
Though it might seem like a harmless bit of fun, in my book, this is nearly as embarrassing for Australia in a global context as the Hey Hey blackface debacle - and people will see and hear it that way.
The key to this lies in the fact that Barnett had to change so many of Black Skinhead’s lyrics - not because they were “rude”, as she suggests (though in the context of the national youth broadcaster, that’s arguably true), but because that very fact indicates an incredible lack of awareness about what Kanye West’s Black Skinhead is about.
Generally speaking, “indie-fied” covers of rap songs tend to play into a similar notion as pop ones (think Travis turning Britney Spear’s ...Baby One More Time into a ballad), which is that they serve to extract - from a position of self-perceived musical superiority on the part of the performer - the value inherent in a song. The intended response from the listener is, inevitably, “Wow! I had no idea that was a good song until it was turned into a milquetoast ballad!” (There’s a hint of this in Barnett’s introduction of her choice of song including the fact that “Lou Reed said he liked it”.)
With pop covers, this is usually little more than musical snobbery, but the danger with rap covers is that they have the tendency to drift into a breathtaking level of insensitivity to the lyrical themes.
See, Black Skinhead isn’t just “some cool rap song”; much of the song (and the album it is taken from, Yeezus) is a meditation on what it’s like to be a black man in America - Barnett, it doesn’t need to be said, is not a black man. That line that Barnett giggles through, “They see a black man with a white woman at the top floor/They gon’ come to kill King Kong”, isn’t a joke, it’s a riff on America’s long, sorry history of seeing black men as a threat to white women, and how West’s success and power doesn’t protect him from that mindset.
Perhaps you forgot about Vogue’s LeBron James cover that echoed King Kong posters, but here’s a reminder: “John Hoberman, a University of Texas professor who has written on race and sport, claimed the cover ‘was an obvious and egregious exploitation of an old racist theme - the potential violation of a white woman by a physically overpowering black man, or King Kong’.”
Cord Jefferson wrote a powerful piece for The Awl upon Yeezus’ release that looked at that very theme in American history: “Confronted with the obvious fact that white men thought white women to be their most prized possession, it's not surprising that some black men began considering it a triumph to bed white ladies, especially in a nation as structurally racist as America. When you strip away a person's ability to dignify himself through rational means—educational attainment, fulfilling work, etc.—you leave him flailing to dignify himself through irrational means, like buying a certain brand of shoes or sleeping with a certain color of woman.”
Whatever, right? LOL! King Kong!
Additionally, changing “Stop all that coon shit/ Early morning cartoon shit” - a plea to move away from racist stereotyping - to “Stop all that Coon cheese” is, likewise, mystifyingly insensitive. Like, how can you listen to that part of the song and not only fail to react to its power, but then think “Let’s make it into a cool joke”? Exactly what about the fact the song’s title is stylised as BLKKK SKKKN HEAD doesn’t clue you in to the fact that it might have something to say about being black in America?
This is not to say “nobody can cover a rap song ever”, but rather that artists should tread carefully when choosing songs with an autobiographical or political theme to reinterpret if it is miles away from their own experience. As my friend Kim said when we were discussing Barnett’s cover, “There's a huge difference between ‘Here's my acoustic cover of Get Low lol’ and ‘I am for real covering Black Skinhead’.”
Those with long memories may remember when, during Season 5 of Australian Idol, Natalie Gauci did an upbeat cover of Amy Winehouse’s Rehab and the judges chastised her for not truly understanding what the song is about. I wish Mark Holden had charged into the Triple J studios and advised Barnett against her choice of Like A Version song. If you’re effectively having to rewrite the lyrics in order to be able to perform a song, perhaps it’s time to start thinking about choosing a different cover, lest you end up with the musical equivalent of Gwyneth Paltrow’s surprise when everybody told her not to say the n-word.
Barnett’s clueless cover is also indicative of the shallow level of engagement that so many people have with rap and hip hop, which sees (or dismisses) “rap” as a homogenous entity rather than a musical form that contains multitudes.
It’s this stance that reduces all rap to the same level - the cultural criticism equivalent of people who say “All rap music sucks” or “I hate all classical music” - and considers the blistering screeds of West, NWA, Jay-Z, The Coup and the like to be cut from the same cloth as chart-topping party jams by Flo Rida, T-Pain and Lil Jon. Think about how mad rock snobs would get if you said Elliott Smith or Radiohead were the same thing as One Direction or Smashmouth. (For the record, I like them all.)
What does it say about the quality (or lack thereof) of Australia’s cultural commentary, that the number of “bitches” throughout Yeezus - something West himself has already addressed - is regularly discussed while the album’s broader themes are routinely ignored?
It’s no surprise that so many people think of Macklemore as a righteous poet who has turned rap into something “thoughtful” and “positive” but will blithely dismiss West’s work as “misogynistic”. We laugh at the “hurry up with my damn croissants” line in West’s I Am A God (as though he didn’t deliver it satirically to begin with) rather than sit still and listen to what he has to say about race, capitalism and politics for the same reason that Barnett changed Black Skinhead’s lyrics: because really listening makes us uncomfortable.
Update: The artist has update some of the lyrics to her song in response to this piece. Read more here.