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Book Cover Songs

When Writers Sing

Sometimes covers of songs can feel more genuine than the original recorded versions. At a time when Glee is under fire for stealing covers and Justin Bieber is covering himself, one author tries his hand at covering a fictional musician from his new novel.

Credit: Emily Burnett

Justin Bieber’s Believe Acoustic, a stripped-down version of his chart-topping third studio album, came out this week. The release is both a canny sales push—what febrile North American girl with an iTunes account won’t spring for the Biebs unplugged?—and, perhaps, a preemptive strike. For years, indie musicians have been subversively translating the frenetic dance-pop tunes of their wealthier Top 40 brethren into slower, sparer ballads. Whether you view it as aural détournement or a mere recycling, the result is often an improvement; listen to Travis’s haunting take on Britney Spears’s “Hit Me Baby One More Time” or Kay Pettigrew’s unexpectedly moving rendition of Will Smith’s theme to “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”

Cover versions are in the news, too, after indie musician Jonathan Coulter’s allegation that Glee’s cover of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” “ripped off” his own licensed cover. Other cover artists have made similar complaints against the show. Coulton is pessimistic about winning any legal battles, as arrangements of covers are not protected under copyright. (Given the draconian penalties for melody mimicry in original songs, most famously in the “My Sweet Lord”/“He’s So Fine” plagiarism suit, you’d think that licensed covers might gain a modicum of protection.)

My new novel, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, is about an 11-year-old bubblegum-pop star trapped in his own 21st-century marketing machine. Lyrics to Jonny’s songs—about crushes and heartbreak, tween pop’s twin pillars—are sprinkled throughout, though only his mega-hit, “Guys vs. Girls,” is fully transcribed.

In addition to being a writer you probably haven’t heard of, I’m also a mediocre guitarist and singer: a consummate triple-threat. But I’ve never been one to let my lack of talent hold me back, and so, curious to hear what Jonny’s signature tune would sound like, I recorded my own acoustic “Guys vs. Girls.” Drawing on my sophisticated understanding of composition, I backed it with a repeating three-chord structure. As this is the only extant version of the song, I hope it will inspire someone with more musical chops to lay down a professionally produced track, in a reversal of the conventional path from polished to raw. With that in mind, I asked singer-songwriter Alina Simone (whose debut novel, Note to Self, is forthcoming in June) to record her own, superior version.

(Note: The parentheticals in the chorus are supposed to be Jonny’s backup singers. My budget did not allow for these.)

Producers of Glee: You have my blessing.

Guys vs. Girls

Girls and guys, burgers and fries
All gets ruined with a coupla lies

In junior high, we’re going at it
Boys throwing spitballs, pulling on twirls
Fussing and fighting, tearing apart
This is how it starts with guys versus girls

CHORUS:
Guys (GUYS!) versus girls (GIRLS!)
Why’s it gotta be that way
Guys (GUYS!) versus girls (GIRLS!)
Will you be my girl today?

I once got my heart broke, broke so bad
By the kinda gal who wore diamonds and pearls,
She said, See you later, said, Don't you know, boy?
Everything in life is guys versus girls

Saw a lady walking down the street
Looking so good with her golden curls
Yellin’ and screamin’ at some loser dude
Just another case of guys versus girls

Pay attention, fellas, I got something to say
Listen up, ladies, all around the world
We'll never get nowhere if we keep this silly war up
You know what it is: guys versus girls

Teddy Wayne is the author of the novels The Love Song of Jonny Valentine (Free Press) and Kapitoil (Harper Perennial). The winner of a 2011 Whiting Writers’ Award, his work frequently appears in the New Yorker, the New York Times, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere. More by Teddy Wayne