I walked into the lobby at work this week to find a barbershop quartet singing “Cabaret.” I winced. Then I made a bet with myself. There would be no Elsie in this version of the song.
Remember Elsie, who “rented by the hour”? Well, no, unless you like the musical, you probably don’t. Popular versions almost exclusively leave her out, despite her being central to the message of the song.
I hate the beigification of music. Kander and Ebb’s musical was (and is) popular because it wasn’t sickly sweet sap. “Cabaret” is a powerful song about defiantly grasping moments of joy in a grim life–until you take out Elsie. Then all it says is, “Party on, dude.” It’s like turning Mack the Knife into the next best thing to Robin Hood by leaving out the verses about rape and burnt children. Or taking “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” up tempo and major key. It’s a special sort of sacrilege.
Not that I have anything against good covers. Insane Clown Posse’s “Let’s Go All the Way” is a sheer delight (and their only song that doesn’t make me giggle–I’m so not their target market). My favorite Siouxsie and the Banshees album is Through the Looking Glass. I highly recommend the new Madness, The Dangerman Sessions. Covers that do what covers are supposed to do are beautiful things.
What are covers supposed to do? One of two things: pay tribute to the original or add to it. Smash Mouth paid tribute to “I’m a Believer” by saying it didn’t need updating to be worth listening to today. Cake’s “I Will Survive” updates the original by stripping off the polish to emphasize the anger and determination. Both rock. Covers that merely render a song down into pablum? Blegh.
Of course, I won my bet. No Elsie. Not even a “cradle to grave.” Double blegh.