If you’ve noticed the 1980s hit “Africa” playing on the radio more than usual, you likely weren’t listening to the original version by Toto. Instead, it was probably the recently released cover by Weezer, which has already been heard over 25 million times on Spotify.
Maybe you know the backstory: A teenage fan started a joke Twitter account, @weezerafrica, in order to persuade her favorite band to cover her favorite song. Days later, the hashtag #WeezerCoverAfrica went viral, and, after months of virtual prodding, the band indulged the request.
To everyone’s surprise, Weezer suddenly had a chart-topping hit – its best performing single in a dozen years. And it isn’t even the band’s own song. Now Weezer has released an entire album of covers – a self-titled EP affectionately known as the “Teal Album,” which has already hit No. 5 on the Billboard 200.
As a musicologist, Weezer’s successful foray into cover songs made me think about the overall trajectory of the practice.
They’re usually a fun way to memorialize an existing song and pass it along from one generation to the next. But the practice isn’t free of controversy.
Enriching our collective musical memory
The editor of a book on cover songs, communication scholar George Plasketes writes that covers are “about favorite songs and great songs. Classics and standards.” They show how “musical artifacts are kept culturally alive, repeating as echoes.”
To Plasketes, regardless of what a musician might add or subtract in the process, cover songs capture and convey a collective musical history.
The concept of covering has been around as long as music has been written down. The earliest choirs for Catholic masses often sang versions of earlier Gregorian chants. These “covers” were intended to both teach and entertain – to attract worshippers and spread Christianity. Then, as now, covers circulated culture.
Scholars have identified many categories of cover songs, but people are probably most familiar with two of them: the “straight cover” and the “transformative cover.”
The former, also known as a “karaoke cover,” sounds almost exactly like the original, which is the route taken by Weezer. Such an approach might pay homage to a music influence, like The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout,” which had been popularized by The Isley Brothers but was originally recorded by The Top Notes.
A straight cover can also form a sort of ironic commentary. Cultural theorist Steve Bailey notes that, while such covers “tend to ridicule the originals,” they also “celebrate the continued vitality … of the music and its importance.”
Certainly, there’s a dose of irony to Weezer’s “Africa” – the band recorded it at the request of fans, not necessarily out of some deep connection to the music or as a nod to Toto’s influence. We can’t be certain, but it seems as if Weezer’s poking fun at the ‘80s hit, while still staying true to the original.