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  • Ben Province

Prince's Complicated Relationship with Cover Songs



Following the passing of Sinéad O'Connor, artists such as Pink and Brandi Carlile have performed the song "Nothing Compares 2 U" live in tribute to the late Irish singer.


O'Connor's version hit No. 1 on numerous charts in multiple countries and became synonymous with her career.


The original was written by Prince and appeared on his band The Family's lone studio album in 1985. The self-titled LP charted modestly and, unlike the cover version, the song was not released as a single, with O'Connor's 1990 recording eclipsing the original something Prince certainly noticed.


"See, covering music means that your version doesn't exist anymore. A lot of times, people think I'm doing Sinéad O'Connor's song or Chaka Khan's song, when, In fact, I wrote those songs," Prince told George Lopez on a 2011 episode of "Lopez Tonight."


Instead of saying something negative about O'Connor, specifically, in this interview, he called out the music industry as a whole.


"There's this thing called the compulsory license law, which allows artists – through the record companies – to take your music at will without your permission, and that doesn't exist in any other art form."


Prince still capitalized off the cover's success. The prolific songwriter and multi-instrumentalist was the only writer credited on the song, so it's unimageable what the royalties were he received. He also released a live version of his own to compilation albums following the cover's success, and Prince's solo studio version of the song was released, posthumously, in 2018.


Reportedly, O'Connor and Prince had a tumultuous relationship, with O'Connor detailing a concerning account of a meeting she said happened between the two, which The Ringer recently broke down in an article. She concluded that she never wanted to see him again and accused him of being threatening. As the linked article points out, her recollection requires a lot of unpacking, which is even more difficult now that both artists have passed away.


But from a purely artistic perspective, through some dysfunctional synergy, they made a song that will continue to endure.


But O'Connor wasn't the only artist mentioned here to try doing a cover. In 2008, Prince headlined Coachella and famously performed Radiohead's "Creep." A video of the performance was initially taken down at the request of Prince's team.


Of course, Prince did not have a hand in writing (or doing anything else on) "Creep," and it left Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke puzzled as to why the song was blocked, and he fought for it to be unblocked, reportedly, starting months after Prince's performance.


"Well, tell him to unblock it. It’s our song,” Yorke said in an interview. (As a sidenote, the songwriters of The Hollies' "The Air I Breathe" are credited on "Creep," following a lawsuit that alleged the songs were too similar.)


While Prince's frustrations with compulsory license law are understandable to an extent, this wasn't the the same thing. He eventually made the reasonable decision here and allowed for his performance of "Creep" to be unblocked in 2015, and the performance can be seen on YouTube.


But though the ethics of big labels can be iffy at times, "Weird Al" Yankovic's character has been historically unimpeachable. Prince, however, would still not budge when Yankovic approached with a few ideas of a "Weird Al" equivalent of a cover.


“I had a parody of ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ that was about The Beverly Hillbillies,” Yankovic told Billboard in 2016. “And I wanted to do something funny with ‘When Doves Cry’ and ‘Kiss.’ For ‘1999,’ I wanted to do an infomercial where you could get anything you wanted by dialing 1-800-something-1999."


He respected Prince's refusals and never recorded a proper parody of the singer. The lyric "tonight we're going to party like it's 1699," in the song "Amish Paradise," was the closest he came.


Yankovic shared that things were, well, "weird," between the two, and he said he once received a telegram from Prince's lawyers to not make eye contact with the "1999" singer at an awards show.


While his aversion to cover songs (unless one of his friends asked him first) is puzzling, but it somehow speaks to how unique and creative Prince was – and how much he championed freedoms and ownership for artists and their art. In light of Taylor Swift's re-recorded Taylor's Versions, in some way, Prince's concerns with labels and intellectual property might have been ahead of his time – at least in a quirky and enigmatic way befitting of an artist whose talent was otherworldly.

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