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From Patti Smith to Kate Bush: The 10 best female covers of male songs

The music industry has long been a male-dominated environment. From the boardrooms of the record label executive down to the Tuesday night bills of our local grassroots venues, music is full of men. This isn’t to say that we’re aiming to be disparaging towards those successful gents, rather to display the fact that gender inequality pervades every aspect of life, including music.

Whilst the musical landscape is markedly different today than it was fifty years ago, with many of our favourite artists of the last ten years being strong, individualistic women such as Miley, Grimes, Lady Gaga or Lizzo, there still exists an unfair balance between men and women in the music industry.

Given the advent of the #MeToo movement and online communities such as shesaid.so, which are paving out a fairer landscape within the artistic industry, it is clear that since the advent of time, music has been dominated by men. If one is to note the most influential classical composers of all time, they are all by men. The same could be said for most of the industry’s most influential musicians, such as the Beatles, The Stones, Bob Dylan et al.

As the Victorian rule of ‘Separate Spheres’ still dictated life until very recently, it is not surprising that women in music have often played second fiddle to men. In fact, Mendelssohn’s older sister, Fanny, was an accomplished composer in her own right. Let that sink in.

If we heed the way that Elvis Presley made Big Mama Thornton’s single ‘Hound Dog’ his own by reappropriating it in a white, male format, you get the picture. For TRNSMT Festival’s founder, Geoff Ellis, to come out and proclaim in the wake of an announcement of a heavily male-oriented lineup that even a 50/50 gender split lineup is “a while away”, it is not hard to notice that music is still in transition to a fairer gender format. Ellis even claimed, “We need more females picking up guitars, forming bands, playing in bands.”

Whilst, Ellis’ statement isn’t necessarily true, as there are innumerable female musicians thriving within the industry, it does go some way in painting a picture of today’s present juncture. This is why it is brilliant to see the likes of Billie Eilish, Little Simz and Angel Olsen socking it to the mainstream and lesser-known acts such as Amyl and the Sniffers, Loose Articles and Deep Tan all carving out their own paths, all the while sticking a big finger up to gender-normative restrictions. 

Coming back to Fanny Mendelssohn, allegedly, she was once told by her father of her musical talent: “That’s all very well, dear, but you’re a girl, so you can’t be a musician. You’ve got to stay at home and make the lives of men better.'” Yes, we have definitely moved on from such overt societal limitations, but the ethos of Mendelssohn Sr.’s comment stil exists today, just in more tacit ways. 

All is not lost. We have been so lucky to have been treated to some of the most iconic women of all time through the medium of music. Aretha Franklin, Ronnie Spector, Patti Smith and Stevie Nicks are just a few of the women who stuck it to misogyny for so long. Subsequently, this got us thinking. What are the best cover versions of songs originally by male artists – but made their own by women?

Expect to see some of the greatest women the world has had to offer. 

The 10 best gender reversal covers:

Judy Collins – ‘Suzanne’

This may be a surprise entry, but Judy Collins’ 1966 take on Leonard Cohen’s poem is nothing but significant. Collins’ version is a beautiful, siren-like take on what was merely a poem by Cohen at the time. In this way, Collins made the song her own. Without her version, it is possible Cohen wouldn’t have been inspired to record his version for his 1967 debut album.

Although the poem was written about Cohen’s platonic relationship with dancer Suzanne Verdal, Collins affords it an ethereal, almost mystical take. Collins sings as if she’d been plucked from an Arthurian court.

Sinéad O’Connor – ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’

What list of covers would be complete without mentioning Ireland’s favourite radical daughter, Sinéad O’Connor. No stranger to protest and a longtime campaigner for women’s rights, it is only right we include this 1990 classic. The original ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ was written by Minneapolis’s most iconic musical product, Prince, in 1985.

Written and composed by Prince for his side project, The Family’s eponymous debut album, it would be O’Connor who made the song her own. In fact, her version was so emotive that it became a worldwide hit. It wasn’t until after O’Connor topped the charts that Prince realised the majesty of his 1985 track and started playing it live.

Kate Bush – ‘Rocket Man’

Is there anything Kate Bush can’t do? Oddly, her cover of ‘Rocket Man’ was released in 1991 as part of the Elton John/Bernie Taupin tribute album Two Rooms: Celebrating the Songs of Elton John & Bernie Taupin. A brilliant and slightly unnerving redux of Elton John 1972 classic, Bush’s version even features a dub-esque bassline in the chorus. It shouldn’t work but it does. It was a commercial success and reached 12 in the UK singles chart and number two in Australia.  

Bush admitted: “From the age of 11, Elton John was my biggest hero. I loved his music, had all his albums and I hoped one day I’d play the piano like him (I still do). When I asked to be involved in this project and was given the choice of a track it was like being asked ‘would you like to fulfil a dream? would you like to be Rocket Man?’… yes, I would.” 

Siouxsie and the Banshees – ‘Dear Prudence’

Possibly the most well-known entry on the list, Siouxsie and the Banshees’ 1983 version of the Beatles original is brilliant. Inherently gothic yet psychedelic, Siouxsie gives the 1968 original an ethereal makeover.

Drenched in chorus and reverb, the Banshees’ cover is so ’80s. With the iconic addition of the harpsichord, the London quartet remained faithful to the hazy original whilst giving it a kaleidoscopic edge, appropriate for the time.

Etta James – ‘At Last’

‘At Last’ is a cover? It sure is. Etta James’ swooning 1960 take on the original is iconic to a fault. Her powerful vocals, the emotive strings, you name it, this cover is shrewdly composed. Even Barack Obama danced to the song at his first inaugural ball. 

The original song was written for a movie, Sun Valley Serenade, in 1941. Written by Glenn Miller and performed by his orchestra, the original has a classically ’40s big-band feel. A downbeat, mid-World War Two hit, it is fantastic in its own right, but no one can doubt the majesty of Etta James’ overtly romantic version.

Nico – ‘These Days’

Although initially written by a 16-year-old Jackson Browne, German icon Nico made the song truly hers. Miraculous for a 16-year-old, Browne’s lyrics expertly detail loss and regret.

Consequently, Nico’s 1967 version from her solo album Chelsea Girlis a melodic and pathos drenched piece. With Jackson Browne featuring on guitar, it is a testament to Nico’s vision that her arrangement is the one that has been covered countless times. 

Adele – ‘Make You Feel My Love’

You would be forgiven for thinking Adele’s 2008 single was an original. Taken from her debut album 19, it is synonymous with the London-born singer. However, it turns out the song was originally written by an artist whose songs have inspired an innumerable number of covers. Who else but the bard himself, Bob Dylan.

Released by Dylan in 1997 as part of his 30th studio album Time Out of Mind, ‘Make You Feel My Love’ has inspired countless covers in itself. Including a Bill Joel take. Regardless, Adele’s soulful iteration is the most definitive. Sorry Bob, sorry Billy.

This Mortal Coil – ‘Song to the Siren’

This Mortal Coil’s take on Tim Buckley’s 1970 folk classic is a haunting twist. Featuring the outstanding vocals of Cocteau Twins‘ Elizabeth Fraser, this synthetic, ice-cool offering is expertly stripped-back and takes the Californian warmth of the original and extinguishes it through the post-industrial cold of ’80s Britain.

Since its release, there has been furious debate over which version is better. Given the individuality of Fraser’s other-worldly voice, you know where we place our hat. Furthermore, her performance is iconic as she literally embodies the titular siren.

Aretha Franklin – ‘Respect’

Originally released by Otis Redding in 1965, it wasn’t until 1967 that the ‘Queen of Soul’, Aretha Franklin, cemented this civil-rights anthem in the collective consciousness. Rearranging the original, Franklin gave the song a defiant and triumphant angle and made it a popular protest song.

An ardent civil-rights campaigner for both feminist and racial issues, her legacy of dignity lives on through this cover. Although she passed away in 2018, Franklin’s version will always be remembered as the ultimate take.

Patti Smith – ‘When Doves Cry’

No definitive list of women in music would be complete without the inclusion of the ‘punk poet laureate’, Patti Smith. The last track on her compilation album Land (1975–2002), Smith’s take on Prince’s 1984 classic, is a spacious rework.

Featuring her unmistakable vocals, this cover is so Patti Smith it is almost unrecognisable from the original. It is a sensual take on the synthetic electronica of the original. 

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