The Boston alt-rocker Juliana Hatfield released a collection of Olivia Newton-John covers. The Providence art-rock outfit Arc Iris covered Joni Mitchell’s beloved album “Blue.” A group of musicians, helmed by the Boston indie-rock band Future Teens, took a crack at Carly Rae Jepsen’s 2015 LP "E•MO•TION."
I’m hesitant to call these 2018 releases a trend, because three does not a trend make. It’s more of a tendency. Whatever the case, I wrote about it more than once this year.
“In a way, the album is a defense of Newton-John — her artistry, her skill and her time-tested appeal,” I wrote of Hatfield’s project.
“[Arc Iris] offers ... a new vision of Joni Mitchell: no longer the archetype of the confessional songwriter, but a trailblazer, an experimenter,” I opined of Arc Iris’ trippy re-imagining of “Blue.”
What do such projects accomplish, besides dusting off well-worn classics and buffing them up to a novel sheen? According to their creators, they reveal how gender bias has shaped the popular understanding of these musicians, and urge us to consider them in a new light. Hatfield told me she wanted to challenge the perception that Newton-John was a “sweet confection with no depth or substance.” Jocie Adams, Arc Iris’ frontwoman, argued that Mitchell was much more innovative than people give her credit for.
Indeed, the legacies of both artists have been shaped by some degree to sexist double standards. Mitchell, a visionary on par with Bob Dylan, is still somehow relegated to the lesser ranks of the “confessional” songwriter, while Newton-John, a massive star, has been denied a meaningful place in the canon. These cover albums make an argument for the durability of their work, and invite us to reconsider its usual framing. They reflect similar efforts to rethink popular hierarchies, exemplified in NPR Music's Turning the Tables project, and dovetail with a national reckoning with sexual abuse in the entertainment industry. The supremacy of male cultural influence, it seems, has begun to chip away.
Jepsen, who rose to fame in 2012 with the sugary mega-hit "Call Me Maybe," has not had to contend with quite the same prejudices as her forebears. Poptimism — the belief that pop music is worthy of the same critical consideration as rock — is now the dominant analytical framework, so much so that it has incurred some backlash. But the upshot is that male rock genius is no longer the gold standard against which everything else is judged, and pop stardom, which so often finds its most cogent expression in the avatars of young women, no longer disqualifies music from serious examination.
So is it really all that radical that a bunch of indie bands deemed Jepsen, a cannily engineered commercial pop artist, worthy of tribute? I'm not so sure. The compilation's title, "Emo-tion," draws a cheeky comparison between emo music, a genre defined by grungy guitars and the sadness of young white men, and Jepsen's shiny synth-pop, which mainly concerns itself with the love life of a millennial woman.
The equivalence — of guitars and synths, male melancholy and female desire — may surprise some, but it's very much a function of the times. For a lot of young people, it's probably obvious. That's progress.