At its best, a great cover of an unforgettable pop song captures an element
that was bubbling just under the surface in the original and takes it to a
whole new level. Think of Soft Cell's cover of "Tainted Love" by Gloria
Jones, or Patti Smith's version of "Gloria" by Van Morrison.
Unfortunately, covers also can move in the opposite direction, deflating,
subverting or otherwise trampling on everything that was wonderful about the
original, twisting the message until it becomes the exact opposite of what
the songwriter intended.
Earlier this year, Jessica Simpson brought the desecrated cover to an
all-time nadir, trumping even the previous record holder -- Madonna for her
version of "American Pie" -- with a rendition of the Nancy Sinatra gem
"These Boots Are Made for Walkin' " on the soundtrack of the execrable film
version of "The Dukes of Hazzard," arriving in stores on DVD today with the
non-bonus of Simpson's cheesecake video for the tune.
Nancy Sinatra, the daughter of Frank Sinatra and his first wife, Nancy
Barbato Sinatra, had some big shoes to fill while following in her father's
footsteps as a pop star in the late '60s. She did it with "Boots" and a lot
of help from Oklahoma-born Lee Hazlewood, who had scored some success as a
country crooner before pairing with Frank's daughter to create a unique
sound that some critics have called "cowboy psychedelia."
Recorded with the backing of Phil Spector's legendary session pros, the
Wrecking Crew, Nancy Sinatra's version of "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'
" became a No. 1 hit in the United States and Great Britain in 1966 at a
time when the Beatles dominated the pop world and her dad could no longer
dent the charts himself -- a source of considerable jealousy on his part.
It is impossible to avoid the original's context of a strong young woman
asserting her independence, strength and individuality in the face of the
dominant men in her life: her father, Frank; her first husband, teen idol
Tommy Sands (their marriage had ended after five years in 1965), and her new
mentor, Hazlewood. The producer and songwriter famously encouraged Nancy to
sing the song as if she were a 16-year-old ingenue giving the brush-off to a
40-year-old man; at the time, Nancy was 26 and Hazlewood was 37.
Flaunting her considerable sex appeal but recording in an era when the
feminist movement was taking shape, Sinatra made it clear she was nobody's
plaything, virtually snarling her message of self-empowerment: "You keep
lyin' when you oughta be truthin'/You keep losing when you oughta not bet
... These boots are made for walking, and that's just what they'll do/One of
these days these boots are gonna walk all over you."
Simpson certainly isn't at a loss for men to assert herself against.
There is her manipulative father-manager, there are the MTV producers and
executives who so cheerfully helped her craft the cliched and demeaning
image of a stone-dumb but oh-so-sexy blond, and there is her own teen-idol
soon-to-be-ex-husband Nick Lachey, that heartless cad who dared to rein in
her shopping habits.
Unfortunately, in stark contrast to Sinatra, Simpson sounds like an
under-age phone sex seductress while cooing her substantially reworked
lyrics -- she claims she rewrote them to better evoke the film's character
of Daisy Duke -- over a disappointingly soulless groove crafted by Jimmy Jam
and Terry Lewis, the usually reliable producers who crafted a classic for
another self-empowered heroine with Janet Jackson's "Control."
"You believe you've stopped me for a reason (uh)/Now I'm pretending my
bending's just for fun," Simpson chirps to a highway patrolman who has
stopped her for speeding. "You keep playin' where I got you playin'
(yeah)/These double- D initials work to run."
Propelled by the blatant come-on of Simpson's delivery and aided by a
video that finds her traipsing on a bar "Coyote Ugly"-style in a pair of
cutoffs shorter than most bikini bottoms -- another bonus on the DVD is a
feature promising, "Learn how they made the shorts so short and how to make
your own!" -- the retooled cover made it as high as No. 12 on Billboard's
pop albums chart after its release in June, while prompting some Christian
groups to call for a Jessica boycott.
Simpson's post-feminist defenders -- and there are a few, led by
controversy-courting Camille Paglia-wannabes who've grown tired of
championing Madonna -- contend that Simpson is as powerful a woman as
Sinatra was, that the former begat the latter, and that the only thing that
has changed is the mode of expression. These are different times, and
Jessica is freer to be much naughtier than Nancy could have dreamed, but
she's still the one who's in control, the argument goes.
Unfortunately for them, there is just no denying the unseemly and
pathetic way that a hapless Willie Nelson, standing in as the older
father-lover figure in the video, lusts after Simpson as she gyrates like a
table dancer beside him and twitters, "Can I get a hand clap for the way I
work my back?" It's as unappealing a scene as any horrible nightmare that
Marilyn Manson or Trent Reznor ever crafted.
Simpson's cover of "These Boots Are Made for Walkin' " isn't the first;
the tune has been remade dozens of times by artists ranging from Boy George
to Billy Ray Cyrus, KMFDM to Megadeth and Gerri Halliwell to LaToya Jackson.
But nearly 40 years after its release, Sinatra's original remains the
best, and it will survive and endure long after Simpson's has faded from
memory -- even though she plans to bring it back yet again on her next
album, "And the Band Played On," scheduled for release next spring.