Whose 'Boots' are you buyin'?



December 6, 2005

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

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.