Leona Lewis must die (or at least be stopped from covering classics)

As I was driving to do an interview during work today, I flicked over to Radio One for a bit, just in time to catch the music news. What I heard next made me want to throw up in my mouth.

Before today I’d heard the name Leona Lewis thrown around before, but I’ve never had a clue as to who she is. According to wikipedia “Lewis first came to prominence in 2006 when she won the third series of the British television series The X Factor,” which goes some way towards explaining why I don’t know who she is, as I pay no attention to shows like The X Factor, or their kin.

So why has Leona Lewis sparked my ire?  That bit can be explained by simply paraphrasing what I heard on Radio One.

“Leona Lewis has been talking about her new cover of Hurt”

“Hurt?” I found myself wondering. Surely they can’t mean Trent Reznor’s magnum opus? Apparently they can, and did, mean that, as I found out when they played a clip of it. A terrible, warbly, clip of it.

Although that five second clip told me all I needed to know, I decided to at least give her the benefit of the doubt, put aside my biases and listen to the song without my preconceptions clouding my judgement.

I wish I hadn’t bothered, because my preconceptions were exactly right. What I sat through was three minutes and forty one seconds of over-produced, emotionless crap. If there’s one thing that song does not need, it’s someone warbling their way through it.

The thing that offends me most about her cover is how completely nondescript it sounds. For the record, I don’t like the Johnny Cash cover either. But at least when he covered the song, he put something of himself into it. It sounds authentic, and whether you like it or not, Cash made that song his own. The same can’t be said of Lewis’ version. Had I happened across this cover playing on the radio without hearing who it was, I wouldn’t be able to pick out the artist – and no, that’s not because I had no idea who Leona Lewis was before today, it’s because it just as easily sounds like it’s Christina Aguilera, or Whitney Houston, or Celine Dion, or Mariah Carey, or basically any of the women who do that whole diva thing. Yes, Lewis has a very good voice, but she does that horrible thing that women in mainstream pop with that kind of voice do, just power their way through the chorus, and get louder and louder. And that is precisely not the kind of treatment a song like Hurt should be given. The song is so powerful – such a classic – because of its subtleties, its nuances. If Reznor had just belted through the original, I doubt it would have gained the iconic status it has today. The power of that song lies within the cracks in his voice; the moments he falters; the brief seconds when he sounds on the edge of tears; the ups and the downs. Lewis has completely missed the point.

In fact, it was patently obvious from the interview she did with Radio One that she had missed the point. She started talking about what a healing song it is, which made me wonder if she even knew the title of the album it was originally from, let alone listened to it. If you don’t happen to know the title, it’s The Downward Spiral, and if the name itself isn’t a dead give away, it’s an album written by a man wrought with severe depression, who was suffering a serious drug addiction. It’s an album which plunges the depths of the worst sides of the human condition. And Hurt, as the final track, is literally at the bottom of the spiral, about a complete loss of self-worth, about getting to the point of being so broken down you’re not even sure you can even feel anymore. And I find Leona Lewis’ apparent obliviousness to that offensive – because it’s completely ignorant of the struggle involved in the act of artistry that lead to the song’s creation – and as far as music goes, I think there’s no bigger crime than that.

I’ll happily admit that I’m not a particularly emotional person. I can count the amount of times I’ve cried over the last 5 years on one hand, and still have some fingers left over. But of the five or so times I’ve seen Nine Inch Nails live, they’ve always performed that song, and it’s always driven me close to tears. I can vividly recall seeing them in 2007, in a hall filled with a few thousand people, all singing that song in unison, all singing our hearts out. It was one of the closest things I’ve come to a religious experience, and sharing that song with all those people was a touching, humanising moment that I’ll no doubt carry with me for the rest of my life. I’m sure many of the people at that gig, or who’ve seen the song performed at other NIN gigs will have similar things to say. It’s an indisputable work of art, and what Leona Lewis has done to that piece of art with her cover is analogous to taking black spray paint to the Mona Lisa.

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