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ARHU Dean’s Podcast Debates Musical Remakes
Collage by Lauren Biagini; photos by Alamy
Which version was better: the original “Nothing Compares 2 U” by Prince, or the cover by Sinéad O’Connor, who turned his funky number into a haunting breakup lament? How about “I Will Always Love You”? Was it more successful as Dolly Parton’s plaintive tune or as Whitney Houston’s power ballad?
For pop music diehards, bickering over the merits of cover songs and their original versions is as much fun as debating whether the art on the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album is meant to tell listeners that Paul is dead. Stephanie Shonekan, an ethnomusicologist and new dean of the College of Arts and Humanities, has turned these amiable arguments into fodder for her podcast, “Cover Story.”
Shonekan’s podcasting career began in 2015, when she was chair of Black studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia. It was a tense time on campus, as students protested racism at the university, ultimately leading to the resignations of the chancellor and the system president. She decided to launch a show called “#Black,” where members of the campus community could come together weekly to talk about the struggles Black people faced at the university and around the country.
In 2020, Shonekan returned to Mizzou after a few years at the University of Massachusetts. KBIA, the local NPR affiliate that had produced “#Black,” asked her to come back. “I definitely wanted to continue podcasting, but I wanted something a little more joyful, a little bit more uplifting, a little bit more reflective of all the ways Black people live, not just at the brunt of white supremacy,” she said.
So she turned to her work in ethnomusicology. The daughter of a Trinidadian mother and a Nigerian father, Shonekan had grown up with the sounds of calypso music and West African highlife, full of jazzy horns and guitar plucking. She learned that she could tell “who people are by the music that they create, the music that they disseminate, the music that they consume, the stories that are told in that music,” she said.
In each episode, Shonekan and a guest—music fans from different walks of life—discuss two versions of a song, analyzing their differences and merits. In all cases, either the song’s initial artist or the cover artist (or both) are people of color.
In the show’s first season, which debuted last spring, Shonekan and her guests mulled over “Yesterday,” “Piece of My Heart” and “Before I Let Go.” They take up songs like “Respect” and “Ghost of Tom Joad” in the second season that began in October.
Some “Cover Story” episodes delve into the personal memories associated with specific songs. In season two, Shonekan invited her husband as a guest to talk about “their” song, “I Believe in You and Me,” originally recorded by the Four Tops and covered by Whitney Houston. “It was great to have a conversation around love and life and how it started and how it’s going, and how that song remains true to our relationship.”
But some marital disputes can’t be fixed with a song. Shonekan insists that the Houston version is better, but her husband remains solidly Team Four Tops.
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