When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week Vampire Weekend takes on Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m Goin’ Down.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!
When Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m Goin’ Down” became the seventh single from Born In The U.S.A. to chart in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100, it entered a holy realm of pop saturation only previously inhabited by Michael Jackson’s Thriller and, later, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814. According to Boss biographer Dave Marsh, there were even some industry types who thought a seventh single would be “overkill,” and the fact that Springsteen didn’t release a video or remix for the song, despite its popularity, infers that he and his crew were somewhat sensitive to pop culture becoming fatigued with his heartland rock ‘n’ roll. Nevertheless, 28 years after its release, the track remains certifiably timeless, an anthem aimed less at the plight of the working class—as much of Springsteen’s work has notoriously been—than at the agonizing frustrations of romantic defeat. In a manner any wounded lover can relate to at some point in his or her life, he sings:
“I pull you close now baby, but when we kiss I can feel a doubt
I remember back when we started
My kisses used to turn you inside out
I used to drive you to work in the morning
Friday night I’d drive you all around
You used to love to drive me wild, yeah
But lately girl you get your kicks from just dragging me down”
Bellowed by the All American Rejects’ Tyson Ritter, these lyrics would come off as overwrought emo poetry. But, the Boss adds a certain girth to the proceedings that displaces any heart-on-our-sleeve embarrassment, making him pretty much the perfect man: half G.I. Joe, half Romeo. And, somehow, the whole package translates authentically, though, it’s worth noting that Springsteen allegedly felt the polished sheen of Born In The U.S.A. and the ensuing “Bossmania” was taking his career a little further into pop territory than he felt comfortable going. He was very proud of the record’s predecessor, the more roots-y, introspective Nebraska, so you get the sense that the shift was bizarre for him to handle at times.
Where Springsteen’s heroes are giants of the American folk tradition—Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, to name a couple—the collective influences of Vampire Weekend are more international in scope, drawing mostly from African popular music. Self-branded “Upper West Side Soweto,” the quartet’s sound has earned it one of the largest audiences for an indie band the industry has ever seen, perhaps indicating its Afro obsessions, while prominent, don’t drive the creative process as much as its more understood pop influences do. Consider their take on “I’m Goin’ Down,” which positively recalls Death Cab For Cutie before it does Kanda Bongo Man or Yondo Sister, a spare, but endearing indie-pop affair that contrasts nicely with the Boss’ more rousing original.