Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024
The Observer

Pop, meet indie rock: a think piece

Eric Richelsen | The Observer
Eric Richelsen | The Observer

Last week, Ryan Adams released an album-length cover of Taylor Swift’s “1989.” The alt-country singer refashioned every song from Swift’s blockbuster pop album in the style of Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska,” in the process revealing a melancholic strain in the originals. The album is maybe not as revelatory as some critics are claiming, but it’s pleasant enough coffee shop background music. In the aftermath of its release, Twitter lit up with jokes about what other middle-aged rock stars should cover pop albums — my personal favorite being Molly Lambert’s suggestion that Jeff Tweedy endorse Katy Perry. But it got me thinking about the reverse: which modern pop stars should reinterpret seminal indie rock albums in whole?

Taylor Swift - “Brighten the Corners”

Taylor Swift once mocked a dude who listened to “some indie record that's much cooler than mine,” but that lyric also hinted at her wry sense of humor. Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus quite frequently writes songs with a similarly wry, witty worldview, making Swift the perfect pop star to reinterpret his music. “Brighten the Corners” is perhaps Pavement’s cleanest, most focused album, with melodies that would impress even a pop songwriter as masterful as Swift. The bridge of “Shake it Off” proved she would be the perfect match for “Shady Lane” and its sneering chorus of “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.” Malkmus’ ironic lyricism on “Stereo” — “Listen to me! I’m on the stereo!” — would become a world-conquering anthem in the hands of America’s biggest pop star, whose music is, quite literally, blasting from every stereo.

Lorde - “Let It Be”

Lorde has already proven herself to be a fan of The Replacements — she covered “Swingin’ Party” as a B-side and frequently performs the song live. “Let It Be” is a great coming-of-age album that explores so many of the themes Lorde dealt with on her first album, “Pure Heroine.” Lorde will give Paul Westerberg’s songs a moody electropop sheen, updating them for a new generation while showing how universal those themes are. A fan of the ‘Mats herself, Lorde, just 18 years old herself, would do justice to classics like “Sixteen Blue,” which perfectly encapsulates the awkwardness of adolescence, and “Unsatisfied,” the ultimate anthem of disillusionment.

Miley Cyrus - “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”

I’ve long thought Miley Cyrus should record a country album; her covers of “Jolene” and “Look What They’ve Done to My Song” put her deep, raspy voice to better use than any of her pop material. Covering Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” as a 70s countrypolitan album, with lush, string-laden productions, would be a perfect vehicle for Cyrus to venture into country music and regain some critical cred. The album’s “Ashes of American Flags” is almost like the older, nuanced take on the patriotism of “Party in the U.S.A.” Plus, Jeff Tweedy sings about getting stoned on “Heavy Metal Drummer,” and we all know how much Cyrus loves her medicinal marijuana.

Beyoncé - “Kid A”

Beyoncé’s 2013 self-titled album cemented her position as the most experimental, risk-taking of the major pop stars. The songs on that album resist traditional pop structures, often stretching to nearly six minutes in length, and the productions sound sleek and futuristic. Radiohead is the most experimental band in indie rock and nowhere more so than on 2001’s “Kid A,” on which the band abandoned guitars for synths and drum machines. But what is so compelling about “Kid A” is how human Thom Yorke sounds in the midst of electronic soundscapes. Beyoncé’s powerhouse voice has the same effect; she is able to wring emotion out of nearly anything (see her singing Coldplay’s “Yellow”). Her covers of songs like “How To Disappear Completely” and “Optimistic” would be beautiful reinterpretations, anchored by that voice and some equally boundary-pushing production.