If one productive thing has come out of the angst and isolation of the pandemic, it’s good music. Our favorite artists are going just as stir–crazy as us, and the result is surprise albums, quarantine live stream concerts and, of course, amazing covers. The value of the cover in the past year has been the comfort they provide—the familiar balm of favorite songs, reimagined as a distraction from our otherwise uncertain reality.
No one knows the labor of love that goes into putting together a cover better than Penn’s a cappella groups. “Everyone has this unique style when they arrange. You can always tell whose arrangement you’re singing,” says Sabrina Elson (C '22), Off the Beat’s music director. It’s a deeply personal and unique practice in intimacy with the song’s artistry. “I get to spend four or five hours with myself listening to music and transcribing it in the way that I want to, which is definitely cathartic,” says Sara Kate Silva (C '22), music director for Counterparts.
Personal, imperfect, and often acoustic covers offer a deep look into an artists’ music taste outside of their own work. Now in quarantine, artists have used Instagram videos as a window into their personal lives, as they sit on their bedroom floors messing around on their guitars. It shows a certain affection for their audience—like saying, "Here is a sneak peak at the songs that makes my heart sing."
Take Cristin Milioti’s emotional interpretation of Bon Iver’s “715 Creeks.” Or Phoebe Bridgers’ and Maggie Rogers’ Bandcamp–exclusive duet of the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris.” Or the viral “Mad World” cover by the lead singer of Tears for Fears and his daughter. And of course, Miley Cyrus’s electric cover of “Heart of Glass.” Death Cab for Cutie even released The Georgia EP, a mosaic of covers of songs from Georgia–based artists, from which their rendition of TLC’s “Waterfalls” is a particular standout. All of these prove that to record a cover is to confess love for the art, the artist, and for the practice of musical interpretation itself. The reflective isolation of quarantine is the perfect space for that.
But while intimate covers have thrived in quarantine, the a cappella cover has been fundamentally interrupted in the virtual space. When campus shut down, so did in–person rehearsals and shows. Once a space of joy and collaboration, the pandemic has rendered the a cappella landscape lonely and isolating. “We can’t sing together. We can’t rehearse over Zoom,” says Sara Kate. Between lag and variations in individual audio levels and microphone quality, virtual rehearsals just aren’t feasible. Under normal circumstances, the process of putting together a cover is intense, listening to songs over and over, getting to know every detail. “It’s really just about sitting with the music.” says Landry Krebs, (C '21), Off the Beat’s outgoing music director. Before the pandemic, all of that work would come together in rehearsals. But now, they don’t get that feeling of togetherness. In Zoom rehearsal, everyone is muted; there’s no way to tell how everyone sounds together. “All of my favorite things about singing really do come from being with other people,” says Sabrina. “That’s gone now.”
The limited ability to perform as a group is taking a major toll on musicians’ core relationship with music. “Recording a cover in my room and getting likes for it—that has none of what music actually means to me,” says Landry. She’s served as music director for Off the Beat since the spring of her sophomore year and has just passed the baton to Sabrina. For her, her last year in Off the Beat has been tainted by the loneliness of quarantine. “To be completely honest with you, I don’t really feel like a musician anymore,” says Landry. “The biggest toll [of the pandemic] has been taken on my creativity and artistry.”
Then again, maybe that loneliness has also created potential for a new sort of relationship with music. Sara Kate has grown to appreciate the process of arranging covers a lot more and finds warmth in the Counterparts group chat, which is alive with song recommendations. “It’s kind of a light in an otherwise damp circumstance,” she says. Landry too is trying to rekindle her dwindling passion for music. She’s learning guitar, and it’s reigniting some of the love that the pandemic has taken from her. She’s learning to put together songs for herself, apart from Off the Beat.
The virtual format is also redefining how a cappella groups perform. While covers like the infamous “Imagine” felt empty, the love that goes into a cappella groups’ virtual covers is joyful and triumphant. For Off the Beat, their recent cover of “Fix You” was a glimmer of the energy lost without the ability to perform in person. They brought alumni back from Off the Beat’s founding. Sabrina was charged with putting the 60 separate videos together to make the finished cover, spending hours editing, mixing, and perfecting the video. She laughs, “The file was so big I couldn’t watch it until it was done. I had no idea what it was going to be.” But the result was powerful. “It reminded us of this community we had,” says Landry. “‘Fix You’ proved that, even though it’s virtual, it can still be really incredible.”
So, what are some of the music directors’ favorite covers from their respective groups? Sara Kate’s favorites from Counterparts include “Love So Soft,” “Standards,” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which they recorded over spring break just before campus shut down last March. Landry and Sabrina’s Off the Beat favorites—apart from "Fix You"—include their renditions of “Keep Lyin,” “Sign of the Times,” and “Blow Me Away.” “Those just, like, hit—just unforgettable,” says Landry.
In terms of other covers to add to your quarantine playlist, Landry suggests Tori Kelly’s acoustic cover of Drake’s “Time Flies” as well as Ariana Grande’s rendition of “I Won’t Say I’m in Love” from Hercules. Sara Kate recommends a cover of Billie Eillish’s “when the party’s over” by Lewis Capaldi, and anything by Postmodern Jukebox, particularly “Love Fool” and “Habits, ” both featuring Haley Reinhart.
For now, there is a certain silent sadness on Locust Walk without the spontaneous riffing covers, as a cappella groups work to promote their spring shows. One day soon, Counterparts and Off the Beat will again be able to perform in person, to hear each other, to be together, to revel in the joy and energy of each other’s love for music. In the meantime, we can find joy in the unique art of the cover and all of the love that goes into it.