Artists Against Authenticity: The Watering Down of “True Colours”

R-1028344-1281589732.jpegAs a teenager in the ’80s, I can’t say I was a huge fan of Cyndi Lauper. I didn’t dislike her, but she was a bit too pop-oriented and quirky for my record collection, which featured heavier rock acts such as the Who, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. However, one song that always gave me goose bumps at the high school dance (although I hid this from my buddies, obviously) was Lauper’s 1986 hit “True Colours.” There was something irresistible about the lyrics and the way they worked with the musical structure. And Lauper’s dramatic delivery was almost frightening in its potency. It was cold-shiver material. If I felt this way about it, I can’t imagine what the girls on the other side of the gym were feeling when it came on.

Later as I developed as a musician, I came to appreciate even more the complexities of what was going on within this recording. True magic in music happens when elements of chords and melodies weave together as they create and release tension. When an emotive lyric is infused throughout these changes, the perfect synergy is created. Cyndi Lauper’s version of “True Colours” is a shining example of this musical nirvana. It isn’t a surprise that she won the Best Vocal Performance Grammy in 1987 for this song.

“True Colours” was written by the successful songwriting duo of Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly, who also wrote “Like a Virgin” for Madonna as well as the Bangles’ “Eternal Flame.” Interestingly it was the only song on Lauper’s second record that she didn’t write or co-write. They pitched it to her, and she made it her first single as well as the title of the album. It is arguably her most well-known song and has been covered countless times all over the world, and for good reason: it can carry the weight of numerous lyrical interpretations.

Originally written about Steinberg’s mother, the song has gone on to represent the causes of female objectification in advertising, the LGBT community, and most recently anti-bullying –  a much-publicized problem in recent years. The themes in “True Colours” fit the cause of anti-bullying very well: encouragement in the face of adversity, overcoming depressive thoughts, the importance of reaching out to one another, etc.

A group of Canadian musicians, calling themselves Artists Against Bullying, has recently released a version of this song, with the proceeds going to Kids’ Help Phone. There is no arguing that this is a great cause. Anything we can do to shed more light on this problem is beneficial. However, there is a major problem with the recording itself that has to be addressed. This rendition takes shocking liberties with the original chord structure, rendering it abysmal in light of Lauper’s near-perfect initial recording. They managed to squeeze the beautifully unique shape of the original into the cookie cutter machine of mindless pop music – complete with a rap that makes a dismal attempt at emotionally connecting with the real lyric. Great cause, bad effort.

People who understand the structure of music will immediately detect the specific problems with this latest version compared to the original. However, you don’t need to be a musician to hear that something’s wrong when both versions are played back to back. Listen to the Artists Against version first:

Now, listen to the Cyndi Lauper version:

First of all, without even talking in technical music terms, you must be able to hear the rich chord changes and intertwining notes that ebb and flow through the structure of Lauper’s version. These complexities were commonplace in many mainstream Top 40 hits back in the ’80s, and even into the ‘90s. I’d never try to argue that cookie cutter music wasn’t permeating the airwaves during this time. We’ve had lowest common denominator songs charting as long as charts have been in existence. However, as the music business entered into the new millennium the internet gutted the long-standing infrastructure and this denominator got much, much lower. In a panic, the powers that be scrambled to make mainstream pop as simple and accessible to the masses as possible. They started to use the McDonald’s business model: fast, easy to digest, simple, predictable. Unfortunately, it makes you feel a little sick afterwards.

Technically this latest version of “True Colours” suffers the dumbed-down treatment. The arrangers have taken an overused chord progression – found in an infinite amount of hits in the past ten years – and applied it to the melody and lyrics. This chord progression can be traced back to numerous Nickelback songs as well as a few by Justin Beiber and others. The result is an embarrassing, unimaginative ruining of a song traditionally treated with reverence by a plethora of artists. Even the cast of Glee got the chords right, and even some of the harmonic complexities of the original arrangement. It is plain galling when a producer or an artist changes fundamental aspects of a song, and up until the Artists Against version practically everyone who tackled this song did so with a sensitivity to its hallowed legacy in pop history.

Why have Artists Against Bullying not received a bigger backlash for butchering this great song? Probably because people are afraid the criticism will affect the anti-bullying strategy which is the main goal of the song’s release. Understandable. I guess. But going back to the McDonald’s analogy, it’s ultimately not too surprising when you realize that people are content to go back for the same old tasteless, half-cold empty food that has no nutritional value. McDonald’s even tries to sell food such as salads, which are traditionally seen as healthy yet in this context are sprayed with chemicals and drowned in fatty dressings. Why should this prevailing attitude and approach limit itself to food? It makes total sense for artists and producers to do the bait and switch on something with merit, then try to streamline it for mass sale – no matter the compromise in quality.

Luckily, for the more discerning restaurant goers and music fans there are many choices out there to satisfy a true desire for quality. Therefore, when something of quality is presented as a piece of crap – such as this latest take on a wonderful piece of music  – people who have taste are understandably offended. So to everyone responsible for producing this miserable rendition of “True Colours,” including the self-serving and vapid pop singers who eagerly aided and abetted in this musical travesty, you need to know that despite the cause, despite the intention, despite the pseudo-emotive delivery, you let the spirit of music down by failing to respect three very important elements in music: the songwriter, the original version, and the fan.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Artists Against Authenticity: The Watering Down of “True Colours”

  1. Julia

    I think this song has inspired a lot of ppl to stand up to bullying and Im thankful for that

  2. P. Kendall

    Great writing and comments as usual! Though the 80’s did see the advent of the Music Biz re-invented as “McDonalds” type entertainment, there were indeed moments of true creativity resulting in quality Pop music (every now-and-again)… Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors as already pointed out … Howard Jones’ “No One Ever Is to Blame” is another similar example. I’ve always found that some of the Cure’s and Depeche Mode’s more obsure material managed to transcend the usual Pop-Drival of the 80’s as well.
    But hey, compared to the crap that’s out there now, trying to pass for “music”, the 80’s were positively loaded with great tunes!
    Thanks again for another great article Chris!

  3. Wow. Just…wow. I couldn’t actually make it to the end of the Artists Against version. (Substitute “wow” with a strong expletive and you’ll be much closer to my original reaction!)

    Every identikit-chart-hit device seems to have been employed. The chord changes are not just simplified but quantised, and can I hear a conspicuous autotune on those voices? You’re spot-on with the McDonald’s analogy – I was never a fan of Lauper myself but her version absolutely shines in comparison to that one.

    • Thanks for reading! Yes my reaction was the same when I heard it on the radio. Brutal. And of course the autotune is out in full force as well as every other soul-sucking device they have at their fingertips. The ruination of it all! Ha!!

  4. Chris, your wit and humor are weapons against this new scourge of noob-classics! It doesn’t matter what the cause is, anti-bullying or no….they shouldn’t rip apart a song to this point; and then have the audacity to hide behind the cause, crap is crap. At least they recorded/dubbed their own instruments.

    • Aaron I really appreciate you taking the time to read the piece. Yes it could have been worse. They could have just stolen the karaoke version from somewhere. Then again, it would have been the correct chord changes if they’d done that. Ha!!

  5. Glenn Simmons

    I guess this version just shows the true colours of modern music..

    Music became a visual concept for the masses in the mid eighties with the advent of the music video. Less about the music, more about the sweet ass on the screen. Not everyone can appreciate a sweet melody. Anyone can appreciate a sweet ass.

    Money makers began to say: “why bother with those pesky music aficionados. Most of them got no money anyway, and they’re really picky about what they buy. . But the rest of the crowd will buy anything with a sweet ass!! Or maybe it goes back to: “Hey, let’s get a stereo in every car. Then they’ll need something to put in there. Then we can give them something with a sweet ass!!” Was it the John Deere people who canvassed for a big lawn in front of everyone’s house so they could sell them lawn mowers! Not that simple, but it can be indicative of the process. And then let’s bring shame to those who didn’t comply. Great advertising tool is peer pressure. So somehow the whole western system of “buy my stuff” filters all the way down to the shitty chord changes of this version of True Colours. But then again, people probably do receive pleasure from those shitty chord changes so who am I to say it’s wrong. It just is.

    When I was a kid, the people who listened to music were those who appreciated it. There was less money back then, so only those who were really moved by music found the money to invest in a stereo. In my case it was a record player. I still have She Loves You among a bunch of 45s from the early sixties. I was the only kid in Green’s Harbour with those records, and one of the few kids who had any records at all.. Music was way down on people’s list of priorities cause lots of people didn’t particularly care for it, and they didn’t spend money they didn’t have on things they didn’t care for, much less things they didn’t need. Today’s music has as much to do with a stereo in every car as anything else.

    • Glenn, first of all thanks for reading. Means a lot.

      Your assessment of the larger situation regarding the disintegration of mainstream music is revelatory. You’ve peeled the layers back even further to reveal a larger “conspiracy” of sorts where big business focuses on combining efforts to make “the big sale.”

      As you say, we can’t discount the stereo business in all this. Why does Sony make music and stereos I wonder? 🙂

  6. wayne over

    Again Chris…superb writing…honest to God you should be writing for Rolling Stone ….

    • Wayne thanks so much for reading and for the kind words. It would be a dream to write for a major music publication but for now I’m thankful for every reader who, like you, takes the time to visit here and read what I write.

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