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X Factor row: Is it wrong for pop singers to cover drug-themed songs?

  • 29 November 2011
  • From the section Magazine
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Janet Devlin and Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers
Image caption The needle and the damage done: Devlin and Kiedis may interpret the same song rather differently

An X Factor contestant has come under fire for performing a song about heroin abuse during the family show. But with so many narcotic references in popular music, is it possible to insist on drug-free cover versions?

When wholesome would-be popster Janet Devlin trilled Under the Bridge by the Red Hot Chili Peppers on reality television programme The X Factor, the Saturday peak-time setting was somewhat removed from the track's lyrical message of degradation, squalor and despair.

Devlin and the show's producers were attacked for exposing family audiences to a song about heroin abuse.

Charity Kidscape called the song choice "disturbing and irresponsible" while counselling service Focus 12 warned producers that their duty to protect young people from the horrors of addiction was "not something that should be taken lightly".

The Daily Mail attacked the show's lack of concern over "troubling lyrics about heroin needles drawing blood". In fact, during her performance Devlin - who was subsequently voted out of the contest - omitted the song's final verse, the only part of it to deal directly with intravenous drug use.

Shorn of these lines, the track may hardly be on a par with Cold Turkey by the Plastic Ono Band. But the furore raises the question of whether it is possible to avoid mentions of illegal substances in a genre where such references, usually coded, abound.

Devlin is not the first pop act to fall foul of Under the Bridge's dark message, after all. When the girl group All Saints covered it in 1998, reaching number one in the UK, they also left out the last verse. Anthony Kiedis, who co-wrote the track about his own fight with heroin, said he was aggrieved that the band "didn't know what they were singing about".

Likewise, apparent allusions to the drug in There She Goes by the La's ("Pulsing through my veins... No-one else could heal my pain") were lost on clean-living Christian indie-poppers Sixpence None The Richer when they recorded the track in 1999. Matt Slocum, guitarist for the Texan group said it was a "bit of a shock" when a local newspaper pointed out what was glaringly evident to more worldly listeners, even if songwriter Lee Mavers has never outlined the meaning directly.

But such themes have not always provoked complaints. Mobile phone company Vodafone saw nothing incongruous about soundtracking their adverts with The Only Ones' Another Girl, Another Planet, whose lyrics ("I always flirt with death, I look ill but I don't care about it... I won't need rehabilitating... Space travel's in my blood... I'm on another planet with you") tell of songwriter Peter Perrett's long-standing heroin addiction.

And yet most tracks of this ilk function perfectly well on another, more innocent level - ambiguity being a necessary function of addressing such themes while also hoping to get played on the radio, according to the Daily Telegraph's chief rock critic Neil McCormick.

"Most of the great drug songs or sex songs are written in code - the code of the hipsters of the day," he says.

Image caption Performed by Susan Boyle, Perfect Day assumes a different meaning than when sung by Lou Reed

"If covers of songs about drugs were banned, you'd never be able to record anything by the Beatles after 1967."

Indeed, McCormick points out that few people, if any, would realise that the jaunty Got To Get You Into My Life, from the band's 1966 album Revolver, was about cannabis, had its author Paul McCartney not explicitly pointed the fact out.

But this can work both ways. In interviews, Lou Reed has always steadfastly insisted that Perfect Day is not about drugs, and the author of Heroin and I'm Waiting For The Man can hardly be accused of not being upfront when he addresses themes of substance misuse.

Yet his laconic delivery and personal history of addiction, combined with the song's use during an overdose scene in the film Trainspotting, have led many to ignore his protestations that Perfect Day had no opiate-fuelled subtext. When a version recorded by a variety of singers for a BBC advert topped the charts in 1997, the Observer asserted confidently that it was "almost certainly" about heroin.

McCormick, a huge fan of the track, argues that this example demonstrates why seeking to impose a ban on such tracks is futile - they will always mean what the listener wants them to.

"It does sound like a comedown song that's written by a heroin addict," he admits.

"But when I heard Perfect Day for the first time, and when I loved Lou Reed as a teenager, I had no idea. When I discovered what it might be about I was a little bit disappointed. For me it's a song about a perfect day and it always will be."

Certainly, its alleged double meaning did not prevent it being reinterpreted by the least edgy of performers, reality TV star Susan Boyle. Additionally, few eyebrows were raised when she covered the Rolling Stones' Wild Horses, with its lyrics ("I watched you suffer a dull aching pain, Now you decided to show me the same... Wild horses couldn't drag me away") apparently shedding a layer of meaning in the absence of Keith Richards.

The question remains, however, whether harrowing tales of addiction can ever make prime-time family viewing. For Paul Stokes, associate editor of music magazine Q, the issue over whether to tackle sensitive subject matter is not so much one of taste as of talent.

"A more valid question would be - should an X Factor contestant be tackling a song like this if they don't have the artistic chops to do it justice?," he says. "I find that far more offensive, to be honest."