I once wrote, “All Shakespeare is cover songs.” That post is sadly overlooked, I really which it had gotten more traffic.
My analogy has grown, however, and I’d like to bring it back up for discussion.
When you perform Shakespeare (and by that I mean using the text, not writing your own adaptation), you have no choice but to interpret it through your own creative vision. Shakespeare had his, you have yours. This is the essence of a cover song. You both start with the same instructions (recipe?) but then within those constraints you can go in whatever direction you can imagine.
Adaptation is different. Adaptation is more akin to sampling, where you look at an original and think, “I like a piece of this. I will use a piece of this to make my creation more powerful.” Sometimes you take the underlying beat of the entire song and just put a shallow new layer on top of it (the Vanilla Ice / Queen controversy comes to mind). Sometimes, though, you find a piece of one original work that comes and boosts your own work, producing an entirely new thing. Consider Primitive Radio Gods’ Standing Outside A Broken Phone Booth With Money In My Hand, which everybody knows for the B.B. King sample.
In the second case everybody said, “Wow, that’s a great song!” In the first everybody said, “Dude, you completely ripped that off.” Big difference. You have to bring enough of your own stuff to the party, and you have to acknowledge the contributions from the original, or you’re going to get busted trying to ride somebody else’s coattails.
Covers and samples are entirely different things with different points to make. It drives me nuts when people make lists that combine the two, putting She’s the Man next to Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing. Please stop. Each can be artwork in its own way, but they are two very different things.