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ALEX COHEN, host:

In June, the R&B singer Rihanna and rapper Jay-Z released a song called "Umbrella."

(Soundbite of song, "Umbrella")

RIHANNA (R&B Singer): (Singing) Now that it's raining more than ever, know that we'll still have each other. You can stand under my umbrella. You can stand under my umbrella. Ella, ella, eh, eh, eh.

COHEN: The song was a hit, so much so that soon lots of other folks were doing their own version of "Umbrella."

(Soundbite of YouTube recordings of "Umbrella")

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) You have my heart.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) And we'll never be worlds apart. Maybe in…

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) …magazines, but you'd still be my star.

COHEN: Those "Umbrella" covers were culled from YouTube. The song was also recorded by pop star Mandy Moore. Just why is everyone singing "Umbrella" ella, ella this summer?

For some answers and a bit of music history, we're joined by Chris Martins. He's a music writer and the former editor of Filter magazine. Welcome to the program.

Mr. CHRIS MARTINS (Music Writer): Hi. Thank you.

COHEN: Cover songs certainly are nothing new. But this song "Umbrella" has been covered by just about everyone everywhere on the planet. Why?

Mr. MARTINS: Well, I think a big part of it is if you look at the music itself, it's pretty indicative of what's going on with a lot of major radio pop, and it's sort of this big, sheeny manufactured production that completely blurs the lines between hard rock, hip-hop and R&B.

(Soundbite of song, "Umbrella")

RIHANNA: (Singing) When the sun shines, we shine together.

Mr. MARTINS: If you look at the genesis of the song, it was originally written for Britney Spears, from what I understand. It was offered to Mary J. Blige and then recorded by Rihanna. Only a fraction of people who have heard it know the songwriter's names and all. I mean, everything about it is up for grabs. It's in some ways an existentialist's nightmare. It's completely impersonal, but everybody knows it and everybody seems somehow attracted to it.

COHEN: You know, it always seems to me like YouTube - I mean, "Umbrella" isn't the only song that's being covered out there. You see lots of people covering lots of songs. It's almost like, you know, the living room Web cam has become the modern diversion of the demo tape.

Mr. MARTINS: Yeah, there's certainly an element of that. There's a young Dutch woman named Esmee Denters.

(Soundbite of song, "What Goes Around")

Ms. ESMEE DENTERS (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) What goes around, goes around, goes around, comes all the way back around. What goes around, goes around, goes around, comes all the way back around.

Mr. MARTINS: And has done quite well with it, literally just borrowing her sister's Web cam and recording in her versions of pop songs, was discovered by Justin Timberlake, who was quite impressed. And the next video of hers that went up was her covering "What Goes Around" with Justin accompanying her on piano. He signed her to a label. She'd never played a single coffee shop, let alone, you know, a major venue, went immediately to play in arenas around Europe.

(Soundbite of song, "What Goes Around")

Ms. DENTERS: (Singing) What goes around, comes around, back around.

COHEN: Let's turn to the history of the cover song. At the beginning, race played a bit of a role, right?

Mr. MARTINS: Right. Especially when you move into rock and roll, which as a musical movement was, you know, sweeping in the country. However, it came from a segment of society that was not as widely accepted, you know. It was young black music to begin with, and record labels that wanted to capitalize off of that would take those original songs and hire more mellow white performers to do their versions of it.

(Soundbite of song, "Tutti Frutti")

LITTLE RICHARDS (Singer): (Singing) A-Wop-bop-a-loo-lop a-lop-bam-boo. Tutti Frutti, oh rutti.

Mr. MARTINS: So for instance, you could have a Little Richard song, and then a record label would come along, bringing Pat Boone in, and recreate it for a wider whiter audience.

(Soundbite of song, "Tutti Frutti")

Mr. PAT BOONE (Singer): (Singing) Tutti frutti, all rootie. Tutti frutti, all rootie. Tutti frutti…

COHEN: Of course, you know, in this day and age, we don't really think of - I think most of us don't necessarily think of a white musical audience being afraid of, or, you know, less open to black music. But, you know, I'm still hearing a lot of white musicians - and especially now it seems kind of this trend of like hipster Indie musicians doing their covers of rap artists. And, you know, is this history repeating itself?

Mr. MARTINS: Yeah. I think in some ways - in some ways it is. I think it comes from a similar place, although it's probably a little less insidious. But, I mean, year 2000 was probably the worst for that. You had bands like Dynamite Hack doing their cover of Eazy-E's "Boyz-n-the-Hood."

(Soundbite of song, "Boys-n-the-Hood")

EAZY-E (Rapper): (Rapping) 'Cause the boys in the hood are always hard. You come talking that trash and we'll pull your card.

(Soundbite of song, "Boys-n-the-Hood")

DYNAMITE HACK (Rock Band): (Singing) Knowing nothing in life but to be legit. Don't quote me boy, I ain't said (bleep).

COHEN: And there's kind of this hipster irony to, you know - I think, at least - these, you know, white kids talking about life in the ghetto, which doesn't sound to me like they've spent much time in.

Mr. MARTINS: No. I mean, that's absolutely the attraction in which, in one sense, it's almost minstrelsy, basically. It's privileged, sensitive white kids playing songs, emphasizing black male stereotypes for a laugh.

COHEN: Music writer Chris Martins, thank you so much.

Mr. MARTINS: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song, "Good Girl Gone Bad")

JAY-Z (Rapper): (Rapping) Rihanna. Good girl gone bad. Take three.

COHEN: DAY TO DAY is an entirely original production of NPR News, with contributions from Slate.com.

I'm Alex Cohen.

ROBERT SMITH, host:

And I'm Robert Smith.

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