Go Ahead, Sing Along: When Television Is Karaoke Half a million people have bought the TV show Glee's version of Journey's song "Don't Stop Believing." The show's winning formula is to transform an original song without its reeking of a knockoff.
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Go Ahead, Sing Along: When Television Is Karaoke

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Go Ahead, Sing Along: When Television Is Karaoke

Go Ahead, Sing Along: When Television Is Karaoke

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

You might hear something familiar when you turn on the television. The hit show "Glee" is about high school kids singing top 40 songs in their glee club. Half a million people have bought their version of "Don't Stop Believing." Commentator Shana Naomi Krochmal says the art of the cover song is big business for music and for television.

(Soundbite of song, "Don't Stop Believing")

SHANA NAOMI KROCHMAL: Go ahead. Sing along to Journey. Everyone's doing it.

(Soundbite of song, "Don't Stop Believing")

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Just a small town girl living in a lonely world. She took the midnight train going anywhere.

KROCHMAL: There's an easy, built-in irony when a show choir full of outcast kids can bring such shameless enthusiasm to songs that may have once seemed all played out.

(Soundbite of song, "Don't Stop Believing")

Unidentified People: (Singing) Don't stop believing. Hold on to that feeling...

KROCHMAL: There's also some basic economics at work. It's generally just cheaper to license the rights to cover a song than it is to use the original recording. And that's especially appealing to TV shows working on a limited budget.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Dancing with the Stars")

Unidentified Man #2: Dancing the quick step, Kelly Osbourne and her partner Louis van Amstel.

KROCHMAL: Still, that's no excuse for the lame lounge versions on ABC's "Dancing with the Stars."

(Soundbite of sing, "99 Balloons")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Ninety-nine red balloons floating in the summer sky. Panic bells...

KROCHMAL: No one is rushing out to buy that. So how do you make a song shine like new? It has to transform the original without reeking of a karaoke knockoff. Take a cue from "American Idol." It's a show created to discover the chart toppers of tomorrow by making them sing the hits of yesterday.

(Soundbite of song, "Mad World")

Mr. ADAM LAMBERT (Singer): (Singing) Mad world...

KROCHMAL: When Adam Lambert sang "Mad World" on this year's "Idol," it went back to Gary Jules' take from "Donnie Darko," but also to the Tears for Fears original from 1982. Lambert's "Mad World" charted at number 19 on the Billboard Hot 100, far higher than either of his predecessors.

This recycled approach is as old as the music industry. For decades, charts combined the sales of all versions - so the more singers who took on a song, the better the chance of having a number one hit.

And films did it too. When "Singin' in the Rain" opened in 1952, there wasn't an original song in it.

(Soundbite of song, "Singin' in the Rain")

Mr. GENE KELLY: (Singing) I'm dancing and singing in the rain.

KROCHMAL: The movie was advertised as a vehicle for the songs you like - a blatant appeal for the same kind of hand-me-down nostalgia that's fueling the sales of Glee's albums today.

Falling for the cover of a song you long ago wrote off can be a little embarrassing - but we're all hardwired to have a soft spot for the familiar. Just consider it an encore.

INSKEEP: That totally original commentary comes from Shana Naomi Krochmal, who covers music for Current.com

(Soundbite of song, "Don't Stop Believing")

Unidentified People: (Singing) Don't stop believing. Hold onto that feeling. Streetlights, people. Don't stop believing. Hold onto that feeling. Streetlights, people. Don't stop...

INSKEEP: Somehow they stopped. This is NPR News.

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