Track of the Day: 'Superstar' by Sonic Youth

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader writes:

I love all kinds of music, but I particularly love covers. There’s the “what the heck?” cover—e.g., who would have guessed that U2 are huge ABBA fans? There are all those millions of tribute albums (a particularly good one is “I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen”). But my favorite type of cover is when something completely new is done with the song. Probably the most famous example is Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower,” which so improved on Bob Dylan’s original that even he does it “Jimi’s way” now.

But my favorite example of a song being reinterpreted is “Superstar.” The song was written by Bonnie Bramlett (of Delaney & Bonnie fame) and Leon Russel and was initially done by Rita Coolidge way back in 1970. It’s an emotional telling of a women in love with a man who’s seemingly forgotten her on his climb to rock stardom. It’s been covered many times since then (I personally own five versions), most famously by The Carpenters. But my favorite cover is by Sonic Youth, who turn the song into the creepy tale of a stalker.

Embedded above. My favorite mini-cover of “Superstar” is from Girl Talk, a mashup DJ and one of my all-time favorite artists, who sampled the song on “Like This,” the seventh track off Feed the Animals (starting at the 2:07 mark).

So what’s your favorite, most inspired cover story that veers significantly from the original? Let me know at Update from our reader above:

Chris, you name checked Girl Talk!!!

Not only that, but my favorite track from my favorite album of his. I almost included it here, but I figured no, since Girl Talk is mashing up someone else’s cover. (And just let me say that whenever I hear Karen Carpenter doing “Superstar,” I always segue way into Metallica’s “One” in my head.) And I just want to give a shout out to my oldest, Aaron, who is the one who turned me onto Greg Gillis.

Back in December 2007, when I was interning at The Atlantic, I freelanced a piece for Campus Progress about Gillis and the copyright threats he had to contend with:

In early 2007, the Pittsburgh native met a powerful ally: his congressman, Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA). Luckily for Gillis, Doyle is the vice chairman of the Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee and a progressive on copyright issues. Kenneth DeGraff, one of Doyle’s young staffers and a huge fan of Girl Talk, introduced his boss to the mash-up star. [Kenneth was one of my housemates at the time, and our mutual fandom over Girl Talk might have been the deciding factor in me securing a room there, as we bonded over his music at the open house.]

During a memorable hearing, Doyle stumped on the floor of Congress for both his young constituent— “a local guy done good”—and the mash-up genre in general. “[M]ash-ups are transformative new art that expands the listener’s experience,” Doyle told his befuddled colleagues—few of whom had heard of mash-ups, let alone Girl Talk.

Since then, the unlikely duo has garnered a great deal of media attention, including profiles in Newsweek and Rolling Stone online. The latter dubbed the congressman “Girl Talk’s biggest fan,” a title given more weight in September when Doyle attended his first Girl Talk show at the Black Cat in Washington, D.C. “What Gregg did on stage was nothing short of amazing,” recalled the silver-haired statesman, who came dressed in business casual and wielding a camera phone. “You can’t watch him perform and deny the fact that he’s creating something new and different out of the samples stored on his computer.”

Girl Talk truly is best experienced live, since he’s known for playing in the middle of crowds, rather than on a stage, and flailing around like everyone else. I’ve seen him perform four times, and after one of his shows in Manhattan, my friends and I were having a going-away dance party for a friend later that night in Brooklyn. Around 3 a.m., suddenly Greg Gillis himself appears at the door, to the astonishment of everyone. Once we realized it wasn’t an drug-fueled vision, Gillis said he and his friend were simply walking nearby and heard his music being played, so he thought he’d investigate. Talk about strange coincidences.