Pitbull in "Africa"

Brian Gongol

I don't have a wholesale objection to covers. I'll defend them when they're good -- even if that's an unpopular opinion. Just for example, I've taken heat from my friends and peers for defending the Alien Ant Farm cover of "Smooth Criminal". Artist take other artists' work and put their own spins on them, and that's OK. Even Frank Sinatra's standard "New York, New York" is a cover -- of a song Liza Minnelli did first. (Didn't know that? It's one of the funniest jokes buried deep inside an episode of "Arrested Development".)

But what Pitbull has done to "Africa" in a new track called "Ocean to Ocean" is the kind of thing that should result in a trial at The Hague.

A good cover adds something to the original: Alien Ant Farm had more fun with "Smooth Criminal" than Michael Jackson did. Anything else you might say about the song, they're clearly having fun with a song that MJ had delivered in earnest. I love them both, but just like my kids, I sometimes love them differently.

In whatever this abomination is, Pitbull is really just sampling (badly) a harmonized version of the original inimitable Toto chorus and layering over it an entirely uninspired synthesized melody. Oh, but with a bunch of unnecessary trilled whoops to mark each new verse.

There's nothing wrong in theory with taking a song of one style and turning it into another. As much as Puff Daddy (or whatever name he uses today) usually annoys me like a swarm of bees at a family picnic, I thought his reimagining of "Every Breath You Take" as a rap tribute to Biggie Smalls was inspired. I've heard classical themes modernized as rock ballads. And one of my favorite genres is house music, which is fundamentally based on taking the hook of a song and lighting a fuse beneath it to turn it into a high-energy, dance-worthy track.

So it's not the fact that Pitbull turned an 80s anthem into a rap that bothers me. It's that he's done it so inelegantly. The way to pay tribute to a classic is to either drop it a nod so subtle it almost takes a trained ear to hear it, or to do something so innovative with it that the first-time listener realizes they have an attachment to the original they hadn't realized before.

It was bad enough when Weezer decided to revive "Africa" as a concert track this year, performing it with the same level of creative inspiration you would hear in a karaoke bar on a Tuesday night in suburban El Paso. But this new Pitbull edition? It's for the dogs.