Who Did It Better? “American Woman”

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When an artist takes someone else’s song and makes it their own, the results can be magical. They weave their artistic freedom through it and create an experience completely different than the original.

Nippertown is starting a new series that takes some of these dynamic covers and have a few friends involved in our music scene give their opinions on “who did it better?”

It’s a fun way to explore songs that you might not have known was a cover version for years after you first heard it. Songs that transcended generations and genres. Kicking off the series is “American Woman.”

American Woman” was written by the Canadian rock band The Guess Who in 1969. The original was a huge success and reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1970. There were many speculations to the meaning behind the lyrics, but Burton Cummings said that it had nothing to do with politics. “What was on my mind was that girls in the States seemed to get older quicker than our girls and that made them, well, dangerous. When I said ‘American woman, stay away from me,’ I really meant ‘Canadian woman, I prefer you.’ It was all a happy accident.”

Lenny Kravitz‘s 1999 version was recorded for the soundtrack of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. While it only hit #49 on the Billboard Hot 100, it went as high as #3 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart and garnered Kravitz a Grammy for Best Male Rock Performance. The video and song was in heavy rotation around the turn of the millennium.

Lori Friday, Troy Music Academy / Super 400

Lenny recorded this version of American Woman for the Austin Powers movie soundtrack in the late 90s.  Maxed out guitar, multi tracked vocals, Lenny’s signature ad libs. He has such a trademark sound; I can pick out a Lenny Kravitz song at long distance range, through the din of a baseball crowd, from a far-away beach blanket, a car passing by at 70 mph.  I never understood why Heather Graham agreed to appear in the video as nothing more than a hood ornament.  The Guess Who version is my pick. I hadn’t heard it in years so I gave it a spin. I had forgotten about that slow build acoustic intro with the A-M-E-R-I-C-A-N spelled out in Burton Cummings’ soulful rasp. Once the band kicks in, the groove is immediate, with pure 1970 momentum, a group of people playing in a room together. I think it’s kinda funny that the subject of the song is being cast off like a demon. My 7 year old daughter asked, ‘Why do they want the American Woman to stay away so badly?’  

David Bourgeois, Drummer & Music Producer

On it’s own, the idea of determining who did a song better feels sort of hyper-subjective.  There’s just no way the forthcoming opinions won’t be colossally wrong to somebody.  But putting my own paranoia of that reality aside, let’s get down to brass tacks.

IMO from a musical standpoint Lenny doesn’t do much of anything badly. His version rocks, feels authentic, and the production kills.  On the other hand, the Guess Who matched their song with recording and production that frankly sounds as though it’s sonically unfolding in real time as you listen.  When I hear it I feel as though I’m in the studio watching it happen. The guitar tone alone is more than enough motivation to move my volume knob way up!  This is classic Canadian rock at its best.  There’s no Guess Who this contest goes to!

Seth Warden, Warden and Co.

Such a powerful song. It was a great cover choice for Lenny Kravitz since it has such a successful history with “The Guess Who”, but the Kravitz cover, as groovy as it is, lacks the grit and overall dynamics that the original has.  It’s almost as if today’s modern recording technology took away the edge (a good thing in some cases) from Lenny‘s attempt.  I’ll have to stick to the original version on this one. 

Mark Tolstrup, Blues Musician / Mark & Jill

The Guess Who came from Canada. Apparently they had a couple on run ins with American women. Well, we all have. This song says something about Americans and the politics of the day. War, inner city trouble and women. The original has a lot of energy. This guy may have run into some trouble with these women. This is a great anthem of the turn from the 1960’s to 1970 that still holds up and will always have some relevance. 

Lanny Kravitz came along almost 30 years later. Still lots of energy. Lenny does not really seem worried about an American woman. He seems more inclined to get into trouble. I like his version. Liked hearing the song back on the radio.

The Verdict

There you have it. Our local experts favor the original 3 to 1. There’s no tiebreaker here, but if I had to pick… hands down, The Guess Who. Sure I’ve heard Lenny’s version a bunch more in my lifetime, but there is something about the original’s acoustic to rock transition that Lori mentioned above. The guitar sound is so unique and legendary, it gives me chills every time I hear it. The guitar solo is typically a time for the cover artist to shine, look at Hendrix’s take on “All Along the Watchtower” or Eddie Van Halen’s solo on “You Really Got Me.” Lenny’s version isn’t bad, it just isn’t great either.

A huge thank you to our contributors, please go and support their music. And if you have your opinion on which version is better, please feel free to leave them in the comments below.

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