A Change of Seasons
"Seasons in the Sun" and the shifting history of the ironic cover song.
Illustration by Alex Fine.
When I was eighteen, I joined a band. We played only musical saws. (This wasn’t my idea.) The first concert I ever played with this band was a covers night, for which we’d learned a batch of songs suggested by members of an online message board. One of them was “Seasons in the Sun,” and when it was assigned, half the band groaned. I’d always considered “Seasons in the Sun” part of the world’s muzak—something I heard at the bus station or Dollarama, but never thought much about. To the older band members, though, it was the original worst-song-ever, a cipher for everything everyone has ever hated about popular music.
The younger members, on the other hand, were excited to play it. I was excited, too. I like “Seasons in the Sun,” which is unfortunate; saying I hate it would make a much more provocative opening. Young people don’t hate music the way we used to, because hating music is boring and obvious. Instead, we deploy irony to like the pop songs we’re supposed to gag at, the bands we’re supposed to reject. Irony gets a bad rap—it seems scornful, snotty, unserious—but nowadays, it’s none of those things. It’s just a way to like everything.
Nowhere is the evolving function of irony more evident than in the ironic cover song. Irony is not what it was fifty years ago, when Jacques Brel recorded the tune that would become “Seasons in the Sun,” nor when Terry Jacks recorded his version in 1973, nor when Kurt Cobain did his in 1993. In fact, few songs have been ironized, and de-ironized, and re-ironized, as thoroughly as “Seasons in the Sun”; few songs are better examples of how good-natured irony can be.
Jacques Brel recorded “Le Moribond” in 1961. Taken literally, it is the song of a dying man bidding farewell to the people he loves: his priest, his best friend, even his longtime enemy—as well as his wife, whom he knows will be taken care of in his absence. But really, “Le Moribond” is the lament of a cuckold, a final, sarcastic fuck-you to the men who gave it to his old lady, and who will keep giving it to her when he’s gone. Brel, characteristically, is poking fun at the bourgeoisie: observant Catholics who took jobs in box factories, got married, had kids and worked joylessly until death; hypocrites who might tacitly accept bad behaviour, but never a frank discussion thereof.
Brel is skewering the man he almost was. The son of a cardboard-factory owner, he joined the family business in his teens, got hitched and had two daughters—then, in his twenties, escaped from Brussels to Paris and became an icon, known for his torrid affairs and boozy nights and big-hearted, sweat-drenched performances. From a distance, his sarcasm seems political, but what Brel considered the bourgeoisie we now call “normals.” Brel’s greatest foe was boredom. “Le Moribond,” in other words, is doubly ironic: the lyrics mean the opposite of what they state, and Brel sings them in character as his repudiated self.
“Le Moribond” is not a fond caricature. It is a great song, but kind of a nasty one. In 1963, the poet-songwriter Rod McKuen translated Brel’s lyrics into English, stripping off the irony but leaving the message: “Adieu Françoise, my trusted wife.../You cheated lots of times but then/I forgave you in the end/Though your lover was my friend.” Renamed “Seasons in the Sun,” the tune went from tart to bittersweet—earnest, but sad, and cheeky in a salty-uncle sort of way—and it gained traction among English-speaking folkies, from the Kingston Trio in 1963 to Pearls Before Swine in 1971.
While Brel was living it up in Paris, Terry Jacks was playing in a Vancouver garage-rock band called the Chessmen. During a performance on the CBC TV show Music Hop, he met Susan Pesklevits, who would become his wife and partner in a psych-pop group called the Poppy Family. The band scored a number-one hit with “Which Way You Goin’ Billy?” in 1969. Then, four years later, both the Poppy Family and the marriage broke up, and Jacks went south to record a session for the Beach Boys. Remembering the old Kingston Trio tune, he convinced them to take a stab at “Seasons in the Sun,” but it was never released. “We were in Brian Wilson’s studio, and Brian was living upstairs in a pup tent,” Jacks told the Vancouver Sun in 1987. “And Mike Love was on a watermelon fast, wearing these long white robes, fooling around with really young chicks… I couldn’t take it, so I came back up here.”
After he returned, Jacks learned that a friend of his had been diagnosed with acute leukemia and given six months to live. “A song can have all the ingredients,” he told the Sun, “but you’ve got to have soul, and that gave me the inner feeling to do that song.” He tweaked the lyrics “so that people could relate to it”—cutting out the adultery, in other words—and recorded “Seasons in the Sun” himself. Then he sat on it for seven months. When the paper boy heard him playing it, and asked if he could bring his girlfriend over to listen the following day, Jacks decided to release it on his own label. “Seasons in the Sun” stayed on the Billboard chart for twenty-one weeks. It went on to sell eleven million copies, making it one of the bestselling Canadian-made singles of all time.
Jacks’ cover is not faithful to “Le Moribond”: he castrates it. Brel projects from his diaphragm, stretching his syllables elegantly through the verses and then shortening them into jabs for the chorus; Jacks whimpers his way through the ditty like a shy teenager whose voice has begun to crack. While Brel sings to an orchestra, Jacks warbles over toy instruments, coaxing a by-the-numbers chord progression. Singing about death, Brel wants to bludgeon you; Jacks wants to fluff your pillows and euthanize you with a drip.
“Having to listen to it is a season in hell,” writes Bonnie D. on CNN.com, whose readers voted “Seasons in the Sun” the fifth-worst song of all time. “In my book it’s the worst song ever sung,” writes a blogger named Maynard, who placed it at number one. “He had joy, he had fun, he had seasons in the sun, and all we got was this lousy song,” quipped AOL Radio, which slotted it at a mediocre sixty-third. In fact, “Seasons in the Sun” may have set a record for the most worst-song-list appearances. It’s essential kitsch—“the absolute denial of shit,” as Milan Kundera famously put it. The mid-seventies were serious times, but you’d never know it from the tune, which soared up the charts as Watergate and the Vietnam War raged on; it stands in for all the Captain and Tenilles, Andy Gibbs and Debby Boones that emerged in the post-counterculture era, when pop music touched you with latex gloves and insisted that everything bad was actually pretty good. If Brel’s “Le Moribond” is contrary, then Jacks’ cover is contra-contrary—a Casio preset as funeral march.
To this day, mild-mannered dads, who remember what Hendrix and Joplin once meant to them, become feverish with rage when you mention Jacks and the soft parade he rode in on. For an older generation, not liking “Seasons in the Sun” was a way to define yourself, because that song was the status quo. It was whatever you weren’t. If you enjoyed “Seasons in the Sun,” you kept it to yourself, because you had taste.
The first ironic covers of “Seasons in the Sun” were snarling and sarcastic. When the alternative band Too Much Joy recorded it in 1988, its take was as biting—if less sophisticated and much worse—than Brel’s original had been. Jokers by trade, Too Much Joy mocked a song its audience had always hated. In the late eighties, alternative rock was still alternative, because there was still a mainstream. Then the mainstream caught wind of how much the alternative hated its guts, and decided to eat it. Within a few years, anti-mainstream sentiments would become tedious. And no one was more aware of, or uncomfortable with, this contradiction than the former alternative itself.
In 1993, Nirvana recorded a soft, mangled version of the most mainstream song the band could think of. While this version of “Seasons in the Sun” is messy, as James Sullivan writes in a 2005 Slate article, it’s more joshing than disrespectful. The trio has switched instruments, and the mood is playful; Kurt Cobain’s flubbed lyrics add poignancy to the ones he delivers faithfully. (He killed himself the following year.) “Seasons in the Sun” was the first seven-inch Cobain ever bought, so his memory lapses seem intentional, a noogie aimed at this lovable nerd of a tune. To watch Nirvana perform the song—it was included in 2004’s With the Lights Out box set—it seems the band is making fun of itself for being so likely to make fun of Jacks in the first place.
A few years later, the Television Personalities recorded a new take on “Seasons in the Sun”: a harsh, dissonant rendition, with skull-and-bones beats that sound as sinister as the original lyrics. In 1998, Black Box Recorder released an eerily staid version—darkness wrapped in clean major chords, Rosemary’s baby swaddled. Rather than defacing the original, Black Box Recorder saved it, giving the song the gravity it notoriously lacked. The band gave Jacks guts, in the same generous spirit that Jacks had made Brel and McKuen’s version relatable.
By the post-grunge era of the late nineties, the notion of being anti-mainstream had grown tired; by the turn of the century, when file-sharing ended radio’s monopoly on what we heard, and we all realized there was too much good music in the world to take sides, the idea had become laughable. What matters now is sensibility—the sense of humour and confidence in one’s tastes to like whatever one wants, including music that would have been verboten fifteen years ago. Since the early aughts, the ironic-but-reverent cover has become ubiquitous, criss-crossing genres to the extent that it is arguably a genre in itself. In 2001, for example, Dismemberment Plan tried to make something profound out of Jennifer Paige’s “Crush.” In 2007, Swiss electronic artist Seelenluft recorded a dreamy version of America’s “A Horse with No Name.” (I prefer the original.) Today, acts like Nouvelle Vague and How to Dress Well are known for their ironic covers, and the Onion AV Club runs a series called “AV Undercover,” in which twenty-five bands pay homage to twenty-five different songs, many of which are frequent worst-ever-list contenders. These bands have a simple goal: making good tunes out of other good tunes that, once upon a time, no one would have expected them to like.
The ironic cover plays on the difference between what a song means and how it sounds. It’s liberating, because that difference was always oppressive. When I was thirteen, I listened to Nirvana and lived in fear that I would enjoy Britney Spears. But of course I enjoyed Britney Spears. Her music is made to be enjoyed. The same goes for Steely Dan, for America, for Carly Simon. The irony lies in the exaggerated fist pump, the stressed syllable, the overzealous cry when it comes on the radio—the semi-conscious gestures which demonstrate that we recognize the song’s inanity, but like it anyway, and that liking it isn’t necessarily what we’re about. Irony unlinks taste and identity.
Having access to all the music in the world has taught us that we don’t know what’s required of “good music” in the first place. Judging by sophistication, we can cross off most punk, and judging by emotional impact, we can nix much of the avant-garde. Listenability is a non-starter, and sincerity is nonsense—who are we to say whether the artist meant it or not? Jacks swears he meant it, and I believe him, though my dad never would. “I don’t prostitute myself,” Jacks told the Calgary Herald in 1983, one of his few interviews in the aftermath of his megahit. “I believe in what I sing about. I want to be commercial. It’s baloney if somebody says they don’t want that. All commercial means to me is that you’re reaching people.”
“Seasons in the Sun” is still a cheesy song. And there is still a mocking element to irony, although people my age often pretend that there isn’t—mostly out of defensiveness, since our generation is so often accused of being all mockery and no fun. But to like something ironically is both to laugh at it and do the opposite: to move beyond the biases that would have us hate it in the first place. Brel’s irony served to distance him from the status quo; our irony, in the spirit of inclusion, brings us closer to it.