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‘Baby Got Back’ center of ‘Glee’ cover controversy


Most everyone knows Sir Mix-a-Lot’s classic 1992 song, “Baby Got Back,” but on the mid-season premiere of “Glee,” network TV audiences got a version of the song they’d never heard before.

Or did they?

Not that anyone needs a reminder, but it’s the biggest hit Renton’s Sir Mix-a-Lot ever had. Then last Thursday, in its mid-season premiere, “Glee” trotted out a cover version that turned the song upside down and inside out.

I love cover versions that completely re-imagine the original song and turning a driving, hip-hop standard into an acoustic romantic ballad struck me as funny and original. Sir Mix-a-Lot may be cringing – who knows? – but it had me smiling.

But somebody who isn’t smiling is Jonathan Coulton, a musician with a relatively small but devoted following, mostly on the Internet. It turns out he did a cover very similar to Glee’s version back in 2005. In fact, not just “very simlilar,” almost identical!

It couldn’t be much closer. Coulton’s arrangement is clearly the same as the one in “Glee.” And Coulton’s feeling ripped off. “Glee” routinely puts its cover versions up for sale on iTunes and it’ll get thousands of downloads. Coulton not only doesn’t get a dime from any of this, he didn’t even get any credit for it on the show.

“Glee” is about a high school show choir, so it’s by design a show full of cover versions of other people’s songs. It pays license fees for the songs it uses but new arrangements of original songs are not protected. Covers are not copyright-able, except for their audiotracks.

“Glee” has contacted Coulton about the controversy but according to him, the show had the audacity to suggest that he should be happy for the exposure. As Coulton points out, the only exposure he’s been getting is as a result of his complaints against the show.

Coulton at least appreciates the irony of his battle, given that the show is all about the underdog trying to make his way in the world. As he puts it, “If this were an episode of Glee, I would win.”

Exterior photo courtesy Jonathan Coulton, by Dale May

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