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An anatomy of Susan Boyle's 'Wild Horses' cover

September 17, 2009 |  3:53 pm

In last night's finale performance on "America's Got Talent," Susan Boyle, the breakout star of the program's British analogue, wowed the three judges -- the hodgepodge council of Sharon Osbourne, David Hasselhoff and Piers Morgan -- and the already cheering media with her version of the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses." In particular, Boyle's lifting of the chorus to a higher octave catches the ear, underscoring the desperation of the original and transforming it from resignation into one last aching plea.

But it turns out we've seen this particular hoofprint before. A quick tour of "Wild Horses" covers by lady musicians on YouTube shows that this soaring high read of the song's refrain has been rendered by no less than the Sundays' ethereal-voiced Harriet Wheeler, soulful songstress Alicia Keys in her duet with Adam Levine and populist cowgirl Sheryl Crow. Each has their own twist outside the octave change -- in the Keys/Levine version, Keys leads with fragments of Stevie Wonder's "Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer" and gives some of the lyrics a more wry, bluesy reading.

Covers are a delicate matter that can challenge any artist. How much DNA to keep of the original? How much of your own style can you stamp without obliterating the creator? In Boyle's case, did she simply imitate other covers of the original? It seems like Boyle sewed together a lovely quilt from what's already out there -- or a Frankenstein baby, albeit a cuddly one.

In a landscape where Keys is Clive Davis' mentee, and Boyle is Simon Cowell's, this may be a sure sign that we are in an Orwellian "American X-Factor's Got Talent So You Can Dance" entertainment universe where original artistic thinking is not encouraged. Instead, we get the replica of the replicas. Break on out, Ms. Boyle. You don't need Big Brothers or Big Sisters.

-- Ann Powers and Margaret Wappler

Photo: Trae Patton / NBC Universal