Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn” is a cover. Now What?

On August 23rd, 2017, Twitter user @VilinskiKonjic fired off a post that yanked the mask off of Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn,” airing the song’s true identity like a befuddled Scooby Doo villain.

A quick history: “Torn,” Imbruglia’s magnum opus, is a cover of a song originally written by members of a band called Ednaswap in 1993, though they didn’t immediately record it. The earliest commercially available recording of “Torn” comes to us by way of Lis Sørensen, who sang the song in Danish under the title “Brændt,” also in 1993. Then two years later, Ednaswap put their own version of the track to tape. Imbruglia got her hands on “Torn” two years after that, in 1997, and was even backed on the recording by members of Ednaswap.

Twenty years after that, in the replies to @VilinskiKonjic’s post, baffled Millennials verified the original tweet’s claim after skimming Wikipedia. The post went viral. News outlets picked up the story, which is less about Imbruglia’s non-sole-ownership of “Torn” than it is about the reaction to Imbruglia’s non-sole-ownership of “Torn” itself. It was a near-universally run puff piece. Even Fox News ran a piece, taking a break from irreversibly scaring shitless and poisoning the brains of your grandparents to point out that their grandchildren are a part of an entire generation of dumbasses who feign outrage over this sort of thing.

That “Torn” is a cover really shouldn’t come to us as that big of a shock. And that our social cohort–extremely online twenty-somethings–didn’t know “Torn” was a cover should come as even less of a surprise. There is simply no reason at all for anyone to know that. Imbruglia’s iteration of “Torn” peaked at #42 on the Billboard Hot 100. The fact that it’s even still a staple of Nineties Nights and receives regular air time on adult top 40 radio stations nationwide feels like a fluke.

But the commodification of nineties nostalgia has kept relevant songs that would have otherwise slipped into the pop cultural ether, and “Torn”, benefiting from this phenomenon, finds itself frozen in time and artificially boosted in significance. As such,the faux-nostalgia many of us affix to “Torn” is completely misassigned.

I personally adore the song, but I was also nine when it reached its apex of popularity, not old enough to associate it with usual nostalgic triggers (reaching a key sexual milestone, experiencing heartache, coughing a lot while smoking weed for the first time, etc.). No, the key memories I have of listening to “Torn” contemporary with its brush with commercial success involve sitting in the middle row of my mom’s minivan, feeling mortified and embarrassed when Imbruglia sings about “lying naked on the floor.”

I’m going to unfairly assume my earliest experiences with “Torn” are par for the course for folks of my age and similar suburban upbringing. This is all to say that there is no reason for a song that never cracked the top 10 on Billboard (a song which most of us probably associate with our varying levels of budding sexual repression) to have a universally known origin story.

Blinded by the Light,” the #1 hit that propelled Manfred Mann’s Earth Band to chart-topping heights, is a Bruce Springsteen cover. (Bruce’s version is far superior, but that’s for another post.) This is a song that still lights up classic rock radio, and demolished “Torn” in terms of commercial success. But still, it’s not that widely known to be a cover, even by old-timers who probably performed unspeakable sexual deeds while on unfathomably cool drugs while rockin’ out to it. I’ll give us all a pass for not being privy to “Torn”’s status as a cover.

But this isn’t an article about the public reaction to the revelation. At this point, all that matters is this: Does the version of “Torn” we love kick the shit out of the two other versions we only just learned of?

Let’s listen.

It’s only fair to start with the OGs, Ednaswap. They may not have recorded it first, but there’s no denying the songwriting is top-notch. Ultimately, this version relies too heavily on what we now consider ‘90s alt-rock tropes. The sparse, opening guitar riff falls somewhere on the spectrum between “Yellow Ledbetter” and really any Stone Temple Pilots song. And the lack of bass or drum until nearly the two-minute mark screams “Glycerine.” No shots at the Edna-heads out there, but at this point, the 15 or so ‘90s bands that get a pass on sounding identical to one another are canon, and Ednaswap is simply not one of them.

Up next, we have Lis Sørensen and her Danish language “Torn,” “Brændt,” which translates to “burnt.” “Brændt” is way closer to the solid studio gold struck by Imbruglia and her backing band. Sonically, it’s more fleshed out, which is nice from a pop music perspective. Danish sounds very nice when sung, and being “burnt” in the context of a relationship gives the song a sort of different meaning. But ultimately Sørensen loses points for her gratuitous employment of out-of-place Spanish guitar licks and general disjointed instrumentation. That, and for some reason Sørensen wears a bindi in the music video. Sure, 20 years ago maybe that was okay, but it’s tough to not watch it through the lens of modern cultural understanding, and Sørensen’s schtick smacks of appropriation.

(one more time)

Oh baby. Now it’s time for the real thing. By now you know where my biases lie, but you also probably also knew deep down in your heart of hearts that Natalie Imbruglia may not have written “Torn,” but she sure as shit owns it. Damn. Just listen to this thing. It’s pop perfection. Imbruglia is Australian but like nearly all great pop songs from this era, it sounds like she’s from Des Moines, singing in a near-accentless, generic American affect. The jarring guitar hits from “Brændt” have been ironed out, and in their place is a track that relies more heavily on the drive of the drum machine and rather sexy–if I do say so–bass line. The angelic backing vocals. The guitar solo outro that doesn’t even try and is just like, three sustained notes. It’s perfect.

At the end of the day, history will not remember that Imbruglia did not originally pen “Torn.” In a few month’s time, Ednaswap will be again relegated to the dregs of Spotify. Between the cover-er and the cover-ee, somebody’s done a better job, and in the case of Natalie, here, she retains her status as rightful voice behind “Torn” because she takes the song to a new level. Sure, this and all other claims of sonic superiority are potentially disputable. But at the end of the day, it’s like what long-dead Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said, and I’m paraphrasing here: “I know the better recording of a song when I hear it.”

Paul Snyder is on Twitter as @danieldingus. Please pay him to do things.

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