On 26 January, 1980, “Don’t Make Me Over” by Jennifer Warnes peaked at #67.
Let’s talk about cover songs, because I sure don’t want to talk about “Don’t Make Me Over” by Jenifer Warnes any more than I have to. The first thing you need to know is that this is a cover of a Burt Bacharach song originally performed by Dionne Warwick. In fact it’s Dionne Warwick’s first song, and she pushed it all the way to #21. Jennifer Warnes got it to #67, which is still pretty good, but clearly it’s not the song itself that’s the hit. Unlike Don McLean’s “American Pie” which not even a dreadful Madonna interpretation could keep out of the top 40 (even without a commercial release in the States!), this song needs a good performance to be a big hit. And Jennifer Warnes doesn’t do that.
Doing a cover of a song is tough. Ideally, an artist will do the song justice; this involves performing the song similarly enough to the original that listeners will recognize it, take it seriously, and respect it… but it also involves doing something new to the song that reinterprets it in a way that adds value. Otherwise, why listen to the cover, if you can listen to the (better) original? Jennifer Warnes fails to add anything new and worthwhile to “Don’t Make Me Over”. Her voice can’t compete with Dionne Warwick’s and though this interpretation takes out that late-50s angelic choir of backup singers, it doesn’t add anything musically that makes this version memorable.
There’s really only one thing that Jennifer Warnes did right — she chose to redo a song that had largely faded in people’s memories. If “American Pie” had not been such the cultural touchstone of American music that it is, maybe Madonna could have gotten away with her treacly-sweet music box version of it because fewer people would remember the original. But no, people remember Don McLean’s version and castigated Madonna, rightly, for debasing a good song. Jennifer Warnes picked a much less beloved song. I doubt many of her listeners had heard Dionne Warwick’s version even once since 1970, so few people were likely to have been actively comparing her to Warwick. That doesn’t excuse her inability to do anything interesting with the song. Madonna may have murdered “American Pie”, but her version was, at least, interesting in its badness. Warnes’s “Don’t Make Me Over” is just forgettable.