Don’t Miss Karen O and Willie Nelson’s New Duet of “Under Pressure”

Don’t Miss Karen O and Willie Nelson’s New Duet of “Under Pressure”

Karen O and Willie Nelson come together on an unexpectedly fantastic version of “Under Pressure”

Covers are a fickle thing. They’re done for a million different reasons and there’s a huge range of results. They can redefine the way people look at the original song, or prompt only guffaws and derision. I really enjoy covers when they are done well. It can be a fun surprise to know that one artist you like admires a different artist you like too. It’s fantastic whether they really reinterpret the songs, or just stick to the original vibe. 

Choosing songs to cover is a double-edged sword. Do you choose a deep cut that shows that you’re a serious fan? Or do you choose a well known, signature song and hope you can do it justice? When I saw that Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Willie Nelson covered “Under Pressure” originally by Queen and David Bowie, I felt a lot of different things. On one hand, I’m a fan of both artists. I had no idea how the two came together, and it struck me as an unconventional but totally exciting pair. But on the other hand, “Under Pressure” is a hard song to cover. For me, the original is such a singular experience. Bowie and Queen together, making a song that’s big and bombastic but genuinely reassuring and emotional. I was excited, yet skeptical.

It starts off with muted, acoustic plucking of that famous bass line, and gentle piano over top. The song is slower than the original, taking its time. It’s more stripped down too. When Karen O starts singing, gentle and vulnerable, she’s accompanied by just an acoustic guitar and a muted cymbal clicking. She’s joined by a steel guitar when she starts scatting, and one half of your brain knows exactly what song you’re listening to, but you can help but be struck by how different it feels. And then Willie Nelson comes in, talk-singing in his growly old man voice.The two singers don’t stick to the same division that Bowie and Freddie Mercury did, so you don’t know who’s going to be singing the next line. And when they join each other, their voices, totally distinct and sonically opposite, combine in such an unexpected and powerful way.

This whole version is gentler than the original. It doesn’t have that same big, soaring explosion, but it has such a rich sound in its simplicity. In the final build, Nelson and Karen O sing at different rhythms and tones, slower and growly half-spoken for the former and gentle and sweetly for the latter, but they come together in unison again for the finale. It feels totally unique and it works so well.

This song hit me hard. When I listened to it, I felt so suddenly overwhelmed. It was a rush of emotions: anxiety, desperate hope, confusion, all the sorts of feelings that dominate these days. I thought it might just have been where I was that day. But each time I listen to it, the song gets me. I can’t tell if it’s just ticking all of my personal boxes for what I love in a good song, especially a good cover, but I love it. The song is such a perfect combination of Karen O and Nelson’s styles, complementing what makes each artist great. It’s such an unexpected pairing, but it works.