Two smoky-eyed backing singers stare deadpan at the camera as they finger-click a beat in what looks like Patrick Bateman's spare room. A guy on double bass begins to slide the bow across his strings, and Disney-like piano flourishes are audible from somewhere in the distance. Then a massive 7ft tall clown walks in, one that makes Stephen King’s It look like Ronald McDonald, and starts singing “Royals” by Lorde, in a deep baritone that’s about forty cigarettes beyond Brook Benton.
There are twenty to thirty of them in this rag-tag collective of jazz musicians, singers and cabaret performers, and they call themselves Postmodern Jukebox. Started by 33-year-old musician Scott Bradlee, they take the torturous pop songs you hear everytime you close your eyes (“Shake It Off”, “Anaconda”, “All About That Bass”, etc) and reimagine them in a different era (jazz, ragtime, swing, motown, etc) using live instruments and one-take recording. Bradlee, once a struggling New York jazz pianist, had been doing these homemade covers alone for years, and like most webcam-streamed performances from solitary men in their bedrooms, it attracted a niche audience. But about 12 months ago, PMJ became an internet juggernaut, when Bradlee gathered together a collective and put out their first proper viral hit: a "Grandpa style" cover of Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” (below).
A month ago, the channel surpassed 150million YouTube views, and looks set to coronate 1 million subscribers by early 2015. The videos are now funded by a crowdsourced Patreon fund which gives Bradlee around $3500 to create each one - not bad considering he sometimes does two per week. They have also started playing gigs, nailing thousand capacity shows in America, and now they are coming to the UK with a 34 date European tour that includes a sold out date at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire. In essence: shit’s not just gone global for PMJ, it’s gone IRL - turning the novelty Sunday afternoon Glastonbury bandstand vibe into a globetrotting platform.
Whether it's actually good or not is a weird question. The easy answer would be: it's really really not. I find myself consciously trying to shield from pop culture’s repetitive feedback loop every day, whether it’s 2014’s relentless 90s pop revivals, the industrial plague of Christmas time classic album reissues or bands like AC/DC and Pink Floyd milking the teet of new material until it eventually falls off. So, seeing a doo wop cover of Miley’s “We Can’t Stop” garner over 11 million views earlier in the year felt like some sort of shit stain on the concept of present day. And after barely making it through a summer of MAGIC!'s "Rude" with my wrists intact, that last thing I needed was a 1950s "sock-hop" tribute version.
However, as an avid exponent of the Shmoney dance, I'll be the first to admit that in today’s vast, choice-orgy canyon of internet entertainment, if something is immensely popular, then it is significant, whether you like it or not. Or at least that's what I tell myself when I'm tossing my cap in the air and arching my hips.
Beyond those chintzy, "the world's gone to shit!" early impressions when watching your first PMJ video, there is definitely a certain something about it: I seem to suffer some sort of dissociative disorder when watching them, and usually regain full consciousness twenty minutes later, to find my YouTube history littered with jazz croon covers of David Guetta. It's something about the way the videos oscillate between sickening cheese and sub-surface irony, that captures a mindset much more perverse and current than what the creator's are calling "postmodernism". The fact these are really good musicians choosing to do often naff pop songs, but with wholehearted conviction, gives the whole thing a smiling nihilist atmosphere that I 100% dig. Also, seeing abominations like Ellie Goulding’s “Burn” transformed into rich, baroque 60s girl group harmonies kinda redefined my understanding of what it means to polish a turd.
But, in an internet land absolutely hoaching with gimmicky pop cover versions, and using a group of local musicians with no real previous mark of fame, why has PMJ become way more successful than that ukelele cover of "No Woman, No Cry" you uploaded during your university first year? Where does that significance come from, and what does it say about how we listen to music?
“In music today there is always nostalgia for the past," says Bradlee when we chat on the phone. "Pretty much every generation has thought music was better before them. This project taps into that nostalgia."
When PMJ really nail it, they unlock something in the originals that I just couldn’t move past, using a facade of timelessness and total tone upheaval. For instance, One Direction’s “Story of my Life” had such a numbing affect on my brain, that I could bang my head off the desk 10-15 times without feeling a thing, but listening to it as a New Orleans soul tune belted by PMJ's Miche Braden, I can taste the classiness in my mouth.
“When we’re at our best, the change in genre can make it into an entirely different song” explains Bradlee. “When we took “Sweet Child of Mine”, we had a vocalist with a big Bessie Smith type of voice. We made into a blues song, and it changed the meaning of the whole thing. It actually sounds like you’re singing about a child.”
The appeal of the channel is the familiarity, or more frankly: the repetition. On a personal level, music cognition professor Elizabeth Margulis touched on this for Aeon back in March, when she experimented with repetition in music, to conclude that: “Repetitiveness actually gives rise to the kind of listening that we think of as musical. It carves out a familiar, rewarding path in our minds, allowing us at once to anticipate and participate in each phrase as we listen.” In essence, Postmodern Jukebox feels enjoyable because we already know these tunes like the back of our hands, but they are different and well-executed enough to still keep us entertained, so our brain goes drifting through them whimsically like the ghost of a pensioner in a haunted scone shop.
It’s also a much wider cultural thing too though, and none more so than in mainstream pop music. When Derek Thompson wrote for The Atlantic earlier in the year about “The Shazam Effect”, his piece ended up deciphering one of the main reasons that pop has become such a repetitive and homogeneous form in the 21st century. More than ever before, the snooping nature of data collection has made us, the people, way more in control of where pop culture goes next. Obviously, Billboard now tracks music streaming and downloads, as does the UK chart (which tracks Spotify, Deezer, Napster and more), but also radio stations - the key to ionising a hit - are now much more likely to play songs based on analytics of success rather than the traditional persuasive hand of the record label that would define 20th century hits. Thompson writes “All of our searching, streaming, downloading, and sharing is being used to answer the question the music industry has been asking for a century: What do people want to hear next?” He continued: “But here’s the catch: if you give people too much say, they will ask for the same familiar sounds on an endless loop, entrenching music that is repetitive, derivative, and relentlessly played out.”
Before I spoke to Bradlee, I assumed he was humiliating the musicianship of our biggest stars, with their common chords, multi-tracked vocals and excessive reliance on production. I expected to find a talented and embittered traditional musician behind all this, mocking the paths to success put in front of him by the modern music industry. I was convinced his project was the ultimate deep-rooted satire of 21st century pop culture.
But despite how sadistically poetic that would be, that doesn't seem to be the intention. He's genuine. His platform unashamedly rides on the coattails of mainstream pop domination, and helps real and unappreciated musicians gain the wider notoriety they have struggled to access for years, unlocking new opportunities for them outside of relentless gigging. Bradlee has already launched his own career, sent the self-deprecating Puddles (the clown) on world tours and seems to birth a new vocalist every week (see: Kate Davis, Miche Braden, Von Smith). For a guy who couldn’t find enough work playing jazz piano in New York bars, Bradlee has made a career out of playing it for the world.
“When I started it I didn’t think too far ahead of the implications of this platform. I’d known Puddles (the clown) for a year, and I’d seen him perform live locally. As a result of that video, he’s now everywhere: he’s touring, he’s incredibly successful and he’s built a whole fan base for himself. The same for Kate Davis who sang “All About That Bass” for us. As soon as that song came out, I knew it was great for her. It made people really excited about her. She now too has a big fan base and she’s doing exciting things. It’s been great for this channel to help showcase people with amazing talents.”
What they do is totally cheesy, but its levels of annoying are only surpassed by its hypnotic addictiveness. Bradlee has happened upon an accomplished but utterly formulaic path to success, a kind of music industry hack, which has given him millions of Youtube views and the musicians within the collective a fast-track to success, something they never could have got playing in the house band at a jazz bar. Postmodern Jukebox sounds like a throwaway name, but there is something distinctly unrooted and reflexive about this kind of entertainment that strikes you on a reflex level, rather than offering any sort of enrichment. It’s music that draws from every culture, but ends up being kind of cultureless, and I swear I’m going to stop watching them just as soon as I’ve seen this bluegrass version of “Blurred Lines”.
You can follow Joe on Twitter: @Cide_Benengeli