Image via Soundcloud
Sometimes you come across a piece of music that's so revelatory, so mindblowing, that you wonder if the rest of the pop canon is abject trash after hearing it. Such was the case last week, when an 80s power ballad version of Justin Bieber's "What Do You Mean" surfaced on a Soundcloud credited to someone named TRONICBOX. "What Do You Mean It's 1985?" is so fully-formed and confident in its embrace of schmaltz that it bypasses irony and goes straight for the gut and the feels. The song's plays skyrocketed after going semi-viral over the weekend and have now surpassed one million on Soundcloud. So who is the mad genius behind all this?
It turns out that TRONICBOX is Jerry Shen, a Regina, Saskatchewan-based software developer, gamer and composer. Shen played pretty much every instrument you can think of in his high school jazz band before switching to saxophone in his university band. "I did records for mostly aspiring artists," says Shen, "Most of them didn't get anywhere." His Soundcloud and Youtube pages are peppered with more rearranged pop hits, including a Flashdance-ready "One Last Time" by Ariana Grande and an oddball polka version of OMI's "Cheerleader" buttressed with death metal double-kick drums. We reached out to Shen to find out exactly what went into this miraculous reimagination of Bieber's modern classic.
Noisey: What inspired you to go in the 1985 direction with the Justin Bieber rearrangement?
Jerry Shen: For almost every music video from the 80s that I’ve seen, there’s always something that makes me think: “You’ve got to be kidding...” You sure could get away with a lot of things that are bizarre. Plus there’s always something very distinct about 80s music. When you hear it you just know.
Are you playing the sax on that recording?
What specific 80s movie do you see the "What Do You Mean" rearrangement in?
The sound I had in my head was “Michael Bolton wants his band back.” Didn’t really have a movie in mind.
What about 1980s R&B production is appealing to you?
So many great musicians that I listen to worked on records that came out during the 80s. Jeff Lorber, Chuck Loeb, Dave Grusin, Vinnie Colaiuta just to name a few. Those guys can REALLY PLAY.
Why do you think so many people see it as cheesy?
It was a time when advancements in technology greatly influenced how music was made. You have electronic musical instruments like analog synths, FM synths and drum machines. Everybody wanted to throw a few Minimoogs, Oberheims and DX7s at a record until it got to a point where people just got tired of that sound. Besides, electronic instruments have come a long way since then, so anything from that era just ends up sounding really dated by comparison.
Okay, let's get nerdy. The C minor 7 to F dominant 7 turnaround on the chorus is incredible. Kudos to you for that very clutch reharmonization.
I have a jazz background, so for me that kind of turnaround comes pretty naturally. Thank you for pointing it out!
What can you tell me about the Yamaha DX7?
Best thing that ever happened to music!
Do you feel that a generation growing up on video game music and R&B is more open to explore with jazzier, more sophisticated chord progressions and harmonies?
It’s really a matter of exposure. Even though I wasn’t born in the 80s but when I grew up the jazzy chord + DX7 sound was still considered “cool.” Nowadays, especially in North America, anything with a patch from [software synth] Massive is “cool.”
What do you think of vaporwave, and of young musicians exploring smooth music in general?
Most vaporwave I’ve heard sounds like smooth jazz juiced up with side-chain, with a sax player on vacation most of the time. If I want that kind of vibe in the music I listen to I’d dig up my collection of “contemporary” saxophone players like Eric Marienthal, Greg Vail or even… Kenny G. I encourage young people to explore smooth music. The harmony tends to be a little more complex which I feel is a bit lacking in most mainstream hits nowadays. In fact I’d love to see young people going back to the root and dig into some REAL jazz like Michael Brecker, Pat Metheney, or Chris Potter just to name a few. Once you’ve developed the ears for it you’ll really appreciate how much you can do with music.
Most important question: Are there more of these rearrangements coming?
Phil Witmer is a smooth jazz tyrant. Follow him on Twitter.