On hip instruments and un-hip songs
So I’ve had this thought before — I should make more use of this blog. You know, share my thoughts, pontificate, wax philosophical, rather than just report new developments and upcoming events. Well, call it a New Year’s resolution — or don’t, because we all know how well those tend to go — but here I am and I’ve got something to say.
I got to thinking today when, while perusing the wilds of the internet, I came across a link to a cover of the song “Party in the U.S.A.,” originally performed by Miley Cyrus. The cover is performed by Danielle Ate the Sandwich, a ukulele-strumming singer/songwriter with a popular youtube channel, with accompaniment from the Boulder Acoustic Society.
Alright, so assuming you’ve now watched both videos, I’m going to explain why I like the original and hate the cover.
The main reason I have no use for this is encapsulated by the opening text: “Every time an acoustic musician covers a pop song… an angel gets her wings.” The attitude seems to be that these folks see the original song as mainstream, and therefore vapid and unworthy of our attention, but that by presenting it in this new arrangement the song is being “rescued” or elevated above its original trappings and that we listeners will now be able to perceive the previously hidden beauty of the song; or, perhaps more cynically, that this re-contextualization will remove the guilt from what might’ve been the guilty pleasure of a mainstream pop song and allow us to enjoy it without threat to our hipness quotient.
While this approach has been successful for some musicians in terms of creating exposure, these assumptions are fundamentally flawed. Above all, Party in the U.S.A. is a fun, catchy song that doesn’t need rescuing. More importantly, by re-arranging it like this they’ve lost most of what made it work in the first place: the airtight production values throughout, especially the awesome downward synth glissando that starts the chorus and the buzzing bassline that follows it, and the propulsive, youthful energy that gets lost with the slower tempo and lack of percussion.
The totally straight-faced, earnest (faux-earnest?) delivery seems like it can only be an attempt at irony, but it just makes the song more bland, as the lyrics and melody aren’t strong enough to survive this kind of bare, dry presentation. There’s no impressive technical display of musicianship, and no surprising twists in the arrangement — they’ve removed dimensions from the original track, but they haven’t added any new ones, and so what they’re left with is even flatter and blander than what they started with. Plus the original song had a fun, attractive video, whereas this one is just some people standing around in a living room. It seems like a waste of the format to be a “Youtube musician” like Danielle Ate the Sandwich but have your videos consist of just standing still in front of a camera and performing songs.
This cover also seems to rely on the novelty/”quirk” factor inherent in the instrumentation, as though music made with double bass, accordion, banjo, and ukulele is inherently more unique or valuable than something with guitars and synthesizers. See also: rockism. Ukuleles have seen a surge of popularity in recent years, and YouTube musicians like Danielle Ate the Sandwich and Julia Nunes can be seen as a part of that trend. Some folks have developed a knee-jerk anti-uke reaction as a result. I’m all for people playing ukuleles. Compared to a guitar, a decent ukulele is cheap, portable, and easy to play. But if there’s anything worth hating about the recent popularity of ukuleles, it’s the delusion that taking any old tune and slapping on a “Now with ukulele!” label makes it novel or interesting. It’s not the instruments you use, but how you use them. This seems like an obvious point, but some musicians, listeners, and critics seem to get hung up on it. As a guy who has recorded a bunch of pop music that incorporates “classical”-type arrangements, it took me awhile to come around to the realization that it’s not helpful to describe my music primarily in terms of the instruments I employ, because that’s not (or shouldn’t be, anyway) what makes it worthwhile. If my songs are good it’s not because they have violin and cello and trumpet and trombone and what have you, but because they’re good songs. If my arrangements are effective, it’s not simply because of the instruments I’ve chosen to use, but because of the parts I’ve written for them. Of course, it’s understandable why an artist would choose to highlight things like this — the instrumentation you use is one of the first things a listener will notice, and in many ways it will inform your musical approach. And describing an artist in terms of their uncommon instrumentation is a quick and easy way to make them seem unique — e.g., it’s easier to say “Steve Goldberg and the Arch Enemies are cool because check out all the instruments on this record” than it is to try and come up with a pithy sound bite that really explains what makes the music tick. But the fact is, anybody can use strings, or brass, or accordion, or ukulele, or whatever quirky instrument-du-jour they want, and someone who wants to stand out from the crowd needs to find another way.
So anyway, I got to thinking about the tradition of which this cover is a part. The concept of a non-mainstream musician re-working a Top-40 hit and therefore making it palatable for the alternative crowd isn’t a new idea, but I’m not sure what the earliest example is. Everything that comes to mind is from the last ten years, but maybe I’m just ignorant. Note that I think it’s important to draw a distinction between an alternative band covering a mainstream song outside of their genre simply because they like the song (my inclination is to place a band like Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, who started in 1995 and whose entire M.O. is performing punk rock covers of popular songs, in this category, although I could be wrong) and a band doing an “ironic” cover of a song as a means of simultaneously sneering at an inferior song and placing themselves (and, implicitly, their audience) above such things while still allowing the listeners to enjoy the song without lowering themselves to the level of the mainstream crowd. I admit that this categorization can be subjective and can depend as much on the audience’s perception as on the artist’s intent.
Fountains of Wayne covering Britney Spears’s Baby One More Time in 2005 comes to mind. The differences between that cover and Danielle Ate the Sandwich’s are illuminating — Baby One More Time works really well as a Fountains of Wayne song, with a winding harmonic-minor chord progression and gradually building intensity, whereas Party in the U.S.A. makes for a shoddy folk/bluegrass number, lacking the lyrical storytelling, vocal harmonies, or technical proficiency that define those genres. Other examples include Ben Folds, who had success with a cover of Dr. Dre’s Bitches Ain’t Shit in 2005. There was Mat Weddle, who did a popular acoustic cover of Hey Ya in 2006. There’s Alanis Morisette covering The Black-Eyed Peas’ My Humps in 2007, and Jenny Owen Youngs covering Nelly’s Hot In Herre the same year.
So, what’s the moral of this story? Beats me. I guess it’s about the distinctions between “high” and “low” culture, and the dubious value of irony in cover songs, and what different arrangement choices signify about different types of music and which sort of people enjoy it. Anyway, who cares, I’m proud of myself for writing a blog entry and you’re probably tired of reading it. Until next time,